Getting Started in Living History - Beginning Q&A
Updated: Jan 17
This is the first, in what we hope will be a continuing series of articles on the practice of Living History. From time to time, we will be posting these, mixed in with the history-based articles we post, here on the Norfolk Towne Assembly’s Blog.
I began my involvement in Living History over 25 years ago as a volunteer at a Living History site in Virginia. During the ensuing 25 years, I have worked in the field as a volunteer at two Living History sites, initially doing behind the scenes work and later as a volunteer costumed interpreter. In that capacity I spent about one hundred hours per year doing research and approximately three hundred public contact hours per year.
I also worked as an independent interpreter at sites managed by the National Park Service; the States of Virginia, Alabama, and Tennessee; local governments, and private foundations. I have presented living history talks at public schools, private colleges, historic sites, and founded two living history groups.
In the beginning, while the concepts of historical research, documentation, and interpretation were known to me, my application of them was haphazard. As a result, I made a lot of mistakes. I blew money on items that were inappropriate for the persona I was portraying and, I am sure I misled some people during those early days. However, I was lucky that the first living history site where I volunteered as a costumed interpreter was generous and forward thinking enough that they offered the same formal interpretative training to their volunteer costumed interpreters as they offered to their full-time employees. With this, I finally got off to a good start.
I tell you this not to impress you with my background, but to help you to understand that I have walked the road of a beginner in living history, as well as successfully mentoring beginning living history interpreters to help them grow their skills and succeed.
Let’s begin with questions and answers.
For our first article in this series, I am going to use a Q&A format to cover, at a high level, several ideas that we all need to understand about how the Norfolk Towne Assembly (NTA) approaches Living History.
1. What is living history?
Living history is an activity that incorporates historical tools, activities, and dress into an interactive presentation that tries to give our guests and participants a sense of stepping back in time. Examples of this would be the interpretative programs at Colonial Williamsburg, The Frontier Culture Museum or The Jamestown Settlement. As a Living History organization, the NTA aims to help our guests to “contextualize” what we are presenting to them. To help them to understand this past time and how this relates to their experiences in the modern world.
2. How does reenactment differ from living history?
A reenactment is focused on performing a modern recreation of an old event or battle. Most often, these have a military focus and are intended to recreate a feeling of the original event or to honor those who took part in that event. For example, a reenactment of a major battle. Examples would include the Battle of Plattsburgh or the Battle of Great Bridge.
While there can be some crossover between reenactment and living history, the key point to remember is that reenactment focuses on the event while Living History focuses on the guest and the era.
3. What do you mean by “interpretation”?
Interpretation can be thought of as a planned effort to create for the guest an understanding of the history and significance of events, people, and objects with which the program is associated. Put simply, it is communicating information about a subject to our guests in such a way that it is clear, understandable, and meaningful to them. There are four qualities that distinguish interpretation from other communication.
Interpretation is pleasurable.
Interpretation is relevant.
Interpretation is organized.
Interpretation has a theme.
These qualities are central to successful interpretation and to successfully engaging our guests. In future articles we will talk much more about designing successful interpretation.
4. Why do you keep referring to the public as “guests”?
Language has a funny way of affecting how we think and act. The words we choose to use tend to focus our awareness, attention, and thought on specific behaviors. When we think about the public as visitors, they can be welcome or unwelcome; invited or uninvited; and therefore, we have a choice of several ways to act towards them. On the other hand, when we think of them as “guests” that implies that they are invited and deserve our best efforts to make them feel welcome and to meet their needs. Examples of how this can be carried out in living history programs/presentations include:
a. Paying attention to the guest’s experience
b. Analyzing what we do from the guest’s perspective
c. Understanding what the guest is looking for from the experience
5. Are there several types of interpretation? If so, what are they?
There are two main styles of living history interpretation and one that we might refer to as a modification of one of the styles. Let’s take a quick look at all three of these.
Third-person Interpretation: In third person interpretation, the interpreter openly acknowledges that they are a contemporary of the guest, simply one in historical dress. This means that they never try to be in-character and fully acknowledge their role as a modern person who is demonstrating skills and explaining the past to the guests. Their costume, just like any props they may be using is treated as an interpretative tool. The main advantage of third person interpretation is that it can supply much needed perspective. Interpreters can feel free to address many topics of interest to the guest without their hands being tied by the need to remain in-character. This interpretive style allows the interpreter to comment upon the museum/event, explaining how what they are talking about is relevant to the modern person as well as answer any question that the guest asks.
Finally, third-person interpretation is probably the best route for those just starting out. For most of us, when we are just beginning our living history activities our knowledge of the day-to-day minutia of life in the past is limited at best. If you are performing a first-person portrayal of a particular person, or someone practicing a particular occupation, you cannot realistically answer “I don’t know” to questions about that person’s life, or that person’s occupation.
First-person interpretation: In first-person interpretation, the interpreter projects the persona of a historical figure or character, speaking as if they were that person in that time period: e.g., a blacksmith, a tenant farmer, George Washington, Stephen Decatur, etc. In general, most living history sites do not allow their first-person interpreters to break character in front of guests except for specific instances such as medical emergencies.
First-person interpretation can be problematic. For instance, as a practical matter, an interpreter cannot wholly adopt the views of the past and react to guests accordingly. I have seen some interpreters berate young female guests for being immodestly dressed, which can embarrass them and drive them away, rather than engaging them so we can teach them something valuable. Additionally, how does one address issues of slavery or other distressing topics such as prejudice against certain religions or nationalities while being incapable of breaking character? How, while remaining in character, do you explain that such negative views existed without coming across as a supporter of them?
First-person interpretation can also confuse guests who have not experienced it before; if they don't understand the "rules" of the game, how can they become involved? It also makes engaging and drawing out “shy” or “reticent” guests more difficult. For some guests, their lack of knowledge of the past may make them feel “threatened” by the interpreter who is trying to talk with them as a person of the past because they do not want to appear "stupid" or "dumb". Other guests will try to force interpreters to break character. They may see it as a game, but it can become a problem for the other guests when they try to trick or force the costumed expert to acknowledge that they are a twenty-first century actor, thereby degrading for others the program he is trying to present. Often, if first person interpretation is not done well, interactions with a guest can end up being a confrontation of some kind.
To counteract these issues, some first-person interpreters try to use what might be termed “loose first-person” where they begin speaking with the guests in first person but will break out of their “historical bubble” when they feel it necessary. Unfortunately, this type of interpretation has several challenges/drawbacks. It can be difficult for the interpreter to switch back to first-person once he has broken character. If one is working in a “continuous interpretation” environment, where guests keep walking up throughout your interpretation, there is no effective way to switch back and forth while "cueing" them that you are transitioning back and forth into and out of character. This can result in some guests being confused by the change since they do not understand what is going on.
An example of how an interpreter can interact with guests in first-person might be as follows:
As the guest(s) approaches the interpreter he may say something like, "Oh, are you new in town? When did you arrive? Was it a long journey?”
Based on the guest’s response, they can then have a conversation as if both individuals existed in the same historical period, discussing (or commiserating on) the hardships of life during the War of 1812, migration to the Ohio country or other topics depending on one's historic era.
Guests don’t have to be history majors to interact in this way with interpreters. After all, the goal of interpretation isn’t just to be entertaining, but also to be educational and informative. Even a “wrong” answer – guessing that they would arrive by train or automobile before they were invented, indicating the wrong length of time to travel, or the wrong route for the journey – gives the interpreter the opportunity to express surprise and explain that they thought that the roads were too rough to allow for travel at that speed, or express hope that proper roads or a railroad will soon be built.
With this approach, the guest taking part in this interpretation does not have to supply historically correct responses for the skilled costumed interpreter to “play ball.” If a guest supplies an answer that is outside of the realm of possibilities, such as saying they drove there in a car, then the interpreter should, rather than indicating he doesn't know what that might be, should supply an appropriate alternative to the item such as responding with something like, "Oh I'm not familiar with that type of wagon (or carriage)" - something the person could drive - and then move on to another subject. This diffuses the situation and allows the conversation to continue.
Second-person interpretation: For those with a good knowledge base and plenty of experience, there is also what is sometimes called second-person interpretation. In this style the interpreter still portrays a person from the past but one with consciousness and knowledge of the present as well as the past. If this is cued up properly and carried out in a manner that does not make the guest feel like you are making fun of their lack of historical knowledge, this can work better that straight first-person interpretation.
In the future, we will discuss different interpretation styles and methodologies in greater detail, However, even from this high-level description of interpretative styles, it should be obvious why it is generally recommended that new living history interpreters stick with third-person interpretation for a few years before they try first-person or second-person interpretation.
6. Is historical accuracy, in costumes and accessories important? Do the guests really know the difference?
Let’s be honest, the public notices a job well done. They notice authenticity. They notice when something is wrong or half-assed. They may not be able to put their finger on just what is right and what is wrong, but I have repeatedly seen their ability to discern accuracy as opposed to inaccuracy.
Several years ago, I was doing a living history event, set in the mid-to-late 18th century, when someone dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow showed up along with his pirate “wench” and began wondering around the site. The interesting thing that I noticed was that, while a few guests stopped to have their pictures taken with them, those folks quickly moved on once the selfie was taken. Most of the guests totally ignored the pirates. Where did the guests go? They came to speak to the living history interpreters because we had something to offer beyond a selfie opportunity. We looked like we should be there. We were helping create that “moment in the past” for them.
That’s not to say you need to be perfect from day one. Unless you are employed by a living history site, this is a hobby. But it is one with a serious duty to educate our guests in the realities of the past. Whenever we are involved in living history activities in front of guests, we are tasked with presenting a picture of the past to our guests. Because of this we need to try to keep our appearance as close as possible to historic examples.
I like to tell people considering getting involved in the hobby that living history interpretation is a journey, not a destination. You start with the broad strokes and foundational aspects and then you work on the finer details gaining skill with experience. When it comes to how we present ourselves, the details of how we look, how we act, how we speak, and what we carry can have as much weight as the knowledge we share. We can, through keeping historical accuracy in what we wear, how we act and speak, and the information we provide, help to shape people’s ideas of what the time and place we represent was like.
I will readily admit that there are costs, but then all hobbies have barriers to entry. If you want to play golf you need to have a set of clubs or have someone who can lend you a set. If you want to take up fishing seriously then you have to invest in rods, reels, tackle, lures, and possibly even a boat. There are certain costs of being properly costumed but they are not insurmountable. If you sew, there are patterns available that will give you the period look with varying degrees of accuracy. If you don’t sew, there are merchants who can custom make clothing for you. However, making or buying clothing and accessories is not the first thing you need to do.
7. So, what should I do first?
There are two things to do before you begin to make or buy clothing or accessories for your living history adventures. First, begin figuring out who/what/when you want to portray. Do research on that impression so you understand what that person’s life was like and what clothing/items they realistically would have had. There are all sorts of things that vendors offer for sale, some are period correct and others not so much. Also, keep in mind that just because something may have existed in your era, it may not be right for the persona and location you portray. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, starting out, it is easy to waste money buying stuff that just isn’t useful once you begin to get things figured out.
The second thing I recommend is to get to know other living history folks. There are a several ways to do this; meeting them on a one-to-one basis at events, joining a living history group, or by volunteering with a historic house/site that has a good living history program. Once you get to know folks in the hobby, these folks can act as mentors to help guide you in both your research and your purchases. They may also be able to help you find resources for obtaining items such as people who have items to lend too beginners, pointing you to used items for sale, recommending vendors and recommending tailors/seamstresses who can make custom clothing at a decent price.
This about wraps up our Q&A session for this posting. In the future we hope to have articles talking about some of these issues in more detail as well as on how to best interact with guests, develop your interpretative program so it is engaging to the guests, how to engage guests and draw out what it is about your impression that they want to know, and many other subjects.
We hope you found today’s post interesting, informative, and hopefully it made you think about living history. For those who are already involved in the hobby, please take the time to comment below with your thoughts on what w posted. For those who are just beginning to think about getting started on the hobby, we hope this has given you some useful information and we invite you to contact us with any questions you may have. Please join us again in two weeks as we switch back to our regular posts on society and culture in the late-18th and early-19th century.
While you are here, on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample some of our earlier articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.
Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.