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Dare I say progressing?

servant mannequin in 18th century room

That’s no ghost, that’s my kid

In the past decade, museums, particularly historic house museums, have been challenged to refresh and reinvent their interpretations and presentations. The most notable challenge has come from the Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums (AGHHM), and the Historic House Trust of New York’s executive director, Franklin Vagnone.

I re-read a number of Vagnone and Deborah Ryan’s papers recently (including this one), thinking not just about What Cheer Day in a historic house, but about reenacting, living history, and costumed interpretation.

To make a historic house museum (HHM) seem more inhabited and real takes a lot of stuff: clothes, dishes, shoes, stockings, toys— all the stuff that surrounds us now, but correct for the time of the HHM, and arranged in a plausible manner, not like a sitcom set, where chairs before a fireplace face the visitor and not the hearth.

Man with cards, glasses and pipe in 18th century room

Stuff makes a house

To a degree, this is set-dressing, but set-dressing for a still-life, or real life, if the habitation will be by costumed interpreters. It has to be accurate to be authentic, whether it’s a HHM or a living history event that is striving to create a moment, or series of moments, in time– immersive moments.

We cannot step into the past unless we believe the representation we’re seeing, and that’s true no matter where we are: that’s why fabric matters, sewing techniques matter, tent pins and kettles and canteens matter. The world is made up of tiny details that we do actually notice without even knowing it: we see more than we realize, faster than we think. We’ll trip on the different, and stop.

A variety of coats can tell a variety of stories

A variety of coats can tell a variety of stories

But what we want to do, as interpreters, is to have the visitor catch the right difference: not the one about which canteen and why, but the larger interpretive point. In one hypothetical example, wooden canteens are a way to talk about defense contracting and supplying the American army, just as over-dyed captured coats are a way to talk about the American Revolution as an international, and not just a civil, war.

An encampment is, in a way, a neighborhood of HHMs turned inside out, with each regiment a separate family within the larger neighborhood. Each regiment tells a story about itself and its history, and is a lens through which visitors see the larger story.


That’s why accuracy matters: you don’t want to debunk Ye Olde Colonial craft in camp, or cotton-poly polonaises (poly-naises?) worn by purported women on the ration: you want to focus on the larger interpretive point. When not everyone plays by the same rules, it is better to focus on your own accuracy and authenticity and to ignore Ye Olde Annoyances.

Tell the larger story, the story of your own regiment’s people: that’s your interpretive goal.