The Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums   

"An Organization of People who bring History to Life."  

Revisiting Living History: A Business, An Art, A Pleasure, An Education

Kathryn Boardman
The Farmers' Museum, Inc. and New York State Historical Association

Editor's Note: The following summarizes a panel session first presented at the annual conference of the National Council on Public History in Albany, New York, on May 3, 1997. Panelists included David Vanderstel, Debra Reid, and Katie Boardman. (The presentation by Debra Reid appears elsewhere in this Proceedings.) The panel shared some insights, updates, questions, and challenges related to the interpretive technique known as "living history." Their expertise derived from years working with living history research, program development, and administration; involvement with museum and public history service organizations as staff, board members, and officers; and experience as adjunct faculty in museum studies and public history training programs at universities and colleges in three regions of the U.S. Some definitions of "living history" and their evolution provide context for the discussion.

Living history is described as a movement, a technique, a philosophy and an educational tool. It got it's start almost a hundred years ago in Europe as historians and antiquarians looked for ways to bring the past to life. Its more recent incarnation grew out of efforts by a generation of visionaries like Henry Ford who promoted hands- on learning, and the founders of the 1933 Witter Agricultural Museum at the New York State Fair who set weavers and spinners to work demonstrating historic processes in a gallery museum. Animation and an experience of history using the five senses as well as intellect and emotions defined the interpretive technique from the beginning. Today living history runs the gamut from individuals wearing thoroughly researched reproductions of period clothing, speaking as a specific or composite character from the past with the proper accent, and appearing in a carefully reconstructed or restored and furnished period structure. Landscapes provide settings and generally include antique plants and animals. The living history practitioners eat historic foods. Living history also serves as a marketing tool, meant to lure visitors to museums which focus on vibrant methods and engaging presentations instead of exhibiting dusty, dry, static old "stuff". "Time traveling" and "an attempt by people to simulate life in another time" are definitive phrases used by living history chroniclers such as Jay Anderson in his A Living History Reader, Vol I (Nashville, Tenn.: AASLH, 1991).

Anderson's analysis of early "living" historians focused on individuals and their collections, observing that archeologists, folklorists and open-air museum entrepreneurs began experimenting with the techniques after World War II in the United States and Europe. Their motivations for such endeavors included more effective interpretation of material culture, testing of an archaeological thesis or gathering of data, and the enjoyment of a recreational activity which also provided a learning experience. The folk parks of Northern Europe provided the model for many new "open-air" museums in the United States including Colonial Williamsburg and The Farmers' Museum. The preservation of buildings, objects, processes and the stuff and activities of everyday life - especially in rural settings constituted important components of these early developments. During the 1960s the conversation and experimentation broadened with proponents such as Marion Clawson proposing a system of regional living history farms throughout the United States. His vision and the discussions of the possibilities led to the formation of ALHFAM in 1970 at Old Sturbridge Village after a brainstorming meeting the previous year at The Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown. ALHFAM provided a mechanism for museum people to communicate with farmers, historians, folklorists, archaeologists, educators and others to explore the possibilities and further the cause of living history. It thrives today as "The organization of people who work to bring history to life" and includes living history farms, agricultural museums, small historic house museums, historic mills and factories, military sites, maritime museums, reenactors, and craftspeople who create careful reproductions of material objects and processes.

As the idea of living history spread and audiences found entertainment as well as meaning and enlightenment at the sites who embraced the living history idea, more sites sought to join the movement with varying degrees of commitment, historical research and funding. The April 1997 issue of Highways Magazine, the official publication of the Good Sam Club, showcased living history museums for members, traveling in campers and looking for places to visit. "Living history museums bring us closer to the human side of our collective history" reads the article. "By interacting with real people, we gain a better understanding of the lives led by our ancestors." They provide a "window to the past" and "it's a relaxing way to learn about times past." The list of reviewed sites included Conner Prairie, Old Sturbridge Village, Greenfield Village, Museum of Appalachia, Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Mystic Seaport, Baltimore City Life Museums, and Pioneer Arizona. The listing included a range of experiences and levels of sophistication in presentation and accuracy. ALHFAM members recognized the need for professional standards and accreditation of living history museums from the beginning and the Committee on Organizational Partnerships continues as a liaison between ALHFAMers and the American Association of Museums. Regardless of the type of museum, activity and participation serve as hallmarks of living history. The activity, ambiance, and "relaxed way to learn about times past" encouraged visitation to history centers during the 1970s, the decade of the U.S. Bicentennial. And even as the field struggles with lower attendance figures now, "hands-on" and "interactive" hum as buzz words of museum education and interpretation for traditional "living history" sites as well as historic houses and gallery museums. Systematic research by education specialists indicate that people have different modalities and learning styles which they use in making sense of the world around them and in learning new information or tasks. The techniques employed by living history museums provide a rich soil for these modes and styles to flourish, and it's fun. "Edutainment" seems to be another buzz word of the 1990s -- and living history provides that, too, just as the Highways article pointed out. Efforts and experiments in living history gained both praise and criticism throughout the years. Some individuals and sites do the job better than others. What is right for one site or audience may not be right for another. Authenticity, truth, and philosophy remain in question as staff in traditional museum continue to question the worthiness of "edutainment".

Accuracy of research and information presented through living history remains important to the educational and historical efficacy of the presentations. But incomplete research poses challenges, and non-sophisticated living history builds on historic stereotypes, entertaining visitors rather than educating them. The relatively recent approach of social history offers opportunities for provocative research. Social historians explore previously unstudied aspects of the past, seeking points of view and controversies deemed unworthy by traditional historians. Many gaps in narratives of the past remain hidden or undisclosed. Living history provides a medium for presenting just this kind of information, but the presenter must be well trained and well versed in the research. A knowledge of material culture and the methods for its study also constitute an important part of the research, knowledge, presentation/provocation triangle of living history. Many interpreters and living history presenters are teachers and public educators. They must have good training in historical content as well as education and presentation techniques to make the triangle work. Training interpreters to do research and providing them with the time and incentives to undertake it, offers multiple opportunities but challenges supervisors and administrators to budget supervisory time, money and staff/volunteer hours to accomplish the mission.

Collaborations with local colleges and universities sometimes help fill the research gap which impede the progress of many sites and programs. Students involved in work-study programs, internships, and class projects can provide usable research for public presentation. Staff must work closely with the researcher to define the kind of information needed and the format for its presentation so it best serves the needs of interpreters and other staff and volunteers. The Professional Interest Groups (PIGs) of ALHFAM can assist with research questions as can collaborations with other professional and scholarly organizations. Be creative and open minded in finding the resources and invite others to join the living history process.

Some of the disadvantages of living history include:

Some of the advantages of living history include:

Taking into account both the advantages and disadvantages, living history remains a viable mode of presenting and provoking thought about the past. It is an approach thirsty for continual research and training. Like the study of history itself, it is a humbling activity when done in earnest. Researchers and presenters continually discover new aspects and understandings of the past. This makes the exploration in living history an exhilarating, joyous, and satisfying experience for visitor and interpreter alike.

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