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Living history is an activity that incorporates historical tools, activities and dress into an interactive presentation that seeks to give observers and participants a sense of stepping back in time. Although it does not necessarily seek to reenact a specific event in history, living history is similar to, and sometimes incorporates, historical reenactment. Living history is an educational medium used by living history museums, historic sites, heritage interpreters, schools and historical reenactment groups to educate the public or their own members in particular areas of history, such as clothing styles, pastimes and handicrafts, or to simply convey a sense of the everyday life of a certain period in history.
Activities may be confined to wearing period dress and perhaps explaining relevant historical information, either in role (also called first-person interpretation) or out of character (also called third-person interpretation). While many museums allow their staff to move in and out of character to better answer visitor questions, some encourage their staff to stay in role at all times.
Living history portrayal often involves demonstrating everyday activities such as cooking, cleaning, medical care, or particular skills and handicrafts. Depending on the historical period portrayed, these might include spinning, sewing, loom weaving, tablet weaving, inkle weaving or tapestry weaving, cloth dyeing, basket weaving, rope making, leather-working, shoemaking, metalworking, glassblowing, woodworking or other crafts. Considerable research is often applied to identifying authentic techniques and often recreating replica tools and equipment.
Historical reenactment groups often attempt to organize such displays in an encampment or display area at an event, and have a separate area for combat reenactment activities. While some such exhibits may be conducted in character as a representation of typical everyday life, others are specifically organized to inform the public and so might include an emphasis on handicrafts or other day-to-day activities, which are convenient to stage and interesting to watch, and may be explained out of character. During the 1990s, reenactment groups, primarily American Civil War groups, began to show interest in this style of interpretation and began using it at their reenactments.
As David Thelen has written, many Americans use the past in their daily lives, while simultaneously viewing the place where they often encounter history – the school – with varying levels of distrust and disconnectedness. Living history can be a tool used to bridge the gap between school and daily life to educate people on historical topics. Living history is not solely an objective retelling of historical facts. Its importance lies more in presenting visitors with a sense of a way of life, than in recreating exact events, accurate in every detail.
Many factors contribute to creating a setting in which visitors to living history sites can become active participants in their historical education. Two of the most important are the material culture and the interpreters. Material culture both grounds the audience in the time and place being portrayed, and provides a jumping-off point for conversation. “Interpreters” are the individuals who embody historical figures at living history sites. It is their responsibility to take the historical research that has been done on the sites and decide what meaning it has. These meanings are often a melding of fact and folklore.
Folklore is an important aspect of living histories because it provides stories which visitors relate to. Whether it is an interpreter embodying a past individual’s personal story or discussing a superstition of the time, these accounts allow the audience to see these past figures not as names on a page, but as actual people. However, folklore is also more than stories. Objects, such as dolls or handmade clothing, among others, are considered “folk artifacts,” which are grouped under the heading of “material culture.”
Individuals can participate in living histories as a type of experiential learning in which they make discoveries firsthand, rather than reading about the experience of others. Living history can also be used to supplement and extend formal education. Collaborations between professional historians who work at living history sites and teachers can lead to greater enthusiasm about studying history at all grade levels. Many living history sites profess a dedication to education within their mission statements. For instance, the motto of Colonial Williamsburg, “That the Future May Learn from the Past,” proclaims the site’s commitment to public edification, as does the portion of the website created for the sole purpose of aiding teachers in instruction on the village.
Certain educators, such as James Percoco in his Springfield, Virginia high school class, have chosen to integrate public history into their curricula. Since 1991, Percoco has led a class entitled “Applied History,” in which his students have contributed over 20,000 hours of service to various institutions of public history. Formal education can help visitors interpret what they see at living history sites. By providing a structured way of looking at living histories, as well as questions to think about during visits, formal education can enrich the experience, just as living histories can enrich learning in the classroom.
- Historical reenactment
- List of historical reenactment events
- List of historical reenactment groups
- List of open air and living history museums in the United States
- List of tourist attractions providing reenactment
- Open air museum
- The 1900 House
- The 1920s Berlin Project
- Thelen, David. "Learning from the Past: Individual Experience and Re-Enactment." Indiana Magazine of History, Jun 2003, Vol. 99 Issue 2, p. 155
- Peers, Laura. Playing Ourselves; Interpreting Native Histories at Historic Reconstructions. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2007. p. 91
- Peers, Laura. Playing Ourselves; Interpreting Native Histories at Historic Reconstructions. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2007. p. xiv
- Folklore, "Artifacts"
- Experiential learning, "About"
- Vanderstel, David G. ""And I Thought Historians Only Taught": Doing History Beyond the Classroom." OAH Magazine of History; Jan2002, Vol. 16 Issue 2, p.7.
- Colonial Williamsburg. "Our Mission." http://www.history.org/foundation/mission.cfm. Retrieved 2010-10-18.
- Vanderstel, David G. ""And I Thought Historians Only Taught": Doing History Beyond the Classroom." OAH Magazine of History; Jan2002, Vol. 16 Issue 2, p. 7.
- James Percoco. "Biography." http://www.jamespercoco.com/bio.htm. Retrieved 2010-10-18.
- Hadden, Robert Lee. "Reliving the Civil War: A reenactor's handbook". Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1999.
- Living history at DMOZ
- Skirmish Living History Magazine
- Living History Worldwide
- The Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums
- Ancient Greek living history
- Living History Reenactments (videos)