In my last post, I brought up the term “living history” and sought to explore the dual meaning behind “living history” and living “history”. I discussed my personal experiences in reenacting, as in living “history”. In this post, I will be exploring what “living history” is and analyze its importance in terms of historic interpretation.
To find a concrete definition of living history would be hard. Like the term reenactment, the term “living history” possesses many connotations and surely denotations as well. Some equate living history with reenactments while others align living history to historically preserved sites. And to some, living history might simply mean museums. Given that I live in southeastern Wisconsin, I’m most familiar with such institutions in Wisconsin such as the Milwaukee Public Museum, Old World Wisconsin, the Old Wade House, the Trimborn Farm as part of the Milwaukee County Historical Society, and other local parks and museums. But it would not be difficult to translate my experiences in Wisconsin to a more national scale in terms of living history.
From viewing blog posts to engaging in conversations with fellow reenactors, it is interesting to learn the differences between “good” and “bad” reenacting. I’ve encountered some people who very much delve into their personas through countless hours of research, attempting to piece together first-person snippets of the past to create the most believable stories. But then, without a generalization of reenactors as a whole, we see some others who clearly only desire to be a reenactor simply to wear the clothes and act like someone from the past just because of the “coolness” factor.
Indeed, some consider Renaissance fairs as one of the lowest forms of historical reenacting. As an instance of “living history”, it would be easy to condemn Renaissance fairs as a true testament of “accurate” history. I mean, one did not see fairies fluttering around amidst verdant trees or dragons sending searing flames against a knight’s shield emblazoned with a golden lion, now did we? Conversely, however, most Renaissance fairs seek to celebrate the emotions, atmosphere, and nostalgia the term Renaissance invokes rather than actual historical accuracy. Furthermore, it seems most Renaissance fairs seek to make a profit; no reenactment event I’ve ever been to ever charged an admission fee to the public though people can still browse shops.
Genuinely good historical reenacting to historic interpretation has a large amount of significance. Most people are exposed to history in their high school history which often forces students to memorize dates and people rather than focusing on the larger picture, the proverbial looking at the trees rather than the whole forest. Also, some teachers fail to incorporate critical thinking into history classes even though history as a liberal arts discipline requires and stimulates higher-end thinking.
In any case, reenactments help expose the public to living historical instances. This allows them to experience history in a vibrant, engaging atmosphere, often with hands-on activities. Places like Old World Wisconsin gain prominence because they allow constant interaction with artifacts, people, stories, and first-hand experiences to reinforce the exciting aspects of history. And in my short reign of terror as a reenactor, I’ve learned to appreciate and aspire to be one of those “good” reenactors. In this way can I enhance my skills as a historian as well as prepare myself for what I should do and not do should I enter the museum field.
I shall end this here before I begin to discuss the limitations and issues of historic interpreters and institutions. That could encompass another entire post, but I’d rather keep my readers than bore them to death with politics behind non-profit organizations. Quite possibly another time!
In conclusion, reenacting is much more than just “dressing up in fancy clothes and camping”. Authentic reenactors bring history to life in a way that history classes and textbooks cannot. As a history student with a fair amount of experience in the museum field, I’ve learned to appreciate the importance of historic interpretation. By allowing myself to enter the field of “living history” (as defined by reenacting), I’m both able to live “history” and indulge my inherent geekiness as well as be able to educate others as to why history matters and still lives on and should not be shelved away into the dusty annals of time. I fervently that what little I can expose people to might just change their views on history, and I know for a fact that that is a goal that many reenactors also share.