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).

Living History Museums, Part 2: A Brief History

Historians can trace the living-history movement as far back as 1881 to the European open-air museums and farms. Trying to highlight the past in the United States can be seen after the Civil War (Anderson 1982). This effort was rooted in the need to preserve what civic leaders and middle-class professionals considered to be traditional American beliefs and cultural values, especially with the influx of European immigrants.  Those within groups like Sons of the American Revolution tried to find ways to best display examples of their ancestral and national values.  Hoping to create a sort of shrine to the past, these places (mostly historic houses and landmarks) made history a place to visit.   A few traditional historic houses and farms later evolved into living history museums, but for many years these sites espoused and aimed to glorify the cultural values of the Founding Fathers through costumed interpreters and activities.

The most influential living history museum is Colonial Williamsburg.  In 1926, John D. Rockefeller was convinced to fund a project that would restore the entire Williamsburg community to the time of the American Revolution, since it was considered the birthplace of American liberty (Leon and Piatt:66).  Once completed, Colonial Williamsburg gained a reputation for authenticity, with restored houses and recreated activities. As early as the 1930s, costumed interpreters guided visitors throughout the museum.  Everything was neat and orderly (i.e. no representation of slavery or other grittier aspects of history), representing a bygone time lost to the urban post-industrial world.  Spurred by the national fervor created by Williamsburg, many more outdoor living history museums were created during the 1950s.  Again, a nostalgic era was portrayed with costumed hosts and craftspeople demonstrating life as it supposedly once was.

A more realistic interpretation of the past was born out of the cultural uproar of the 1960s and 1970s that spurred the deconstruction of outdated historical theory and the rise of ‘new social history.’  Long neglected subjects would become the new focus of this theoretical revolution: women, African Americans, working classes and confining political and cultural strictures.   The past was being explored in a variety of novel methods, from experimental archaeology to revolutionizing how the past would be presented.

Emphasis on the elite figures of the past (i.e. Founding Fathers) shifted to the common and ordinary.  As for living history museums, interpretive presentation shifted from simple craft demonstration to the social, economic, religious and political standing of various figures within the community.  The concept of first and third person interpretation was taken to a higher level: many living history sites strived to move from simply having guides give a passive interpretation of history to a more authentic experience by having history literally come alive.  There is still the trend at many historic houses and museums to keep an idyllic and comfortable sense of history, forgetting that the past had weeds and filth littering the roads, and that the people themselves carried a fine layer of dirt.  Interpretative programs continue to evolve and positive change has been seen at museums like Colonial Williamsburg by bringing the more uncomfortable aspects of history to life.

[Keep an eye out for Part 3: Criticism of Living History]

References:

Anderson, Jay. “Living History: Simulating Everyday Life in Living History Museums,”       American Quarterly 34 (1982), 290-306.

Leon, Warren and Margaret Piatt, Chapter 3: “Living-History Museums,” in Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig. History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Magelssen, Scott. Living History Museums: Undoing History through Performance. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2007.

Marshall, Howard Wight. “Folklife and the Rise of American Folk Museums,” The Journal of American Folklore 90 (Oct-Dec 1977), 391-413.

Rosenzweig, Roy and David Thelen. The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Tivers, Jacqueline Tivers. “Performing Heritage: the use of live ‘actors’ in heritage presentations,” Leisure Studies 21 (2002), 187-200.

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’]

Public Archaeology Education/Outreach

public-archaeology_not-explicit

Throughout graduate school, my committee chair would constantly ask me, ‘so what? why does this matter?’ about my thesis, which can be pretty overwhelming when you just want to finish your masters. But I can see what he was trying to do. What’s the point of doing tons of research and writing about some archaeological topic if it has absolutely no greater relevance beyond the fact you felt like writing about, oh say, microwear analysis of scrapers. It’s easier to explain the importance of some random topic in archaeology to other archaeologists–we’re a rather nerdy group afterall–but, so what? What relevance does archaeology have outside of our profession? Why should anyone care? That’s where public archaeology education comes in, which tries to provide an answer to the question of archaeology’s relevance in today’s society.

The world is filled with fascinating archaeological sites and past cultures. There is archaeology everywhere! If there were people, then there’s likely some trace left of their existence. A lot of people don’t realize how much history surrounds them and that is why public outreach and education is so important. Looting and vandalism of an archaeological or historic site includes both intentional and inadvertent damage, such as writing over rock art, collecting artifacts, walking on pueblo walls, and pot hunting. Unfortunately, not everyone has the opportunity to visit archaeological sites in person, making it difficult to relate the vulnerability of the ancient and historic structures and artifacts. Furthermore, TV shows and movies, from Ancient Aliens to Indiana Jones, are good indicators that people are interested in the past, which is great, but those types of shows and movies are a bit misleading. Aliens didn’t build the pyramids and Indiana Jones is hardly the epitome of a good archaeologist. But at least they provide a place to start.

The National Historic Preservation Act, one of the major cultural resource management laws in archaeology,   states in Section 1(b)(2), “the historical and cultural foundations of the Nation should be preserved as a living part of our community life and development in order to give a sense of orientation to the American people” (United States Congress 1966:1). It continues with “the preservation of this irreplaceable heritage is in the public interest so that its vital legacy will be maintained and enriched for future generations of Americans.” It is in the interest of everyone, not just historians or archaeologists to preserve the past.

By sharing information about the unique prehistory and/or history of a place, people may gain a better appreciation for what we archaeologists do and why it’s so important to record, preserve and protect traces of the past. It’s not only the job of educators but of all archaeologists to provide insight into our profession and into the subjects we study. We have a responsibility to share our experience and passion about the past to anyone and everyone who is willing to listen. And we can do that through different kinds of public archaeology education outreach. Public archaeology education and outreach can take many forms. Something so simple as volunteering at an Archaeology Day program or going into a classroom to teach kids can have a huge impact. Then there are online resources, teaching materials, podcasts, and blogs galore. There are also numerous organizations, private, non-profit, state-run, federal, and so on that provide unique opportunities for adults and kids, from site steward programs to summer camps.

Examples of Public Education at Work

  • The Society of American Archaeology and the Archaeological Institute of America works with museums, educators, archaeologists to create resources and programs.
  • The Public Education Committee for the Society for American Archaeology created the Network of State and Provincial Archaeology Education Coordinators, to ensure every state has someone who can provide answers to any inquiry about archaeology.
  • Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, CO: provides field schools and day programs for kids and adults.
  • The Florida Public Archaeology Network: promote and facilitate the conservation, study and public understanding of Florida’s archaeological heritage.
  • Living History Museums like Colonial Williamsburg, Plimoth Plantation, Jamestowne, and St. Mary’s City that bring the past to life through reconstructions of buildings and activities based on the archaeological record .
  • The National Park Service provides interpert rangers that educate the public at interpretive sites, like Mesa Verde and Pecos National Historic Park.
  • There are programs run by government agencies, like the Forest Service Passport in Time program. This program educates volunteers on the practice of archaeology and then sets the volunteers to work on recording archaeological sites, stabilizing ruins, and sorting information on historic properties.

There are many wonderful programs endeavoring to teach the public the importance of learning, preserving, and protecting the past, but there’s always more that can be done. I think it is every individual archaeologist’s duty to do some kind of outreach.

Check out the ARCH365 Podcast episode I made on this subject:

Arch365 2017