What are you doing?

by Tom Kelleher, Old Sturbridge Village & Past President, ALHFAM

“I am setting hooks to capture your interest and imagination!”

I have been a costumed historical interpreter for a long time now, and have enjoyed visiting living history museums since I was a child. For many decades the best sites strove for ever-greater historical authenticity. They refined their costuming and material culture, including crops, livestock, tools and techniques to reflect a specific time and place instead of the more loosely defined “past” that once seemed to suffice. What kind of cows should they have? Did people really process flax or make brooms in that time and place? Dedicated interpreters went beyond those details to delve into emerging scholarship about the societies and economies of the people they portrayed, be it in first or third person. They tried to give a taste of the issues and concerns of the day. That was a big step beyond the nostalgic, idealized and sanitized past that living history sites had, and some still, depicted. Still, it often seemed like history for history’s sake.

cooking (2)

What of the visitors? We must always keep in mind that the guest is the reason we do what we do. We certainly strive to be friendly and welcoming. Some of the best sites once invited guests to take on the role of anthropologists and learn what they could about the bygone civilizations portrayed. Yet even for the visitor who put in that extra effort, their role was still rather passive: a consumer of history. Just as for a long time static museums pretended that lifting a panel or pushing a button to reveal an answer was an interactive exhibit, much “interactive” living history often did not go much beyond politely telling visitors about the task at hand or tacitly forcing them to ask, “What are you doing?” More recently the best interpreters invite guests to “help” or “try it,” to give some a multi-sensory and more memorable personal experience.

Tin (2)

That is great, but task-oriented living history is no longer enough. For one thing, people, even interpreters and visitors, are much more than what they do, or are doing, at an observed instant in time. And since many interpreters are often making something… well, MAKING is increasingly an alien concept for modern people, beyond the mere novelty of making something “by hand.” Those are two of many themes that I would argue we need to better explore with our guests, to give them not only a better understanding of the past but of their present. A task at hand is not an end itself. And much of what costumed interpreters should be doing is setting hooks to start a conversation.

Today, and moving forward, we need to give visitors more than accurate recreations, immersive or otherwise. For our sites and history itself to remain relevant, we need to more explicitly help visitors make connections between the past and their own world. Throughout history, people have had to cope with challenges. How we do it is the eternal question.

As practitioners of living history, we are teachers of casual learners, so we need to go in with flexible learning objectives and an arsenal of possible means to achieve those objectives—lesson plans if you will. What will capture their interest and imagination, and how can we leave them with more of a take-away than “most people worked hard in the past” or some specific but really irrelevant factoid about a particular process? What will make their time with us more memorable or, dare we hope, meaningful? What topics are relevant in both the time portrayed and today?

Corn talk (2)We need to have real dialog with our guests, without putting them on the spot. of course. That means a give-and-take, and listening to them, not just verbally but carefully observing the visual clues they present to us, then adjusting our responses accordingly. We are interacting with unique individuals, not presenting historical facts to nameless masses of people hoping some facts will be recalled at some future date. Our carefully researched artifacts, clothing, and demonstrations of farming crafts and trades can no longer be seen as ends in themselves, but as pedagogical tools: hooks to start meaningful conversations about the past and the present.


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