Living History Museums, Part 3: Living History and Archaeology

I once heard an anecdote by an archaeologist at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Massachusetts, that archaeologists had uncovered these football shaped depressions around excavated 17th century homes in New England.  They had no idea what type of feature these depressions could be!  But then, someone saw this shape and style of depression outside one of the recreated homes at Plimoth Plantation.  It turns out that chickens create that shape while roosting.  There are many more examples just like this, where a living history museum can provide answers to all kinds of questions.  Incorporating experimental archaeology can make a living history museum more like a laboratory, where archaeologists can gain a better understanding of how various artifacts were created and used.  Interpreters at these museums can use the reconstructed artifacts, clothing, and homes to present daily life at the site; various archaeologists have lived or studied at living history museums to truly connect with what they are researching.

For archaeologists and historians, living history museums offer a space for innovative research though re-creation. For example, Roger Welsch was able to serve as a food consultant in the area of traditional brewing at Plimoth in an effort to further his research and reconstruct 17th century life (1974:357).  He and Jay Anderson moved into the Brewster House at the Pilgrim Village and dressed in period costumes for a full immersive experience.  According to Welsch, “ . . . physically and intellectually neither of us was capable of sustaining seventeenth century life for very long—a stern lesson in itself” (1974:357).  Through total immersion in both daily life and research, these historians made great strides in understanding their own investigations, but also in understanding the livelihood of the original settlers. Of course there are limitations to how informative this type of research can be, but it does allow a setting to suggest what life was like.

References

Roger L. Welsch, “Very Didactic Simulation: Workshops in the Plains Pioneer Experience at the Stuhr Museum,” The History Teacher 7 (May 1974), 365-364 (p. 357).

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