Living History Museums, Part 1: An Introduction

My brother and I were exposed to history, museums, and living history museums early on in our childhood; it shouldn’t be any kind of surprise that I ended up as an archaeologist, and he, a Medieval history scholar.  I loved reading about the past and viewing artifacts of daily life.  My family often visited the Ohio Village, which is a reconstructed town presenting daily life during the Civil War.  As soon as I turned thirteen years old, I was old enough to volunteer at the Ohio Village alone—and I jumped at that opportunity.  I had a wonderful period costume, hoop skirt and bonnet included, and I would demonstrate different activities in a third-person interpretation, as well as provide information about all kinds of facts about the Civil War and how people lived through it.  When I got a little bit older, I was the school teacher, the village feminist, a pharmacist’s daughter, a German barrel maker’s grand-daughter, presenting in both the first and third person.  I loved it!  This love of educating the public about the past continued into college, where I studied the background research, interpretation type, archaeology, and historiography of three early American living history museums: Jamestown Settlement, St. Mary’s City, and Plimoth Plantation.  So, why living history museums?  What makes this museum format special?

Historical facts need a certain level of interpretation to be comprehensible in a modern context.  Outside of the archivist, archaeologist, and historian, there are few who venture into the archives or archaeological sites.  To reach a wider audience, these facts can be weaved into popular historical fiction novels or epic films.  There are historical documentaries about popular periods of history such as the Civil War or World War II.  Modern society receives much of its information via visual media, from the news to the History Channel.  Therefore, it makes sense that if historians and museum curators wanted to draw in the public they would try to present historical information that is accessible and participatory.  Unlike docudramas and documentaries, as well as history exhibits, visitors to living history museums must become part of the presentation of the past.  One cannot simply watch: there are various smells, demonstrations, with history talking back at the visitor at museums like Plimoth Plantation and Colonial Williamsburg.  The visitor is experiencing heritage!

There is space at this type of museum for both the public and scholars to engage in the past.  For scholars, it can be a space for experimental archaeology and public outreach.  For the public, which is used to visual stimulation (i.e. television), a three-dimensional reconstruction of an archaeological site allows for greater interaction, and, consequently, a better understanding of the past; visitors tend to remember what they see and touch, rather than what they read.  Not only are living history museums interactive and informative, the public can also relate the present to the portrayed past.  Women today can note how women in Plimoth Plantation fit into the social hierarchy, realizing how far society has progressed and where there is still room for improvement.   So, what does every living history museum need to do get started? First, there must be a commitment to the Truth (yes, with a capital ‘T’) and a commitment to presenting that truth to the public.  There must also be a large reserve of resources, especially scholarly resources and well-trained interpreters, to re-create the environment of the settlement.  And, most of all, the museum must make sure that a compelling narrative is being told.

[Keep an eye out for ‘Living Museums, Part 2: A Brief History’]

Women in Archaeology Podcast: Sexual Harassment Follow Up


CLICK HERE to listen to the episode on the Archaeology Podcast Network website!  You can also download the episode from iTunes.

Summary: On this episode of the Women in Archaeology Podcast we will be revisiting the topic of sexual harassment. We will discuss new developments in the past year, the SAA panel from the last meeting, and resources for survivors.

Check out the Women in Archaeology website:

What is archaeology? The Elevator Scenario

In what seemed a cruel exercise in futility at the time, at the beginning of my first semester of graduate school my professor gave all of the students the following scenario: imagine you’re in an elevator with a lawyer who has no clue what an archaeologist does and they don’t really care either; in 150 words, describe ‘what is’ archaeology without using any jargon. My professor called it a ‘thought experiment;’ I called it torture. No jargon? We couldn’t use words like ‘artifact’ or ‘culture.’ Since I couldn’t just write ‘we study dead people’s stuff,’ it took a couple of tries.

Here’s what I came up with (ugh, reading anything from graduate school makes me shudder):

“Archaeologists explore the past through artifacts, which include the art, buildings, and any other items made and left behind by humans. As a processual-plus archaeologist, I study past societies though various artifacts, like Egyptian mummies, and ask scientific questions to understand a society. Popular archaeological areas, such as Mesa Verde or Angkor Wat, offer a spectacular window into the lives of people from thousands of years ago. A physical reminder of the past allows the public to engage history and archaeology firsthand, sometimes without even realizing. Opportunities then rise for archaeologists to draw on already popular archaeological and recreational areas and further connect the public with the past. Educational programs created and implemented by archaeologists aid the public in understanding why preserving history matters. Allowing the public, particularly children, to look at and touch artifacts through educational programs, enable people to fully engage archaeology.”

Hardly a masterpiece. My professor absolutely hated it and I had to re-write the darn thing several times. But I now better understand what my professor was trying to do. He was trying to get each of us out of our own little box in order to relate archaeology to more than just other archaeologists. It’s easy to say, ‘I recently recorded a polychrome sherd and projectile point dating to the Pueblo III period.’ It’s far harder to break that down into laymen’s terms without inadvertently dumbing down the information. Beyond explaining what sherds and projectile points are, you’ll need to get into why you were recording those artifacts (what’s an artifact?!) in the first place, leading into a discussion of cultural resource management, law, and the necessity of protecting and preserving the past. Phew.

Discussing archaeology with a larger audience is difficult but absolutely necessary. The public isn’t going to learn about archaeology through osmosis. It takes practice. I know we’re busy. There are always courses to teach, places to survey, sites to dig, and reports to write, but we also have an obligation to educate the public in some way. Going into classrooms to give presentations, blogging, videos, lectures—there are many ways to engage the public. I love teaching kids using sandboxes full of artifacts and giving presentations to the public. My elevator scenario has changed over the years, but I hope it’s improved.

Women in Archaeology Podcast: BACK TO GRAD SCHOOL – EPISODE 11 (October 16, 2016)

(Click here for link)


I think we did a great job going into the pros and cons of potentially going back to school.  Give it a listen!

Episode Summary: Today the panel discusses getting back into the grove of grad-school, especially after taking a break. They discuss reasons to delay going into grad-school, how to pay for it when you do go back, how to survive school/life balance, and what to do with your degree once you get out.

Women in Archaeology Podcast: SEXUAL HARASSMENT IN ARCHAEOLOGY – EPISODE 10 (September 18, 2016)

(Click Here)


In a nutshell, sexual harassment is surprisingly pervasive throughout archaeology.  It can be found in academia to fieldwork.  It is being committed by supervisors to entry level field techs–and it needs to stop.  I am very proud to have been part of this discussion.

Episode summary: Today the Panel discuses the formation of the SAA’s recent statement on sexual harassment and look at a few notable cases that have made the news.