Excerpts From Living History:

Excerpt from the Foreword, Living History, Drawing on the Past

Living History. Arguably the most interesting and potentially useful phenomenon to touch the field of museumology since the museum concept itself. By its very nature, living history provides a physical one-on-one reality; the incomparable immediacy of human contact to an increasingly mobile, but electronically centered generation. Thus, it demonstrates not merely what people did in "the old days," but how.


Tools, materials, production techniques, the step-by-step progress of actually making something: unedited, un-gussied up, without commercials. All this and more: Proper period clothing (as distinct from "costume"), a sometimes wondrous inventory of impedimenta ranging from curious personal items, specialized tools and instruments, bits of iron, brass, wood, stone, glass, paper, oils and paints. Food, and the means of preparing and eating it, chests, boxes, barrels and sacks to hold it all. Tables and chairs, stools, perhaps a boat, wagon or cart. And often, some form of shelter/workshop. All, if truth be the goal, require uncompromising (and sometimes uncomfortable) adherence to the lessons--and limitations--imposed by thorough historical research.

Happily, a growing number of dedicated practitioners of living history themes may be found in--and beyond--historic sites. Where once a friendly attendant might offer a brief "talk," the casual visitor may now converse freely with any of a variety of paid or volunteer persons skilled in the occasionally arcane details of a given trade or profession. Moreover, such men and women, while working, frequently possess the ability to discourse upon their efforts in a pleasing, non-pedantic manner.

- George C. Woodbridge, illustrator of The Collector's Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Revolution


Excerpt from Living History; Drawing on the Past

There is a subtle but discernable difference in the approach of an academic historian and a living historian. The academic hopes to make intellectual sense of the past, for him- or herself and for others--usually in print, sometimes in documentary film. The living historian literally tries to bring the past to life, to breathe the breath of humanity into dry facts by dress, speech and action. It's a kind of performance history, an on-the-spot reenactment of a time from our past. It is also addictive; the more you know, the more you want to know. The more you discover, the more you can share with others--and the more you may learn from them in return. To expedite research as well as the sharing, teaching, and learning process, many living historians find it helpful to develop a persona. This is a specific personality they may assume, a character that has a set of attributes unique to that persona while still relating to the rest of humanity.

Having a persona in mind helps direct your research in concrete ways. It prevents a great deal of spinning of wheels or duplication of effort. It is having a focus--on a specific person, time, and place. It's much easier to identify with a specific person--either a historic person you've chosen to emulate or a composite character you've created in your mind--than to understand history on the basis of generalities. There is no generic human; never has been. You can discover what might have been appropriate for your chosen persona's location, gender, economic status, ethnic background, and occupation, creating a three-dimensional human being rather than going for a vague overview. This entails finding what may have been appropriate in terms of clothing, accoutrements, job skills, religious affiliation, even attitudes and speech patterns. The more you know about this persona (real or otherwise) the better your interpretation of the past will be.

This kind of exploration into character can also keep you from making obvious mistakes, such as using an article of clothing from a much later period or mixing western with eastern goods in your camp when that would not have been appropriate. Whether you plan a first or third-person approach (or a combination, which is admittedly tricky and can be confusing), researching in this way not only provides a focus, but it makes the whole enterprise more fun.

Do remember, of course, that we must try not project our 20th-century expectations, opinions or politics on the past. We know how things turned out; our ancestors didn't. The past is an endless source of speculation, a treasure trove--a learning tool. We in living history attempt the impossible, bringing that past to life.




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