Thursday, June 7, 2012

Living History Thoughts

The recreated Fort St. Jean Baptiste 
A few weeks back I made a trip to Natchitoches, Louisiana to see the sites. This particular trip I visited Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site, a recreated 18th century fort complete with costumed rangers. Costumed rangers! That means one thing! Living history!

If you know me, you know my personal feelings about living history creates a whirlwind of a storm within me. I see both positive and negative aspects of costumed interpretation. And since costumed interpretation happens at many historic sites, I imagine I will write about it again. So I will use this time to cover my very basic feelings about living history.

The interpreter talked to us about...
1) It can serve as way to help visitors envision the past.
Visitors "experiencing" the past may grasp concepts of history better. A friend of mine made the point that visuals are important- what would Yosemite be to most visitors without that vision of Half Dome towering over the valley? History, unlike nature, does not always have visuals readily available to assist people in grasping "what life was like."

And yes. Wearing wool in 95 degree heat is hot, no matter how you spin it. I used to get asked this a lot when working at the battlefield.

The ranger showed us how to
use flint to start a fire. 

2) It can provoke thought (interpretation!)
Some learners need tangibles or "hand-on" experiences to grasp concepts. Unfortunately, some historic sites don't have the original places (hence recreations). And most don't have the historic figures present to tell their story. If a historic site uses people or activities to tell their stories, that is their right. When done well, "recreations"can provoke thought.

3) It can be perceived as "hokey."
"Look, Ma! Look at that man in that funny outfit!" When not done well, this form of interpretation can easily be perceived as goofy and demean the historical value in visitors' eyes. One way to avoid this is to allow for third-person interpretation (when the interpreter talks about the character from the 21st Century perspective rather than pretends to be the character).

A visitor talks to the
costumed ranger
4) It can become its own barrier.  
My experience at living history "camps" has shown me that visitors tend to be tepid in their approach. Should they walk up to the guys girded in wool? Should they watch? How do they talk to these characters. I was fortunate when I worked at the battlefield that our volunteers tried to engage audiences, but visitors still emitted levels of feeling awkward around camps. We tried to ensure a uniformed park ranger was present to serve as a purveyor to the camp (for people felt more comfortable talking to those dressed in funny green and grey rather than those dressed funny in blue or grey), but that wasn't always possible.

5) It can take away meaning. 
Many times, people come for the "boom!" They want to see guns shoot. This is another "experience." But what do visitors walk away remembering? That cannons are loud. Not that fire power like that can prove devastating, killing dozens of men with each shot. Not that these weapons were designed to effectively kill as many people as possible. Not that the men fighting on that battlefield were fighting for a myriad of reasons. How can muskets-firing or basket-weaving tell a more meaningful story? Note that I say it "can" take away meaning; possibilities still exist for the interpreter to create meaning.

I know this list seems to contradict itself. Didn't I say a whirlwind of a storm occurs inside of me when I think of living history? But living history is so ingrained in how Americans visit historic sites that I don't imagine it will disappear entirely. The question now is how do we amplify the positives and counter some of the negatives? It seems to me that this would be addressed on a site-by-site basis.

Overall, I had a quality visit. I enjoyed talking to the rangers and seeing the recreations, regardless of heat. I guess I can add "provides reasons to be thankful for air conditioning" to the list, too.

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