Once upon a time, I called reenactors and costumed interpreters History Clowns. The pilgrims at Plimoth Plantation 25 years ago scared me, and I did not like to visit living history museums.
Now, I’m one those costumed clowns.
What changed? For one thing, I did. But more importantly, living history and reenacting changed. It got better. It became more accurate, more inclusive, more specific. (Even Plimoth admitted at a Dublin Seminar that their costuming had evolved.)
When I see the fights that erupt online (there was a skirmish on Facebook last night—Peale’s march will not die), I think about the History Clowns. I think about the evolution that has taken place, and I think about the skirmishes I get into in trying to plan living history events at my own institution.
Most of these fights are not about accuracy—that FB fracas wasn’t—but do we know what they are about? We try to push back with our insistence that accuracy matters, but that’s not the argument our opponents are trying to have with us. They don’t give two rats about the cut of your breeches or the cord on your canteen or what you think of their rubber-soled shoes.
They want to be recognized. They want to be appreciated. They want to matter.
It reminds me a lot of when I first came to the place I work; I was one of three new, younger people hired within a short span of time to work on exhibits and an expansion project that never happened. As we looked at the organization, we saw things that didn’t seem right to us. But often, we met a lot of resistance to new ideas: “We’ve done that already.” “We tried that and it didn’t work.” “This is fine the way it is.” “We’ve always done it that way.”
I think those translate thusly: If you do it, you might make my attempt look bad.
If you succeed where I failed, I will look bad.
I don’t want to change.
I’m afraid to try something new.
What about my efforts? Won’t they be rewarded anymore?
I think that’s what people are saying to us sometimes, even when the words they say are, “These haversacks are fine, they’re really durable. It doesn’t matter if the fabric isn’t really right,” or “Market wallets? No, that was just a Henry Cooke fad.”*
The fight is probably not as much about accuracy and authenticity as it is about feelings. That said, I think it behooves people on both sides of this line (and it is often generational) to be equally mindful of each other’s feelings. While we can respect the work that people before us have done, they should respect the work we are doing now, as new resources come to light, and new thinking is applied to history and interpretation.
Just as we cannot live in the past of historic house museums, we cannot live in the past in reenacting/living history. And while I respect the tenure of some unchanging regiments and the work they’ve done before, it comes down to this:
Accuracy matters. Adapt or die.
*I think my eyeballs fell out when I heard that one, from a guy who prides himself on his extremely accurate topographic battlefield models.