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?
August is hot. Can we riot in September? No!
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.
The right place for immersive string activities.
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.