The prompt for day 4 (clearly I’m a bit behind) was “Past Presented.” This got me thinking about all the terrible “ancient aliens” type of television shows that are really doing a disservice not only to the audience but to the ancient people who should be given credit for the amazing things they accomplished (i.e. not aliens). However, these types of shows are increasingly popular, which further demonstrates how much archaeologists are needed to find new and interesting ways to combat this misinformation! Ribbon dancing?
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]
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.
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’]