The Future of Living History

Although I work at a “big box” Museum & Science Center, I try to stay active in the world of living history. As a volunteer interpreter and reenactor, I’ve heard many friends worry aloud about the future of the hobby and the profession. They see that fewer young men and women are joining reenacting units and volunteering at historic sites. They often cite the shallow focus on history in public schools and the increasing addiction to electronics as reasons for the decline.

I understand the concern, but I also see signs of hope. Perhaps the numbers of 15 – 30 year olds are dwindling, but I have had the pleasure to know and support a really wonderful group of young men and women. I am frequently amazed at the integrity of their research and their depth of understanding of the time period, events, and processes they interpret.

One example is a group of young interpreters at the Hetchler Farm at Genesee Country Village & Museum. When they were first hired in their late teens and twenties, they had little experience with agriculture. They learned history and process from seasoned interpreters, and from nineteenth-century agricultural publications, original tools and equipment, and period paintings and prints of farm work and life. It was a great pleasure to watch the four become proficient in animal husbandry; sowing, tending, and reaping crops; and making and caring for reproduction tools. Most important, they learned to share their passion for history with visitors in a compelling way. The Farm has undergone a transition from older interpreters to younger, and the quality of the visitors’ experience is very high. And happily, there are other under-30 interpreters throughout the Village, doing equally fine research and interpretation.

Agricultural work at the Hetchler Farm, Genesee Country Village & Museum. One of a small group of young interpreters who learned early 19th century animal husbandry, agriculture, cooking, and other farm chores and do a thorough, engaging interpretation for the public.   Photo Credit: Charles LeCount

At the Rochester Museum & Science Center, I arrange appointments for researchers to examine artifacts in our collections. Several young men have scheduled research visits with me to examine the construction and materials of the Civil War uniforms in my care. The intensity with which they examined the garments was striking, as was their depth of knowledge. They compared each garment with other examples they had seen in person or in print, and they worked hard to understand the tailoring and sewing techniques used. They respected the artifacts and handled them carefully. The fact that they were polite and grateful for the opportunity was an added bonus! With these young men integrating the knowledge gained from the original garments into garments they construct for themselves and others, the quality of their clothing will improve, and hopefully inspire others to do the same.

Finally, the most impressive dedication to living history I have been even a small part of occurred June 27 – July 2, 2018. My son and several of his friends participated in the 6th Corps March to Gettysburg. At first, Chuck and I weren’t sure this was a great idea. After all, it was over 90 miles along paved roads in summer, far from home. But we realized that if you are going to undertake such an experience, it’s best to do it when you’re 17, with good friends, and seasoned support.

This commemorative march is planned and executed every five years. The logistics are daunting: food and beverage are rationed to the marchers daily, camping spots are secured well in advance, two chase vehicles hover nearby in case of need. This year’s participants ranged in age from 17 to 60-something, and with the exception of 2 soldiers who left the march because of work obligations, everyone finished. My son and his friends were hot, tired, blistered, and sore, but they persevered. As one of them said, they wanted to “draw attention to the story of the heroic men who marched the route 155 years ago, and to experience a small portion of what those soldiers endured.” They left their last camp during the night of July 1, with 32 miles to go. They arrived at the Sedgewick Monument on the Gettysburg Battlefield at 3:30 p.m. on July 2 and were honored with cheers and applause from family, friends, and supporters.

Participants in the 6th Corps march arrive at Lockhouse 25 on the C&O Canal for a period-appropriate meal and safe place to camp. Photo Credit: William J. Watson

After long showers, a celebratory supper, and a good night’s sleep, the marchers noted that, 155 years ago, the soldiers of the 6th corps only had the hard ground and a battle to greet them. As one of them said “I want to reinforce that with however much attention the participants of this march received, we MUST remember those who came before us and sacrificed so much for this war.”

This is why I am hopeful about the future of living history. There are young people who do the research, learn trades or skills, and learn to interpret the past effectively. They are passionate, energetic, and dedicated. I don’t know how to increase their numbers, but if we all pay attention to our young people, recognize and encourage their talent, and support them in this great endeavor to keep history alive, we may see the results we need.

Sarah Wilson LeCount is the Collections Manager for the Rochester Museum & Science Center. She began reenacting when she met her husband in the 1980s and is grateful to have raised their son in the hobby.

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