In my tagline, I use the two terms that are sometimes seen as synonyms and just as often as antonyms by the Living History community: Re-enactor and Interpreter. So, are you a re-enactor, an interpreter, or a living historian? Are you part of the exhibit, the staff, a visitor, or something else altogether? These are topics that vex most of us as know people who are happily one of these categories and others who are clearly trying to bridge many roles in their portrayals. I started out as a line re-enactor with the 43rd Regiment of Foot, clearly part of the exhibit, and am slowly transitioning my 18th Century Living History across many roles. I strive to be a re-enactor, a living historian researching bygone skills, and an interpreter helping others along this journey. To me, these categories are clear but all this sounds like doubletalk to you, let me clarify.
Re-enactors focus their portrayal on recreating past events. We focus on demonstrating various aspects of the past from military to trades to the celebration of famous people and our aim is to animate the historic events for visitors, and often ourselves. We take bare museum spaces and battlefields and bring them to life so that others can take a step back in history. When we interact with the public, it is often in the fashion of a teacher, demonstrating a skill, showing a recreated artifact, or telling the history of an event or place.
Living Historians look a lot like re-enactors. We dress the part and populate the venues. We may even attempt to recreate past events but our focus is ever so slightly different. Too often we think of history as the retelling of events in the past. Unfortunately, much of what we once knew about life in the 18th Century is lost because it was simply never written down. Living Historians focus their efforts on relearning past trades (I will talk about 18th brewing in a later blog). How do these tools really work, how was the work done, why did military units use the formations they did, all these are questions that are best answered by experience and experimentation. Re-enactors adopt the fashion of a teacher when interacting with the public, Living Historians behave in the fashion of a scientist, learning for themselves, then sharing that learning with others.
As Interpreters, our role is to help bridge the centuries and make the past relevant for those who are ready to learn. We strive to recreate past environments complete with their emotions, limitations, and beliefs, as well as their physical manifestations. Our aim is not so much teaching as to guiding others as they explore the environment we create and learn the lessons firsthand. Interpreters tell the story but do so in a manner that incites curiosity.
This has been my journey. Eleven years ago, at the urging of my then 16 year old son, I became a re-enactor. I was always interested in history but initially saw this first step as bit of an uncomfortable stretch. Fortunately, Seth choose a group that pulled us in and helped us engage with their hobby. I took to the role of re-enactors from the perspective of a student, striving to learn as much as I could from the experience and expand that knowledge. Unfortunately, like most re-enacting groups, the 43rd Rgmt was very focused on only one aspect of history. They know it well and portray it well but I began to seek a broader role.
Five years ago, I found the next step, again with a very professional and prominent organization, the National Park Service (NPS). NPS has a volunteer organization that does an exquisite job of bringing in folks with a passion and teaching them to be interpreters, people who can engage diverse groups and draw them into the moment so they are ready to learn. I spent three years drawing people into the Assembly Room of Independence Hall; the John Jay Supreme Court Chambers; Congress Hall; onto the parade grounds and encampments at Valley Forge, and telling them not just what happened there but why. It is this learning to tell the story of why that differentiates those of us who are passionate about retelling history from those of us who are passionate about reliving it.
Today, I share my time between many venues. I am learning the differences between modern and 18th Century brewing, I still pick up a musket from time to time and join the line, I conduct tours at various parks and historic sites, and I create reproductions of common artifacts that ordinary citizens, gentlemen, or soldiers would have needed in their lives in 18th Century Pennsylvania. I am still a student in my focus but a more sophisticated student, one who learns not just through tutelage but from research and experience.
Come join me on this journey.