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’]

Paphos UNESCO World Heritage Centre

Ten years ago I participated in the Athienou Archaeological Project in Cyprus as my introduction to archaeological fieldwork, particularly excavation.  Part of the field school was traveling throughout Cyprus to gain a better understanding of the prehistory and history of the island.  On one of the field visits, we explored Paphos, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.  Kato Pafos, or Paphos, is a beautiful archaeological park that includes beautiful mosaic floors from four different Roman villas.    There are a number of monuments in the archaeological park (a whole other blog post to be), such as a huge necropolis.  But back to the mosaics.  The mosaics are the following: The House of Dionysus, Theseus, Aion, Orpheus, and Four Seasons.  They date between the second century AD and fourth century AD.

The necropolis at Kato Paphos is a fantastic combination of completely creepy tombs and unique history.  The use of the tombs has varied, from a necropolis to a home for squatters.  The Tomb of the Kings (Tafoi ton Vasileon)—named for it’s impressive structure although there isn’t any evidence of a king being buried there—was built during the Hellenistic period, sometime during the 3rd century BC.  It was used as a burial area through the Roman era until the Medieval period, when the necropolis was used as a quarry and home for squatters.  All that is left are the niches and rooms for human remains.

For more information:

Women in Archaeology Podcast: Zooarchaeology with Alex Fitzpatrick

You can listen to the episode, here, on the Archaeology Podcast Network or download the episode from iTunes.


Do they have squirrels in Scotland? Maybe you enjoy in depth discussions about ancient ceramics. In today’s episode we discuss one of the myriad of sub-fields within archaeology, with zooarchaeologist Alex Fitzpatrick. We cover what is zooarchaeology (in short animal bones), how it has been used to learn about humans and the world in the the past, and some of the projects she works on. We also discuss some of Alex’s work on various science communication projects.

Check out the WIA Blog!

A Small Window into the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969

Leading Up to the Policy

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) has a similar history to its cultural resource legislation cousins, such as the National Historic Preservation Act, in that it was implemented in reaction to destructive processes.  According to King (2013:23), “the publication and widespread popularity of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the need for federal government action to protect the environment came to be widely recognized.”  If you are not familiar with Carson’s work, it highlighted how indiscriminate use of pesticides, like DDT, was damaging the health of the environment, wildlife, and people.  There also was the constant development of highways, cities, and so on.  Areas of environmental importance were being negatively impacted by unchecked development.  Something was necessary to slow down the process and force people to consider all of the potential impacts that could harm the ‘quality of the human environment.’  And, that’s where NEPA comes in.

NEPA was passed by Congress in 1969 and signed into law by President Nixon on January 1, 1970.  This created a national policy of providing a detailed statement of environmental impacts, “subsequently referred to as an environmental impact statement (EIS), for every recommendation or report on proposals for legislation and other major federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment” (Luther 2005:1).

 Goals of NEPA

  • The Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ): provide advice to the president on environmental issues, monitor the overall state of the environment, and require the president to submits an annual report on the environment to Congress.
  • Provide guidance to help agencies plan and manage all federal actions.
  • Require agencies to consider adverse environmental effects (direct and indirect impacts), create alternatives to these actions, etc.
  • Provide the public a means and opportunity to be involved in federal agency planning efforts (i.e. a new trail being constructed on National Park Service Lands).

NEPA and Cultural Resources

There is wording in NEPA referring to historic and cultural resources present on public lands. For example, the policy states that Federal programs must “preserve important historic, cultural, and natural aspects of our national heritage, and maintain, wherever possible, an environment which supports diversity, and variety of individual choice” (1970:2).   Consequently, negative impacts to archaeological resources must be considered during any federal action, just like the Section 106 process outlined in the NHPA.  Since performing the Section 106 process is necessary for federal archaeologists, much of what is needed for NEPA compliance can be achieved through Section 106 (i.e. copy and paste the work into the NEPA document).  Both NEPA and Section 106 are crucial in protecting and preserving the past.


King, Thomas

2013 Cultural Resource Laws and Practice. Fourth Edition. AltaMira Press, New York.

Luther, Linda

2005 The National Environmental Policy Act: Background and Implementation. CRS Report for Congress. Congressional Research Service.

United States Congress

1970  National Environmental Policy Act: 42 USC 4371, March 5, 1970. Washington, D.C. U.S. Government Printing Office.



Textbook Review of ‘The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome’ by Chris Scarre


If you need the entire history of the Roman Empire reduced into a nutshell, with fantastic maps and photographs of archaeological ruins and busts, then this is the book for you!  The history of Roman civilization is a huge topic to tackle, especially in the span of a semester.  As a Classics minor, I had a difficult time remembering the major dates, people, and places figuring from 800 BC to 540 AD, from the origins in Rome, to fall of the Western Empire.  The Atlas provides a visual depiction of the rise and fall of Rome.  I personally like being able to see a broad depiction in order to better understand the major themes of a civilization.  Scarre provides detailed maps of important places of expansion, as well as information on trade, literacy, and cultural life in different periods.  The timelines are excellent; the timeline is broken down into The Roman State, Building and Construction, Literature and Philosophy, and Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean.  This book, however, cannot stand alone since it is a broad overview.  It is a great companion to classical texts and textbooks on the Roman Empire.  It is also perfect for a quick overview before an exam.  For those simply interested the rise and fall of Rome, the Atlas provides a great overview with fantastic images.