Back in February, the NHS convened the first of several conversations about the future of living history or costumed interpretation. We asked practitioners in all kinds of settings to join us, as well as individuals who run historic sites, and trained historians generally.
This effort was in many ways prompted by the storming of the US Capitol on January 6th, 2021. We, who often sponsor reenactments of violent skirmishes in the period leading up to the American Revolution asked ourselves, “would we reenact this?”
Questions about violence we joined by issues of romanticizing the past, and representation of women, people of color, and civilians generally in traditional reenacting. These questions made us ask ourselves, “what is the best future for living history?”
We began the meeting by cataloging our concerns, which fall into a number of categories:
- Relevance. The degree to which both institutions and individual reenactors are willing to bring the past into the present and address current issues. And whether they should.
- Representation. How do we bring the stories of minority and oppressed populations into this method of talking about history to the public?
- Goals and intentionality. What are we trying to accomplish? Is it to “tear the fabric of time” and provide a scholarly and accurate picture? Is it to encourage a more accessible view of an historical moment? To encourage empathy?
- Techniques and concept. How do we do this work? Is obsessive attention to correct historical detail important? Is first person historical interpretation effective? How do we train our interpreters, and what baggage do they, as individuals, bring to the project?
- Ownership. When you have a personal relationship to the material, or place, or the time, this is meaning-making for you. But is it transferrable to the public, and can it be an impediment?
- Audience. Our audiences are diverse, with differing skills, expectations and assumptions. How hard can we challenge them without alienating them? Can we want our audience to have a different experience than the one they expected, and how do we do that? We have little time with them, too. How do we encourage them to create meaning from the experience we have offered (and can we worry about that)?
- Violence. Is reenacting violence the best way to talk about historical events to the public? Is it comprehensible and interpretable when we do it, or is it just a spectacle?
- Financial sustainability. These activities are expensive for sites, who tend to pay reenactors little or nothing at all.
- For institutions, is this activity the best way to do what we think we want to do for the public? What is the story we want to tell and is this a good way to tell it?
- Is there a broader view to create about what living history is?
These are quite a number of questions, and they intersect and interlock. It was suggested more than once that the basic question is not so much “how do we do this better” but rather “should we do it at all?”
Because we obviously did not answer these questions at our first session, I think it will be useful for me to offer a first response to this list here. I do not have answers, but I do have some thoughts about how we continue this conversation. Throughout, I am speaking from the perspective of someone who runs an organization for which living history is a vital, and relatively recent part of our program menu.
From an institutional standpoint, I do think the deepest and most useful conversation starts with the question “what suffers, and what benefits, if we stop doing this?” Obviously, for those among us who do this as a hobby and personal passion, the engagement with audiences, and educational value are the side benefits. For those few of us who do this work as individuals, as a way of making money, similarly, the educational benefit may or may not be a side issue if you are earning a living. The only reason to question the usefulness of this activity, for both groups, is when you ask yourself if it is perpetuating myths and anachronistic attitudes. It is a personal decision about whether to go forward. For those of us who think of this activity specifically as a public engagement and education tool, however, the question is much more complex.
So, what suffers? What does this activity do for our audiences that might be lost if we stop entirely? This is a primary question for further conversation. All the related issues – how do we make it relevant, financially sustainable, what techniques are best used, etc. only matter if the first question has an affirmative answer. Even if that answer were “the bottom line,” of course that matters. But, in many ways it is the opposite, as living history programs are staff intensive and often generate only limited revenue. And we don’t pay much or at all to the practitioners. So that is where I think we need to start as we continue this discussion.
In the final part of our conversation we focused on whether we think we can do this work without perpetuating notions about white-centeredness and myths about early America that have long since been debunked in scholarship. The answer from the group seems to be yes, but with the caveat that doing so requires intentionality, research and interpretive skill. And each site or institution will likely need to think about how they match their stories to interpreters and to audiences. A broader idea about what living history looks like, the use of technology, and new techniques are likely needed to continue to make this kind of activity relevant and useful.
Banner image: Newport Historical Society’s 2015 Living History event on the Stamp Act Protest.