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  • Writer's pictureNorfolk Towne Assembly

Living History – Developing and Giving Engaging Public Programs – Part 1

“A story, in which native humour reigns,

Is often useful, always entertains;

A graver fact, enlisted on your side,

May furnish illustration, well applied;

But sedentary weavers of long tales

Give me fidgets, and my patience fails.

A tale should be judicious, clear, succinct;

The language plain, and incidents well link’d;

Tell not as new what ev’ry body knows;

And, new or old, still hasten to a close.”

- William Cowper, Conversation, 1782

(Editor’s Note: Throughout this article we refer to “guests” rather than “visitors”. To learn about this choice and the reasoning behind it, please see our previous blog article “Getting Started in Living History – Beginning Q&A.”)

We have all been there. Whether at a seminar or training session for work, a talk at a local historical society, a tour by a docent at a museum or historic house, we have all experienced it. A presenter whose talk is so lifeless and unfocused on the reaction of their audience that we are certain that if we were to return tomorrow, and the same presenter were there, we would hear the exact same presentation, word-for-word. It becomes obvious that they have memorized a script and just present it over and over.

So, the question we must ask is, “What can we do as an interpreter that is going to engage the guests and hold their interest?” That question is central to what we do as living history interpreters and our success or failure in successfully meeting the guest’s needs. It does not matter whether we are interpreting as a part of a military unit, an independent living history performer, or even an interpreter at a small living history site, when we are out there in contact with the public, we need to remember that the guest (public) is the reason we are there!

I can almost hear some reenactors saying, “Hold on, this is my hobby and I’m here because I enjoy it, not to entertain/educate the guests!” While this argument might be valid if we are only doing private, reenactor-only events, the problem is most living history events are held at historic sites run by federal, state, and local governments, or by local historical societies, so the guests are a big part of what we do. Although it is hard for some of us to accept, the reason sites hold these events is not so reenactors/living historians will have a place to come and play. Their motive is to supply engaging and relevant programming to the guests, increase guest awareness of, and support for, the site, and in cases where they charge an entrance fee, to bring in revenue and grow that revenue through repeat visitation.

Differences in understanding of our role are the basis for at least a part of the problem. While we may think we are just there to pursue our hobby, from the perspective of the site, we are there as performers, interpreters, educators, and representatives of the site. Likewise, from the perspective of the guests, we represent the site and are there to justify their expenditure of time, travel costs and admission. If we are rude, ignore the guest, or supply poor, uninteresting interpretation, the guest is not going to say, “I’m never going to patronize that guy again!” The guest is going to remember that they had an unpleasant experience at the site and choose not to return there. The fault is much worse if the site or event is paying us some sort of stipend to be there!

Guests Highly Engaged in a Living History Demonstration
Guests Highly Engaged in a Living History Demonstration

As a Living History Interpreter, success in engaging guests in our presentation is one of the pleasures of the job. When the guests reach a “minds-on” state of engagement and understanding then an interpreter has done his job. The problem is, achieving this with the guests is a moving target. To engage the intelligence of the guests, we have to constantly engage our own, which can be hard work, and frustrating. One way to handle this frustration is to find something positive in every experience, no matter how negative. Roy Underhill, in his book “Khrushchev’s Shoe,” writes about this and how the negative reaction of one of his co-workers led him to a positive perspective that I think applies to all interpreters. His co-worker, impatient with the endless stream of questions from the guests summed up his feelings about their intelligence with this statement:

“Body on vacation – mind on vacation.”

Roy suggests that this is perhaps how we should think about our guests – “A body on vacation likes to do new things: A mind on vacation likes to do new thinks.”

“Minds on” may be a state of mind but it is serious business. Lame presentations can steal thousands of hours from the lives of our guests and even extinguish what could become a lifetime of interest. In the same vein, engaging presentations can ignite a lifetime dedication to the study and enjoyment of the subject.

Making the Guest Feel Comfortable In Engaging with Us.

For living historians, a lot of work goes into the details of bringing history to life for the guests we hope to inspire or educate. Maybe we’ve stayed up all night finishing off that new piece of apparel. Maybe we got up well before dawn to drive to the site and get set up before the event opened to the guests. But then, sometimes the guests, the very folks we are trying to engage, just won’t come over to see what we’re doing. They walk around us or snap a picture and walk away.

If this sounds familiar, we may be inadvertently giving off some subtle cues that keep guests away. Interpretation–the art of engaging people with the people and stories that make history come alive—is an art we try to master. However, there are a few tricks that can help make our next living history event come alive and make all the work that goes into doing great living history count by giving us more opportunity to talk with and engage the guests.

First, Just Say “Hello”

Even though living history has been around for quite a while, all guests don’t necessarily know what our deal is. They don’t know if we are portraying a character or what’s going on. We must make the first move and greet guests we see/encounter. Period clothing, especially uniforms with period arms and accouterments, set us apart and can be intimidating. Simply saying, “hello,” “good morning,” or “welcome,” lets the guest know that despite the historic attire, we are a regular, approachable human being. This simple step lets the guest know that we are available to talk.

Do these folks look as though they are inviting interaction with guests?  They are closed off from the public and not smiling.
Do these folks look as though they are inviting interaction with guests? They are closed off from the public and not smiling.

Body language is important too; we all know what bad service in a store looks like and how it makes us feel; don’t accidentally do this to guests. Greet folks with a genuine smile. Even if we are seated or working with our hands, we need to look up at people we greet. A friendly greeting breaks the ice and lets people know we’re there to talk, hopefully, about the cool period activity we are doing.

Second, Don’t Huddle

Part of the fun for us at living history events is hanging out with old friends at the event. It’s easy to circle together and catch up. While this is a natural action when we reunite, it sends a clear signal to Guests! Football teams huddle for a reason: to keep the other team out of the discussion. We need to spread out to make space for the guests to join the conversation. Breaking open circles will allow us to greet and invite guests in, without giving them the impression that they are interrupting.

Does this "huddle" look inviting to guests?
Does this "huddle" look inviting to guests?

Third, Numbers are Intimidating. So don’t Intimidate the Guests

A whole platoon or more of re-enactors is imposing to guests. It is wonderful to create the actual size and spectacle of military units and it can give guests a perspective on the scale of events we are trying to portray. However, the numbers that made military units useful is imposing to guests and discourages interaction. Activities like firings and drills require safety margins, but we don’t want to miss a productive conversation with the guests about what’s going on. To have the spectacle of numbers, while still interacting with guests, we need to pull out a handful of living history folks to go out and engage guests while the exhibition is going on. These individuals will be more approachable to explain the demonstration, be it firings, maneuvers, or a living history scenario.

Even though they are spread out, this large group is intimidating for some guests to approach.
Even though they are spread out, this large group is intimidating for some guests to approach.

This problem is not unique to military portrayals, any large living history activity—framing a building, washing laundry—can be big and impressive enough to keep guests away. Here too, we should take the spare hands from the work and get them out talking to the guests. We’re doing something cool; let’s make sure guests get the opportunity to know just how neat it is.

Note How the Interpreters Have Spread Out to make Interaction with Guests Easier
Note How the Interpreters Have Spread Out to make Interaction with Guests Easier

The Best Interpretation is Well Thought Out and Planned

To have an interpretation that the guests will love, we need to keep two things in mind. First, just because it interests us, does not mean it will interest the majority of those visiting the site/event. While we might find the minutia of the differences between the first and second model Brown Bess musket fascinating, for most of the guests the basics of how it works is more in line with their interests. The second thing we need to keep in mind is that, if we are going to have a coherent interpretative presentation, we need to spend some time formally planning the specifics of what we want to communicate and the ways that we can do that. Let’s begin with planning our program.

Our job is to “translate from the language of the expert into the conceptual language of the guest (non-experts).” I think that the key point here is that interpretation is a communication process using a variety of methods, objects, and techniques. It is a process that relates the subject to the guest’s life experiences, provokes them to think about the subject in new ways, and guides them to an understanding that reveals the message or story and hopefully makes them want to know more.

Whether we are interpreting as a part of a military unit, or as a docent at a historic site or house, we must remember that there are many stories (information threads) available to the interpreter, but we need to focus on specific interpretative goals for our presentation. We may change those goals day-to-day, depending on what the site or event’s focus is, but just like a politician, we need to “stay on message.” If we don’t, our interpretation to the guest can come across as fragmented and unorganized. This is not to say that our interpretation on any given day is just the same thing over and over since that leads to the sort of “rote recitation of facts” that I referred to at the beginning of this article.

Another factor we need to keep in mind while designing our presentations is that different people learn in diverse ways. One way to categorize learning activity is by dividing it into left brain and right brain activity.

  • Left Brain Learners respond to logic, realism, facts, reason, and accept information more readily from people who appear to have authority.

  • Right Brain Learners respond better to Body Language, Humor, Imagination, Big Ideas, and Emotional Appeals and learn more through Interaction with Peers.

Very few people are entirely right-brain or left-brain learners, so we need to make sure we include both right-brain and left-brain activities throughout our interpretation. Another reason to vary the activities in our interpretation is because research has shown that learners, which we hope are guests are, remember:

  • 10% of what they hear,

  • 30% of what they read,

  • 50% of what they see,

  • 90% of what they do.

Additionally, keeping in mind the interpretative goals for our presentation, as we create and give the presentation, we need to constantly ask ourselves the following questions:

  1. Why would a guest want to know that? This is an important question for us to answer about the information we are planning to present. If we can't think of several reasons why a guest would want to learn the information in our program, we have a problem! This is where we RELATE to the guest and give them a reason to remember the presentation.

  2. How do we want the guest to use the information we are interpreting for them? If we don't want them to use the information, then why are we doing the presentation? The answer to this question will become the behavioral goals for our program. We don't want to spend a lot of time giving answers to questions that no one is asking!

  3. Who are the guests coming to the program? What is their age level, knowledge level, interest level, etc. How much time do they have? What do we think some of "their objectives" for attending our program might be? Any special needs of the guests (visual or hearing problems, handicap guests, etc.).

Considering the What?, Why?, and Who? parts of our interpretation will help us focus our time and efforts. The answers to the three questions will help make sure the program is relevant to the guests, not just museum employees, academics, history teachers, other Living History folks, and resource experts.

Interpretation Aimed at Children
Interpretation Aimed at Children

One final consideration we need to include is “How do we make history relevant to the “Social Media Generation?” The reason that most of us became involved in living history in the first place is that we want to see the younger generations love history as we do. In most cases we can “engage” the elementary school-aged guests if we keep our interpretation at a level they can understand. As far back as 1957, Freeman Tilden, in his book “Interpreting Our Heritage” noted that:

“Interpretation addressed to children (say up to age 12) should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should follow a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a completely separate program.”

In most cases we cannot manage that at public events, unless it is a school day or some similar special audience event, but we need to keep that in mind when looking at and interacting with our audience.

The elementary school-age guests aside, today’s living history interpreters are older and find themselves in a generational disconnect from teens and young adults. Our generation tends to think differently in some ways than the teens and young adults. We are mostly Baby Boomers and Gen X (or occasionally Millennials) while most of the teens and young adults that we would like to bring into the hobby are Gen Z (those born in the late 1990s and after). This creates the problem that we have a target market for our living history who generally don’t want to learn something unless they know why they need to know it.

There are some things we can do to help us to connect to this demographic.

  • Ask guests about their personal “why” history might be important. We need to be careful not to turn this into us telling them why, but rather to “facilitate” them thinking about their own personal “why.”

  • Discuss the “instructional” why. Ask guests why it might be important to know about whatever we are talking about. For instance, if we are talking about black sailors in the early US Navy, we might try to tie this to current Civil Rights struggles.

  • Keep it moving. Remember, with these guests when they get bored, they go to their phones. We must keep them active and involved. We need to supply key facts, dates, and main ideas, but then ask them questions to get them categorizing, inferring, comparing, debating, writing, and sharing.

  • Prioritize. We have all seen interpreters who, once they get going, stop paying attention to “engagement clues” from the guests and instead try to do a “knowledge transplant” and expose the guests to everything about the subject at hand. We need to get in front of that “urge” and choose a small part that we want to emphasize. If the guests want to know more, they will ask questions. When responding, we need to again be selective in what we relate and allow the guests to ask more questions if they want more information from us. We need to try to keep our interactions a “conversation” rather than a lesson or lecture.

There are many more things to consider when creating interpretative programs, some of which we may discuss in future posts, but these are the most basic things that will help us to improve the planning of our interpretative presentations.

Thank you for joining us for today’s post in our occasional series on the practice of Living History. Today’s post was Part 1 of two posts exploring the techniques for engaging the public and how to design our presentations to involve the public more effectively in them. Hopefully, this article has begun to give you some things to consider around this subject. Please join us again in two weeks for Part 2 when we will look at using “hooks” to feel out the interests of the guests and modify our interpretation to appeal to those interests.

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 our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects - military, political, 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.


Fort Ticonderoga. (2012, July 27). What Connects Us to History? Retrieved from Fort Ticonderoga:

Fort Ticonderoga. (2016, April 25). My Clothes are Hand Stitched, But No One Will Talk to Me. Retrieved from Fort Ticonderoga:

Fort Ticonderoga. (2017, August 4). 3 Tips for Better Conversations with Visitors. Retrieved from Fort Ticonderoga:

Roth, S. F. (1998). Past into Present: Effective Techniques for First Person Historical Interpretation. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

Scudder, J. (2018, August 22). Making History Relevant for the Social Media Generation. Retrieved from Education Week:

Tilden, F. (1957). Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press

Underhill, R. (2000). Khrushchev's Shoe and Other Ways to Captivate Audiences from One to One Thousand. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.


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