30 August 2013

Thoughts on Living History

Katrin Kania recently wrote an interesting blog post about The Rules of Experimental Archaeology. I thought I might write something similar about Living History, though they are not rules per se ... more like advice with a dose of opinion. ;)

Of course, perhaps I should first explain what living history is... Wiki gives a fairly good explanation
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 museumshistoric sitesheritage interpreters, schools and historical reenactment groups to educate the public 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.
Another way to put it is: living history is an obsessive, time-consuming hobby that quickly turns into a way of life. Symptoms include always having a small sewing project in your purse and being able to spot a 100% wool melton at 50 paces...

#1: Be professional
Yes, reenacting and living history is a hobby. And, yes, you and/or your group might well be attending the event unpaid. And, yes, that weekend could well be your holiday, too. However, none of those things preclude the fact that you are at an event which people are likely to have paid to attend and, from their perspective, you are working. No matter how much fun you are having, or how much money, time and effort you have put into attending and creating your set up, from the public's perspective you are the attraction. 
    So, be polite and be professional. Do not swear or use vulgar, crude or sexual language, particularly when in ear-shot of the public, even moreso when in ear-shot of children. Put on a professional front: e.g. don't argue with or tell off other reenactors in sight or ear-shot of the public. Also, be mindful that your standards of propriety and culturally acceptable behaviour are not always held by other people, particularly of other cultures. A good example is that an employer recently asked our group to ensure that none of our male members strip off their shirts during show hours as it is not deemed culturally acceptable by some members of the highly multicultural city population who were visiting and was impairing our ability to interact with them.

#2: Smile! (and acknowledge the public, and start a conversation!)
There is nothing worse than a sullen reenactor (ok ... maybe there are a few things... but still, that's pretty high on the list!). Often the public are unfamiliar with the concept of living history (particularly visitors who are from non-Western cultures). Other times visitors are shy (often adults moreso than the children). Living history works primarily via constant, spontaneous conversation, illustrated with "props". However, it usually requires you to initiate the conversation. I find a smile and something like "Have you got any questions or would you like to look at anything more closely?" works very well. It's always very sad to see members of public drifting along about a metre from the camp whilst a cluster of reenactors sit by the camp fire chatting among themselves, completely oblivious to or, worse, actively ignoring the public. 

#3: Learn to say "I don't know"
The only thing worse than a sullen reenactor is one who lies. Yes, it can be tempting to occasionally make things up. However, you should always remember that you are supposed to be educating as well as entertaining the public - not only does lying actively circumvent this aim, but it also discredits you, your group and your employer when (not if!) someone goes home, does some personal reading and finds you out. Living history should encourage enthusiasm and personal interest in history and nothing will kill this quicker than a lie, particularly when the member of public is a child. 
Some useful phrases I use all the time are: 
    "I don't know, but so-and-so over there knows lots more about that topic than me. Let's see if they can answer your question..."
    "I don't know, but if I was in that situation, I'd probably do this..."
    "I don't know, what do you think / what does your friend think?"

#4: Learn to say "Well, actually, that's not quite right..."
corollary to #3. Very often, members of public have some quite awfully bad ideas about what medieval life (or knights, or battles, or castles, or just about anything) was really like. Unfortunately, medieval history is not usually covered very well in schools (at least in the UK) and most of what the person on the street knows about medieval history is gleaned from TV, films and maybe the occasional documentary. It can feel really awkward to correct someone, particularly when you don't know them and you have to remain polite and professional. However, sometimes correcting mis-information is even more important than providing novel information. Some useful phrases I use are:
    "Well, actually, that's almost right, but actually things were a bit more like this..."
    "Yes, historians thought that for a long time, but this new bit of evidence shows that that theory is wrong and this is probably how it was..." (this is a really good one as it makes people feel good for knowing something, and feels like an update to their knowledge rather than "you're wrong!")

#5: Think carefully about 1st person vs 3rd person living history
For those that don't know, first person living history is when you take on a persona and act "in character" all the time, whilst in third person living history you usually wear the clothing and do the activities of a medieval person but if spoken to by the public you answer as your (modern) self. Both can work very well, but I personally think first person has several limitations. Firstly, it can imply that the entire set up presented to the public is completely authentic, when it often isn't (e.g. the endless "military camps" at medieval fairs, which have rather too many women and shiny-shiny knights and rather too few lower class supporting roles, young boys, dogs, horses, etc.). Secondly, unless there is a guide or interpreter who is permitted to speak about modern things, and explain things, the conversations can often become stilted and sacrifice learning and education for an "immersive experience". When I'm a member of public, I personally find first person living history very limiting and frustrating. 

#6: Take something to do
This is partly for your benefit and partly for the public. Firstly, a reenactment show can get very boring very quickly if you just sit about camp for two or three days straight doing nothing. Once the novelty of going reenacting wears off (and your wallet is crying for mercy - please don't go back to the traders!), you can find yourself just twiddling your thumbs. If nothing else, you'll probably get handed all the group chores because you're floating about looking idle. ;)
    However, a project is also good for interaction, too. It gives the public an easy starting point for initiating a conversation and asking questions. It gives you a 'topic' that you know most questions will fall within, so you are less likely to get stumped. Also, props and practical demonstration are one of the best ways to explain things, and to get across that sense of wonder and enthusiasm. The public will probably forget nearly every word you say, but they'll might just remember the fact that they actually got to see how thread was spun or horseshoes were forged.

#7: Always have good clothes.
First and foremost, this is a comfort issue. If you are spending all day standing, talking, doing practical tasks, walking around, etc. you want clothes that are not just a costume, but that really work. Good, well-made, well-fitting, well-chosen clothes will keep you warm and dry when you need it, and cool (or at least not unbearably hot) when you need that. They'll also not chafe, rub, or bind.
    The other reason for good clothes is because living history is educational (or "edutainment" at the least). Every member of public who even glimpses you, never mind comes close enough to interact with you, will see your clothes and make an impression. If you are wearing clothes that are a mis-mash of eras and social classes, or that have a hefty dose of fantasy, or that are ill-fitting, unclean, poorly made or poorly maintained, then people looking at you will not think "oh, they are demonstrating blacksmithing (or whatever) so their clothes don't matter". They will think "oh, that must be how people looked in the medieval era". In effect, you are lying about history and perpetuating stereotypes and misinformation - the exact opposite of what living history is about.

What do you think? Do you have any "rules" that you think all people in living history should consider? Or do you disagree with my suggestions?


  1. I've always done third person, I think third is a bit too hard for most people to engage with - I don't even stick entirely to first when I work with ks2 in schools, cos if you do you can't answer questions properly (ok, sometimes I answer questions in first when they're being annoying, but that's just to wind them up, cos theres only so many time you can say the ancient greek didn't have telly). personally I find first person a bit pretentious.

    I dont thik it really classes as living history unless you're doing something though. there's nothing duller than wandering round a so-called living history camp where no-one is demonstrating a craft or cooking, and teres just a few folks sat round chatting

    1. I think it's really hard to make first person work. You can't answer the questions properly. There's also the problem that you can need quite a lot of knowledge to pull it off. Oh, and also that it requires you to be somewhat able to act, which most people who seem to do it CAN'T.

      There certainly are some pretentious first person reenactors...

  2. Great thoughts! I agree on all of them.
    About the 1st vs 3rd person reenacting, we've been thinking on trying to submerge those two in my reenactmentgroup (Fraternis Militia Carnis). Like, the high knight don't sit with the kitchen maid by the fire, and the fancy people gets served first and stuff like that - but we interact with the public as our selves. It works well sometimes, others not.

    Nice blog by the way. I just found it. :)

    1. Hello, Andrea. Thanks for the comment!
      I've heard about your group (there are several members taking part in the Manuscript Challenge). I like the idea of adding that bit of 1st person-ish re-enacting by creating a subtle hierarchy. Not sure that I could get our group to do it, but it's a nice idea. ^_^

      Thanks for the compliments. *goes off to check out your blog*