The more I think about issues of authenticity in re-enacting, the more I think about museums. Reenactments can be seen, as scholars have suggested, as “mobile monuments,” part of a culture of memorialization and commemoration of the past. “Recreated” battles, or battles staged on historic sites are not just the tactical weapons demonstrations they’re billed as, but rather ritual performances that commemorate notable events and connect practitioners with the past. They’re almost priests of the past, those men in uniform: they wear special robes, carry special equipment, and engage in practices arcane and exclusive–and denied to most women. (Indeed, the practice of women fielding reminds me of the history of women as deacons and eventually priests and bishops in the Episcopal church, but more about women in this hobby another time.)
That’s just the battles, though they are also museum theatre, vivid, smoky demonstrations of the ways of the past: what about the rest of the event?
Reenactments, with their ranks of tents, kitchens, and varied participants, are in many ways mobile museums that set up at sites and provide “this weekend only!” semi-immersive experiences for visitors. There’s often a gift shop: the sutlers are there, and the site itself may have a shop, and push re-enactment themed items.
Each vignette or camp is like a gallery or object within a museum. Not all appeal to every visitor, some like Rangers, some like Redcoats, some like Rebels.
But in a world where museums and libraries are among the most trusted sources of information (online and otherwise), there are repercussions for the “mobile museums” of reenactments. If we accept a museum-like role, and see ourselves as custodians and practitioners of the past, we will need to also accept high(er) standards for material culture and presentation. That does not mean first-person interpretation by everyone at all events and it does not mean carrying actual 18th century goods into the field. That’s not good cultural stewardship.
It does mean doing the same hard work that museums do, researching and presenting oneself and one’s chattel with as much thought and care as possible. Who are you? Why do you have what you have? Where did you get it? Why does it look like that?
It means making one’s clothes and kit and accouterments as near to original as possible. The things we carry into the field, onto the stage of the mobile museum, should not look old. They should look used, but they will lack the patina of 235-year-old objects. They’ll represent the prelapsarian past of the objects, a time before they were painted with latex paint.
Can we, all of us, reach the highest levels of presentation? No. There are as many kinds of reenacting units as there are museums. Some are the Met, and have their owned branded truck. Some are your local historic site. Resources vary.
But just as most museums look to national accrediting organizations like the American Alliance of Museums for information on ethics, standards, and professional development, so too can the reenacting groups look to the umbrella organizations like the Brigade of the American Revolution, the British Brigade, and the Continental Line (the Big Three of 18th century reenacting). The BAR has an inspector, and unit inspection and re-inspection has a function similar to AAM accreditation.
It’s not easy to become an accredited museum, but each museum that goes through the process learns, improves, and becomes stronger for having gone through the process of self-examination and, often, improvement. They meet standards. And like AAM, umbrella organizations can and do have standards, and the individual units have standards. Those are often online, and as individuals and other units strive to improve their impressions, following others’ well-researched and documented standards helps improve the entire field.
Peer-to-peer learning, public distribution of information, detailed and published standards of appearance, presentation and behavior: these exist, but not systematically, in the reenacting community. The more the Big Three can do to function the way the AAM does, the more I suspect we will see authenticity increase in the field.
Because it does matter: if museums and reenactors are trusted sources of information, we owe it to the public and our pride to create the best representation of the past that we can.