Living History Resources

Living History:

  • A simulation of life in another time – Jay Anderson
  • For research, interpretation, and play – Jay Anderson
  • A history that does work in the world and influences the course of history – Carl Becker
  • A form of theater in which participants use performance to create a world, tell a story, entertain, and teach lessons – Scott Magelssen
  • A living museum that… depicts folklife through its living characteristics – Arthur Hazelius
  • Living history interpreters. . . must be historians, anthropologists and effective teachers – Stacy F. Roth

"So What Is Living History?

Living history in a museum setting began with the formation of open air museums, an approach to collecting, exhibiting and interpreting that dates back to at least 1891 when Skansen opened in Stockholm, Sweden. The museum founder, Arthur Hazelius, collected the material culture including the buildings and practices of a pre-industrial era -- a folk culture in a rapidly industrializing world. Similar goals guided industrialists such as Henry Ford who privately funded the development of Greenfield Village in Michigan and John D. Rockefeller who funded Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia during 1929. The practice of living history gained credence during the new social history movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and bicentennial fervor helped make costumed interpreters synonymous with vibrant programming at museums such as Plimoth Plantation, Old Sturbridge Village and Colonial Williamsburg.

Living history means different things to different people. Jay Anderson identified three major groups of living historians in his seminal Time Machines: The World of Living History: those who interpret how people lived, those who use living history as a research tool to test theories and explore material culture, and those labeled “history buffs” who create personas for themselves based on a past person or blend of persons.

There are many criticisms and debates surrounding living history because of its multiple dimensions. Not everyone looks favorably on living history as a teaching technique. Critics argue that living history is antiquarian, idyllic, or downright misleading. ALHFAM responds to critics by distinguishing between a past that cannot change and the interpretation of the past which is always changing. ALHFAM affirms Scott Magelseen’s argument that living history museums produce history just as teachers do in classrooms, authors do in monographs, and directors do in film.Not all living history farms and open air museums operate at the same level of authenticity. Yet, a site that incorporates historic objects, accurate environments and appropriate recreations can make the stories about the people who used those objects more multi-dimensional and effective. In the effort to "contextualize" their history, some sites try to recreate a particular time and place in the past, ignoring the intrusions of the present. The missions of various living history sites may make it difficult to be so exacting, but the effort to bring history to life is evident perhaps in living animals and plants, in staff performing historic work or trades, and in the effort made to provide an environment rich in artifacts that focus attention on life in past times.

ALHFAM welcomes anyone interested in and seeking more information about historic reenacting, heritage breeds, seed cultivation, traditional foodways and other folk practices. ALHFAM also serves living history interpreters, who are paid and unpaid staff who wear period clothing and engage in tasks appropriate to a specific time in an authentic place. ALHFAM exists to help living historians develop the best history possible and to be effective stewards of living history, farm, and agricultural museums. ALHFAM provides resources to help living historians increase their understanding of the past and translate their understanding into effective museum interpretation. Living historians use many different pieces of historic evidence including the written word, material evidence (tangible things such as buildings, landscapes, objects and plants) and folk culture (intangible heritage that can include recipes, rituals, stories and ways of doing things). Furthermore, living historians in museum settings must be conscious of best practices in museum management & ethics, collections stewardship, and museum education, interpretation and public programming.

Bibliographies, Glossaries & Indices

The Living History Anthology: Perspectives from ALHFAM, 1st Edition.

International Bibliographic Database of Living History: Covering Historic Interpretation, Museum Theater, Story Telling, Experimental Archaeology and more.

A Glossary for "Living History," focusing on first-person interpretation techniques, from Stacy Roth, Past Into Present: Trends & Techniques in First-Person Interpretation, Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.

ALHFAM Bulletin Index - sortable & searchable index to articles that have appeared in the ALHFAM Bulletin from 1992-2001 (earlrier and more recent years to be added soon)

ALHFAM Proceedings Index - sortable & searchable index to paper that have been published in the ALHFAM Proceedings from 1974-2009 (updated annually)


Internet Resources for Living History

  • Reach Advisors, an audience research firm, conducted a national survey during 2007 of 5,500 families that visited museums. Their findings appear at:  For an example of their findings see Susie Wilkening, "Family Visitation at Museums: Historic Sites and History Museums," History News Dispatch (January 2008): 2, 4.


Safety & Emergency Planning & Response

Emergencies create overwhelming challenges. Good preparation can make the emergency response more systematic. When disaster strikes, first steps always involve saving people first and objects later, but added pressure can exist at living history farms, historic sites and open air museums when living collections (fauna and flora alike) must also be saved. Museum staff can respond in a timely and logical manner when guided by a response plan.  ALHFAM encourages proactive preparation for emergencies and purposeful response to them. To that end, ALHFAM provides the following resources:

General Compiled Resources Lists

The Savannah Heritage Emergency Response Team has compiles this list of disaster planning and response resources from across the web in one place: The resources are broken down by category.

The Connecting to Collections Online Community just hosted a 90-minute webinar, called Exercising Your Disaster Response Plan, on disaster planning. The recording of this webinar and related resources are available here:


Agents of Deterioration

The Canadian Conservation Institute itemizes ten agents of deterioration and steps essential to mitigate them. See:

The Heritage Health Index indicates that much destruction within museum storage and exhibition areas. Research on the state of historic artifacts can be sobering but can also provide incentive for better storage and handling policies and procedures.


Effective planning can help institutions anticipate and ideally therefore prevent disasters from occurring. If an emergency occurs, a plan can reduce the impact on the institution because the staff will be prepared to respond quickly and effectively to minimize damage and will recover more completely.

dPlan: The Online Disaster-Planning Tool for Cultural and Civil Institutions:
The Northeast Document Conservation Center and the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners prepared the template available for free on this website. The Institute of Museum and Library Services and the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training funded its development.

Additional resources to aid in planning appear at:

California Preservation Program:

Northeast Document Conservation Center:

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Library (web-based resources):

Living Collections

The needs of animals and plants must be taken into consideration when planning for and responding to emergencies. Consult the following for information on animal health and welfare that can inform emergency planning and response:

American Veterinary Medicine Association, “Disaster Preparedness for Veterinarians”:

National Agriculture Library, “Disaster Planning for Animal Facilities”:

Disaster Recovery

American Institute for Conservation of HIstoric and Artistic Works (AIC), Disaster Recovery:

Conservation OnLine:  a project of the Preservation Department of Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources

Resources for Protecting and Saving Family Treasures and Historic Properties:

Northeast Document Conservation Center Preservation Leaflets:


Funding Recovery

Grants exist, available through U.S. government appropriations to U.S. not-for-profit institutions, to fund disaster response and recovery. This can include debris clean-up, repair and collections stabilization and care, including animal recovery and replacement.

Guide to Navigating Federal Emergency Management Agency and Small Business Administration Disaster Aid for Cultural Institutions


ALHFAM Response

ALHFAM encourages use of ALHFAM-L; Facebook and other social media to spread the word about emergencies, organized clean-up efforts, announce special needs for supplies or expertise, and otherwise communicate information about situations. ALHFAM members can respond with labor or material or other moral support as they see fit.

ALHFAM Emergency Response Network

The network consists of ALHFAM members with expertise in disaster planning, response and recovery. They can provide encouragement via phone calls or site visits as the situation warrants. Sites needing assistance should contact the ALHFAM Vice-President or Secretary-Treasurer to be put in touch with ALHFAM members who can help.

ALHFAM Publications

Links to selected articles and case studies published in the Bulletin and conference Proceedings.

  • Dawn Bondhus,  Smoke, Fire and Water, 2008 ALHFAM Conference, Ottawa, Canada. (Download)
  • Erik Holland, Responding to Disaster. In the Wake of the Storm: Cultural Institution Assessment after Katrina in Mississippi, 2006 ALHFAM Conference, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Download)
  • Mick Woodcock, “Emergency Planning 101: Protecting Collections from Water,” 2008 ALHFAM Conference, Ottawa, Canada. (Download)

ALHFAM Emergency Relief Fund
This fund supports ALHFAM institutional members needing financial support in times of emergency. As much as $500 can be used to purchase supplies or help offset expenses for assistance or triage work. Sites needing assistance should contact the ALHFAM Vice-President.


ALHFAMP.O. Box 16, Rochdale, MA 01542 -

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