Now in its fifth season, PBS’ History Detectives is touted as the show where Antiques Roadshow meets CSI. Each week, four “detectives”—Wes Cowan, founder of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc.; Elyse Luray, independent appraiser and historian of popular culture; Gwen Wright, professor of architecture at Columbia University; and Tukufu Zuberi, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania— delve into the hidden history of various artifacts, many of which are submitted by the program’s viewers. It’s not about putting a price tag on the past, however. History Detectives leads its viewers through an investigative process to search out the context in which an artifact was created or used.
History Detectives has been a hit for PBS, with ratings that rival the network’s acclaimed American Experience and American Masters programs. More than 2 million viewers tuned in regularly last season, and PBS senior vice president and chief programming executive John Wilson and Lion TV’s series executive producer Chris Bryson have even higher hopes for the show’s future.
What was the inspiration for History Detectives?
John Wilson: Lion TV first approached us with a program that would do a forensic history of a house and its contents: Go through the attic, go through documents, do paint samples, dig under the basement. While that was an appealing idea, it would be difficult to find many places that had an attic full of wonderful antiques, a historic structure and paperwork from the 18th century. We liked the idea of a team of detectives coming in. But we said, “Why don’t we let it be driven by viewers trying to get questions answered?”
So the plan from the start was to have viewers be actively involved in the program?
JW: Absolutely. We wanted real people to be sharing in this process. We wanted to break the mythology that history falls out of books. It’s because of someone’s curiosity and intellect and hard work that historical facts and figures are uncovered.
Chris Bryson: More than half the stories come directly to us from PBS viewers. There’s an infinite number of stories, but we have to be infinitely creative in finding those stories. We contact museums, historical societies, archives, various listservs and even our own families. We try to continually think outside the box of ways to reach people who have interesting objects to which there’s an interesting question attached.
Who watches the program?
CB: We draw heavily on the same people who will watch an entire hour on the life of Lincoln or the Civil War series, but we also want to reach the people who enjoy CSI as much as the Civil War. Maybe they’re more interested in the investigation than the history, but the ride is so fun that they learn a lot of history besides. Our mission is to open the door as wide as we can to a genuinely popular audience for history.
How successful has the show been at that?
CB: I think the numbers speak for themselves. We’re now in Season 5 and last season was the best we’d ever had. PBS recommissioned the series because it’s a ratings hit. Anecdotally, the viewer feedback we get and the feedback the detectives get in the field is “Oh, I love that show!”
What has been the reaction from the professional historical community?
JW: It’s been universally positive. Tony Tackaberry, one of the executive producers, was invited to speak to the American Library Association. He said: “I now know what it’s like to be a rock star. These people were so enthusiastic, and they love the fact that we’ve made libraries and microfiche interesting to the general public.” The same has been true for teachers.
How does History Detectives differ from other PBS history shows?
JW: History Detectives is very much a grassroots, bottom-up telling of history. It’s “I have this thing that I inherited. What is its meaning?” The American Experience, the work that Ken Burns does, the work of American Masters all focus on single topics or single moments in time. It’s “We know what the meaning of this is. That’s why we’re telling you Thomas Jefferson’s life story.” History Detectives is really the other end of the telescope. The show is complementary to many other things in the PBS schedule.
What’s the most interesting or surprising story you’ve done?
CB: There’s any number. We did a great story last year. Someone had a motorcycle that they thought dated to World War I. It had a Cross of Lorraine on it. We investigated and found out that, indeed, the Harley-Davidson Company had shipped enormous amounts of motorcycles to the U.S. military in France. But this motorcycle dated too early to have been one of those. So how does the Cross of Lorraine end up on it? It turns out the Cross of Lorraine was used by the antituberculosis movement. The Wisconsin Historical Society turned us on to the campaign that had run pre–World War I to do public outreach for anti-tuberculosis activities. That was a scourge in the land in that period. Frank Davidson, one of the founders of the company, had donated motorcycles to that effort so that doctors could go into rural hinterlands and explain how to prevent the spread of tuberculosis.
How do people react when they find out that their artifact isn’t what they thought it was?
CB: Sometimes slight disappointment. But I think they’re respectful and appreciative of the work we do to give them an answer, whatever that answer is. It’s the credibility and authenticity of the work and the information that we learn along the way that make the story really satisfying. It’s not the yes or no that’s so important; it’s the journey.
The show’s Web site at www.pbs.org is a source of story ideas, but it also has a wealth of information for people who want to do their own historical research. How important is the Web in developing and maintaining your audience?
JW: We really believe that the Web is more than just a companion site that gives tune-in information and cast biographies. It’s an extension of the content that you find on air. We want the site to allow the folks who come to it to let their curiosity loose and give them a deeper experience than they could get in even an hour of television. It’s very much a part of our overall strategy for PBS, and in particular with History Detectives.
What do you want viewers to take away from History Detectives?
CB: I want them to have an appreciation for the work of historians. I like to demystify the work, to show viewers that primary research is something everyday people can do. Libraries and archives are open to them, too, and objects have stories that can be told.
JW: History is not a passive activity. It requires good old gumshoe work by people who have curious minds. History is all around us, and you have to actively go out and find it. It doesn’t find you. I think History Detectives has done that, and it’s something we all can be proud of.
Originally published in the October 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.