|Created by||Oregon Public Broadcasting/Lion Television|
|Starring||Wes Cowan (Auctioneer, appraiser)
Elyse Luray (Appraiser, art historian)
Eduardo Pagan (Professor of History, author)
Gwen Wright (Professor of Architecture, author, architectural advisor)
Tukufu Zuberi (Professor of Sociology, author)
|Opening theme||"Watching the Detectives"|
|Country of origin||United States|
|Running time||55 minutes|
|Picture format||1080i HDTV|
|Original run||2003– present|
History Detectives is a documentary television series on PBS. It features investigations made by members of a small team of researchers to identify and/or authenticate items which may have historical significance or connections to important historical events, and to answer specific questions brought to them about these artifacts. Common subjects are family heirlooms and historical structures. Its stated missions is "exploring the complexities of historical mysteries, searching out the facts, myths and conundrums that connect local folklore, family legends and interesting objects."
Over its first decade, the series featured a team of several "detectives": originally Wes Cowan, Elyse Luray, Gwen Wright, and Tukufu Zuberi, later joined by Eduardo Pagán. Following a hiatus, the program is planned to return in summer 2014 in a different format, with hosts Zuberi and Cowan joined by Kaiama Glover, as History Detectives: Special Investigation.
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (January 2011)|
Episodes usually include three segments, each centering on a single "mystery" or "case". Usually a case will be handled by a single "detective" although in early episodes two would occasionally investigate a single case, and there have been cases where a "detective" has called on one of their colleagues for help, usually when the case involves a specialty of their colleague's.
Each segment begins with a brief introduction and then shows the "detective" meeting with a person who has brought the case to their attention. The cases always revolve around a physical object which is supposedly related in some manner to American history. Usually these are family heirlooms of some type, although occasionally they are public objects or landmarks or items owned by private archives or museums. The person presenting them with the case then shows the investigator the item in question and relates their understanding of how this item is connected to American history. Often this involves some element of folk history which has been handed down as family or local lore. The investigator will then ask them what they want to find out about the item and the owner will generally give them two or three central questions. Often the questions will revolve around whether the item was owned by a particular famous personage or whether it was used in a particular historic event. Sometimes the investigator will be asked to track down an obscure creator of a certain item. The investigator will then promise to look into the questions and, if the item in question is portable, will ask to take it with them.
The rest of the segment involves an investigation of the item's history, focusing particularly on the questions asked by the person who presented them with the case. If the provenance of the item is in doubt they will often begin by establishing whether or not the item came from the period in question. This will often involve a series of physical tests as well as consultation with experts on appraisal. When tracking down specific people the investigators will engage in archival research using such resources as biographies, histories, newspapers, and city directories. In attempting to establish the history of the item, the investigators will meet with experts, particularly historians, to gain historical context. When needed other experts such as park rangers, appraisers, and experts in relevant skills will be consulted. Often, experts will be asked to provide their opinion on the plausibility of a story which is attached to the item, or to explain why a specific historical event happened in a particular way. When dealing with more recent history, the investigators will often try and contact people involved in certain events both in order to gain context and to verify the truth of an item's folk history. Generally the last interview will be abruptly ended before the audience can learn the final revelation. The investigator then returns to the person who brought them the case and informs them of what he has learned, including rolling clips of revealing statements from the final expert consulted. Occasionally the end of the segment will involve a "reward" of sorts. Sometimes this involves presenting the people who brought them the case with an item somehow related to the history of their item. Other times this will involve a meeting with a person who had produced or previously owned their item or, if that person is deceased, their relatives. For example, in a case where they were trying to track down the artist who had drawn a WWII POW's picture they found that the artist was deceased but they "reunited" the POW with the artist's son.
Between segments there will be interstitial material involving stock footage and one of the investigators giving narration that relates to the general topic which had been covered in the preceding segment. For example, a segment which dealt with desegregation in Major League Baseball, the interstitial material discussed the WWII service of several black ballplayers.
The show only airs original episodes in the summer months. Reruns air in some areas of the country the rest of the year as well as on PBS World. The sixth season in 2008 brought some changes including a new opening sequence. In the seventh season in 2009, Eduardo Pagan, a noted historian and author joined the detectives. In the ninth season in 2011, marked a change from regularly airing on Mondays to Tuesdays. The tenth season premiered on July 17, 2012 with another new opening sequence. Also, the 10th season premiere episode was their 100th of the series.
During an online chat with the Washington Post in 2005, Elyse Luray stated that each segment took approximately six weeks to complete. While on the show it appears that each filmed segment is happening spontaneously, the research is generally completed prior to filming, and the investigator will then later return to certain research points for filming so the investigation will appear as a coherent story for the viewer.
- American Treasures, similar show on Discovery
- PBS Ombudsman Detecting More Than History?
- Kiesewetter, John (2003) "Appraiser Cowan to co-host new antiques show on PBS", Cincinnati Enquirer, July 14, 2003, p. C2. Cowan explains the relationship of the on-air researchers to the actual research.
- Official website
- Video interview with History Detectives host Gwendolyn Wright on The Alcove with Mark Molaro from blip.tv
- PBS History Detectives on Facebook, with updates on stories they are working on.