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’]