American Alliance of Museums, authenticity, Brigade of the American Revolution, British Brigade, Continental Line, living history, Museums, Public Trust, Reenacting, Research, The Public
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.
Nancy N said:
A very interesting and beautifully written explanation–thanks! Much needed for those of us who might view historical re-enactment events as just RenFests with muskets. And I hope a fair definition of why you don’t expect the Marble County Revolutionary War Museum to stage exhibits you’d encounter at the Met.
Beth HC said:
Wonderful premise – something our club has struggled with, how authentic is authentic? How much keeps people from re-enacting? Especially families. Yet the trust from the public is there and should not be squandered. Thanks for adding more grist to the mill.
That’s the tricky, almost existential question: how authentic is authentic?
The place I believe we all need to start is with thinking about it– thanks for being part of the conversation/think-along!
I have such a hard time evaluating my own feelings on clothing authenticity – balancing between “I’m overreacting because this is My Area” and “it’s wrong to not care about such a visual aspect of your presentation”. But this is a really good look at the issue.
Hmm, I was told today that I am “literal but/and precise,” so I think I feel your pain. We do need to care, and I think we should all try to do the best we can individually. But do we document to extreme precision (“I must find this form in this color in this colony within there three years”) or is “this is an 18th C regional style in a known fabric and color” enough? I think that is where a tiered model comes into play, and that’s when I thought of AAM. So, more thinking and reading to come.
Beth HC said:
Tiers sounds like a good discussion start. Because, while people had fewer choices in textiles, colors, fashions, there were always folks who for a variety of reasons did not fit the “usual” mode. I suggest that if one has a good story to explain why something is not exact – I ran out of cloth and had to make due, this was my sister’s garment and re-purposed, the boat just came in with this new fashion! That may help with interpretation of a place/time in a different way.
The power of individual choice: very strong. Yes, there is so much variation. But I think of this as being like art. You learn the “rules,” and then you can break them. For example, one learns period and regional typical styles, fabrics and colors. But within that palette, you can achieve individual expression based on who you are, and what’s available to you. I think that can help achieve a deeper, more personal, and more authentic nterpretation. And be a lot of fun! This is, after all, a hobby.
This is an outstanding post. Even those of us who really strive to be as authentic as possible sometimes feel like we’ve gone off the deep end when we document a particular style of whatever. Not to mention the polite head nods and smiles when we try to explain to others the lengths we go to and why.
I think the end goal is to really be us only the 18th century version of us. I don’t want to be a specific runaway most of the time and I don’t think that authenticity necessarily demands that we do. And it would look ridiculous if we were all running around as highly documentable carbon copies of each other. I want to be me, only I want to be the me I would have been during the War with the same personality. But like Kittycalash said, you learn the rules and then apply them to you and your own aesthetic. And if you choose to break rules then you break them within the same confines that you would have had back then.
Pingback: An Unusual Coat | Kitty Calash
Pingback: Massacres and Mondays | Kitty Calash