accuracy, authenticity, history event, history events, interpretation, living history, museum practice, rant, Reenacting
We were doing some preliminary planning for an event this fall, and we were considering recreating the 1803 funeral of Important White Guy. Our event is in October; the funeral was in September. Somebody asked me, “What does it matter when we do it?” and I didn’t respond nearly as gracefully or eloquently as I could have.
Why does it matter? Does it matter to anyone but me and my cohort?
It does, and here’s one reason why: When interpreting the funeral in late October, perhaps a member of the public will ask, “When did he die?” Can an interpreter really say “September 20” and not expect a slew of questions about how long the body was kept and why the funeral was delayed and wasn’t that a health hazard? Can the event orientation start out with “We’re doing it in October because that’s when we want to do it,” without fundamentally changing the event?
Moving the recreation of a specific event by more than it takes to get to a weekend* seems dishonest to me: do you really want to celebrate your birthday 5 weeks after the actual date for someone else’s convenience? July 4th: Gosh, it’s not working for me this year. Let’s do that in August.
For a historical organization to suspend caring about accuracy for living history events but not for published articles, catalog records, or finding aids just contributes to the greater problem in and of living history.
When asked about the goal of a living history event, I have been told, “Well, we want families, right? So we should have some hands-on activities, you know, immersive, like candle dipping.”+
It took a bit, but at last I grasped the core of the angry-making: Kids like living history, therefore it is less sophisticated than other forms of history.
Living history is not as sophisticated, nor need it be as accurate, as traditional (written, orated, curated) historical presentations: I think that is the background assumption a lot of people make, both in the adminstration of traditional historical organizations and in the presentation on the field. It is a complete fallacy.
Living history done well and done right is as well-researched as a paper, exhibition, or article. It draws from primary sources both written and visual, it requires the absorption of countless secondary sources to help analyze the primary sources. It is as collaborative and negotiated a process as any museum exhibition, and like exhibitions, it uses material culture interpretation to deliver its messages, i.e. meet its educational and interpretive goals.
A good living history event is beautiful, but like a ballet, that beauty does not come easily. There are no shortcuts, and beauty does not equal superficial or stupid. It indicates sophistication. Part of that appeal is accuracy: the better, the more accurate and immersive the historical setting and action you create, the more visitors can learn without asking.
When I organize an event in our house at work (or even on a guided tour) one of my interpretive points is always “people saw the world differently– literally– and this event/house tour helps you see the world of 1800 the way people living then saw it.” Aesthetics were different, and were underpinned by ideas and opinions. But understanding those aesthetics and the opinions people held about race, gender, beauty, work and class takes actual research and analysis. It’s not all putting on a pretty dress and cavorting on the lawn. Facts matter. Accuracy matters.
Museums are some of the most trusted organizations. If we started juicing facts like every History channel show, we’d lose that trust, and rightly so. Our trustworthiness is grounded in our honesty and integrity.
Living history events are mobile museums, and every reenactor curates his or her own impression. To retain the trust and interest of the public, we have to be accurate.
*Events are moved to weekends because that’s when interpreters and audiences can come.
+This at a house that not only lacks a working kitchen earlier than 1960 in the staff area and was owned by a partner in a candle factory. I’m thinking “bought ’em in bulk,” here, not dipping.
Not as sophisticated, hey? Maybe that misapprehension arises because, when it’s well done, it’s so sophisticated that the complexities and subtleties to which you allude are going right over the heads of those folks.
When I try to describe the activity of first person role playing to other people, I tend to describe it as being like a combination of all the challenges of a graduate history seminar debate coupled with all the challenges of improv acting. Except that in my mind that description covers maybe half of what’s going on in the moment, if that much.
The Italians have a word for it. “Sprezzatura”, making the extremely difficult look entirely effortless.
Yes, maybe. I think we’ve discussed the sprezzatura aspect before. I hope we can make it look that easy…for as hard as it is to do!
I agree with Sharon, to a certain extent . . . I think that it can be helpful to the audience to have an “interpreter” on hand to assist the visitors in processing what they’re seeing . . . a go-between staff member. First person interpretation often makes people uneasy, since most of them don’t feel like they know the period or the context sufficiently to fully understand what they’re seeing or even to ask “good” questions, and then they don’t feel connected or engaged, no matter how immersive the experience. They just feel uncomfortable.
Excellent points, though. I’m a firm believer that the quality of any first-person depiction . . . or any type of historical re-enactment, for that matter . . . needs to be done very well or not at all. Rows of troops shooting at each other with few people appearing to be wounded or killed is just as bad as running shoes under a petticoat.
I’m not a fan or proponent of the badly done battle by any means. Anything worth doing is worth doing well: first person, third person, civilian or military.
For first person, we find that a staff member providing an orientation helps immensely. We also have a staff person on each floor of the house, so that the 21st century person can provide 21st century answers. I went to Plimoth again recently and was freaked out by walking in on people in their homes– I’ll never be a burglar– and thought hard about what would have made that experience better for me. Native guides, in the form of docents or staff remaining in this present moment help a lot. “Yes, that’s a real fire. No, they didn’t sleep here. Now, they are working on new clothes for the winter season– you can ask the tailor what he’s brought in, and what new goods have arrived.”
It’s a process, all of this, and I hope to keep getting better, even if it means scary change and admitting what I have done or do badly.
Thanks for reading and commenting!
Once when making strawberry jam in a museum kitchen I was told by my boss that it was fine to use modern jars. I told her I would not do it because it would be lying to our visitors. I went out and procured my own accurate jars instead, on my meager salary, but then my family got to eat the jam.
That’s about as close to having your history and eating it, too, as you can get.
I don’t understand the disconnect, and I’m not sure of its origin, other than expediency. (Just get it done!) But I’m pretty certain it doesn’t make for the best history we can achieve.
Pingback: Good Grief | Kitty Calash