Is there “ . . . awkwardness in the pretense of the pretend . . . ?”

Dancer Betty Beh was a fierce pirate in 1929 and would have made a great museum interpreter. Image courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society
Dancer Betty Beh was a fierce pirate in 1929 and would have made a great museum interpreter. Image courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society

“How many of us have cringed, if ever so slightly, when we encountered a costumed, overzealous re-enactor performing a historic narrative . . .” –The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums.

Two weeks ago I shared some impressions on the book quoted above. In that blog I said, “Living history, with the exception of a small section on interpreters in period clothing (a future blog), is by and large left out of the book.” This is that future blog.

ALHFAM is the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (emphasis added). Given my deep interest in this organization and our members, and my overwhelming respect for the good work they do, it is not surprising that the short section on interpretation in period clothing stuck with me.

In an effort to spark discussion, I am sharing several quotes from the book on this subject, and some of my own thoughts (full disclosure: I have never done interpretation in period dress so I come to this topic as a museum visitor and a fairly well-versed colleague of my better dressed peers).

“There is awkwardness in the pretense of the pretend, especially if we are forced to participate in an imaginary world that is not of our making.”

“ . . . less seasoned visitors may find the pretend to be off-putting because it places them in the role of an other, confused and unwelcome.”

“ . . . period dress contributes to the construction of a fourth wall, removing yet another step from experiencing the house as a home.”

So, how many of us have: cringed, felt awkward, off-put, or removed? Why? In what contexts? Does it matter if the interpretation is first or third person?

My experiences with interpreters in period clothing have been by-and-large positive: with the exception of two. One was the cooper at a site who wasn’t interested in answering my questions until I asked one he thought was worthy (lesson: being a jerk isn’t time specific). The other was at a large site where first-person interpreters wander and interact with guests when not doing more formal presentations. I didn’t know who the interpreter was portraying and came upon him rather unexpectedly so wasn’t prepared to interact. He was kind, pleasant, and patient but I sort of fumbled around for questions and left feeling a bit deflated. Of course, an hour later I figured out who he was portraying and came up with a list of questions, but by then he had vanished.

One last quote from the book:

“However, the conceptual disconnect does not seem to carry through when the costumed docents are undertaking the actual tasks for which they are dressed. We have often experienced costumed docents cooking in HHM kitchens using historically accurate methods and tools, and found their conversation while at their work somehow comforting.”

The author posits that perhaps it’s because of our familiarity with their tasks (they’re cooking + we cook=common ground). There’s truth in this. I also wonder if it’s because when a “costumed docent” is performing a task the visitor doesn’t feel the full weight of the interpreter’s attention on them. There’s no pressure for the visitor to come up with questions; they can watch the activity at hand and stay quiet or ask questions, the choice is theirs. In a way, it gives the visitor control over the interaction.

Again, the book doesn’t strongly offer living history and/or costumed interpretation as a method to invigorate historic house museums. It also doesn’t differentiate between different types of interpretation (first, third, museum theater). Yet these techniques, when done well and thoughtfully, can bring life to a structure or site in most unique ways and leave visitors invigorated and wanting to learn more. When done poorly, they absolutely can leave visitors feeling awkward, put-off, and out of place.

The book is hesitant towards (not against) interpreters in period dress in historic houses. What do you think? What have your experiences been as a visitor? As an interpreter? What techniques do you (interpreters) use to break down barriers with visitors when you’re decked out in “work clothes?” How do you help guests figure out what is expected so your interactions don’t become stilted?

The ALHFAM website is a wonderful resource if you’re interested in learning more about living history and interpretation (in period clothing or not). Of special interest are the Professional Interest Groups for first person interpretation, historic apparel and textiles, historic skills and foodways, and interpretation and education.

I look forward to your comments.

–Deb Arenz

16 thoughts on “Is there “ . . . awkwardness in the pretense of the pretend . . . ?””

  1. I must confess that I have indeed felt an awkwardness in visiting a few historic sites. That being said it has come in the form of poorly made period clothing and poorly trained interpreters.
    But then again is it not true that the worst museum visitors are museum workers. I have often fallen into the trap of being too critical of displays or period clothing and the interpreters themselves. I try very hard not to be hard on the places I am visiting and usually suggest ALHFAM as a resource for many places that could use and benefit from all of our various amounts of experience.
    Thanks for posting Deb

    1. I hear ya, Del. I try to keep in mind that I am there to experience my passion of history and not to critique the authenticity of the site. New interpreters may have put their own outfits together or may be wearing something “indicative” of the period and not really trying to pass them off as authentic. It takes time to become “seasoned” in the role of interpreter so we must always consider the “learning curve” and not become historic snobs. Around here we sometimes have to scrape to get enough volunteers to represent anything. I believe the visitor experience is greatly enhanced by seeing a live person as opposed to just looking at empty rooms. I am brand new to the field although I have been a visitor all my life. I can honestly say that I remember my experience in great detail but I do not remember what the interpreters were wearing or saying. It is a craft. It takes time to become a craftsman.

      1. I agree Cynthia that the visitor experience is enhanced with “live people” we just need to make sure the people are connecting with and not alienating the visitors. As you say, it takes time. Thanks for the comment.

  2. As an interpreter, I find it much easier for myself to be costumed because it makes me more identifiable as someone who is there to be asked questions. However, I have a hard time with people hired to be 3rd person interpreters doing 1st person interpretation. For me, when I was supervising house interpreters, I noticed that the interpreters who decided to do 1st person were often doing it poorly (and in way that was essentially “going rouge”). Unfortunately doing 1st person has become the main focus of these interpreters (who are typically younger university students) in a way that has hindered them doing their job properly. Many have made their characters and “play-time” their main point of interaction with their guests and not have not put the time into research, thus making characters they have created more caricatures than accurate portrayals of the past.

    That being said, I do think that there are great ways for 1st person to be used and that many people are very, very good at it.

    1. First person interpretation is a challenge and because of this many sites choose not to do it or do so sparingly. When done well it is really fabulous but the visitor has to be prepared for it and the staff needs to help the visitor get prepared. Your comment about “play-time” resonated with me. I’ve not experienced that at a museum but I went to a Renaissance fair once and all of the costumed participants acted as if they were at their own personal party and we were just supposed to be happy to watch them. I was kind of pissed that I’d plunked down a bunch of cash for my family to basically be ignored by these folks (who were wearing polyester, using foam swords, and selling “ye olde funnel cakes”). If I experienced something similar at a museum, I’d have been livid. Thanks for your comment Kesia.

  3. I have gotten the most interpretive experiences when first greeted by a site staff member or docent at the door of the historic house and given a little history of the house and family. Going on to the 1st person encounter, I feel more prepared and questions are more forth coming. It also depends on how much the interpreter interacts with the visitors as opposed to all but ignoring the visitor’s presence and just acting out a scene. The experience can vary greatly by the experience of the interpreter. Overall, I have not had any negative experiences because I consider any opportunity to visit a historic site to be time well spent.

    1. Having a transition experience, in your case a staff member greeting you at the door and giving you some background, seems like an excellent way to help guests determine how best to interact with the interpreters and ensure a positive experience. Thanks Cynthia.

  4. I too have experienced a few awkward interpretations by those in period clothing. Many times it ended up being because as the visitor, I was not prepared for my visit to the specific site by front line or contextual staff or whoever “greeted us at the door.” And then there is the overzealous interpreter – “look at me! I’m wearing a costume!” kind of person. Site visit orientation is a critical key – visitors must know how to approach their visit,how to approach the costumed interpreters, and an explanation of the type of interpretation. It is a sites responsibility to take care of this. Often, this is handled by an entirely separate department in larger institutions, and sometimes the message is not delivered, or is delivered in an incomplete or lack-luster way. The overzealous interpreter needs better training. It isn’t about him or the costume. It is about the visitor and what they need or expect from the visit. A costume or period clothing is just one of many interpretive tools, and a good interpreter can/should/must be able to interpret without the costume. Probably the only other big issue I have experienced with an interpretive site is being asked if I have questions… at every single building that I visited. I personally have witnessed people shut down when that statement is made. I find that if visitors have questions, they will ask, and they usually do not need an invitation.

  5. I find that if I, as an 18th and 19th century cook, keep my research up to date, speak only to what I know and, as the article suggest, relax and just cook and “chat’, much as I do at home in my own kitchen, people relax and begin to feel they are a visitor in my kitchen. When they feel they are welcome they enjoy, relax and take full advantage of the experience!

    1. Absolutely! Relax and enjoy and chat in a normal manner. That sounds like a great experience. Thanks Terry.

  6. As a Wardrobe Supervisor for a historic Village, I am very interested in this discussion, and particularly interested in learning about how visitors interact with costumed interpreters. We want our costumes to add to the overall story, and to enhance the experience as much as possible. “Authenticity”, which any professional costumer pursues energetically, is usually impossible, for lots of good, unchangeable reasons. What we need to aim for is good “theatre”, to make sure that the costumes don’t detract from the experience. It’s a constant challenge, and I’ve been at it for over 20 years. Thanks for posting!

    1. I like your point about costumes adding to the story and enhancing the overall experience. I think trouble arises when the costumes are donned for no reason other than to do it. Thanks Meg

  7. We just had an entire AHLFAM conference on First Person Interpretation and how to do it well. Any who would like to learn more should definitely join the professional interest group: FPIPN.

  8. At Hale Byrnes House in Delaware like to let children “play dress up” and feel a part of the period.

    What I hated most as a young mother visiting Plymouth Plantation was that if the kids (or grown-ups) tried to ask the interpreters questions, the interpreters looked you as though you were from Mars. There needs to be a happy medium between role-playing and interacting with interested visitors who want to learn. To me, with a daughter whose name is Elizabeth Alden, named for ‘that” Alden family line, it was especially distressing to have her little piping questions dismissed like that..

    On the other hand, as a little kid growing up–my goal in life was to be a docent at the Lippitt House! Those ladies really knew how to balance the old & the new.

    Great article.
    Kim Burdick, CPG 1971

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