“How many of us have cringed, if ever so slightly, when we encountered a costumed, overzealous re-enactor performing a historic narrative . . .” –The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums.
Two weeks ago I shared some impressions on the book quoted above. In that blog I said, “Living history, with the exception of a small section on interpreters in period clothing (a future blog), is by and large left out of the book.” This is that future blog.
ALHFAM is the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (emphasis added). Given my deep interest in this organization and our members, and my overwhelming respect for the good work they do, it is not surprising that the short section on interpretation in period clothing stuck with me.
In an effort to spark discussion, I am sharing several quotes from the book on this subject, and some of my own thoughts (full disclosure: I have never done interpretation in period dress so I come to this topic as a museum visitor and a fairly well-versed colleague of my better dressed peers).
“There is awkwardness in the pretense of the pretend, especially if we are forced to participate in an imaginary world that is not of our making.”
“ . . . less seasoned visitors may find the pretend to be off-putting because it places them in the role of an other, confused and unwelcome.”
“ . . . period dress contributes to the construction of a fourth wall, removing yet another step from experiencing the house as a home.”
So, how many of us have: cringed, felt awkward, off-put, or removed? Why? In what contexts? Does it matter if the interpretation is first or third person?
My experiences with interpreters in period clothing have been by-and-large positive: with the exception of two. One was the cooper at a site who wasn’t interested in answering my questions until I asked one he thought was worthy (lesson: being a jerk isn’t time specific). The other was at a large site where first-person interpreters wander and interact with guests when not doing more formal presentations. I didn’t know who the interpreter was portraying and came upon him rather unexpectedly so wasn’t prepared to interact. He was kind, pleasant, and patient but I sort of fumbled around for questions and left feeling a bit deflated. Of course, an hour later I figured out who he was portraying and came up with a list of questions, but by then he had vanished.
One last quote from the book:
“However, the conceptual disconnect does not seem to carry through when the costumed docents are undertaking the actual tasks for which they are dressed. We have often experienced costumed docents cooking in HHM kitchens using historically accurate methods and tools, and found their conversation while at their work somehow comforting.”
The author posits that perhaps it’s because of our familiarity with their tasks (they’re cooking + we cook=common ground). There’s truth in this. I also wonder if it’s because when a “costumed docent” is performing a task the visitor doesn’t feel the full weight of the interpreter’s attention on them. There’s no pressure for the visitor to come up with questions; they can watch the activity at hand and stay quiet or ask questions, the choice is theirs. In a way, it gives the visitor control over the interaction.
Again, the book doesn’t strongly offer living history and/or costumed interpretation as a method to invigorate historic house museums. It also doesn’t differentiate between different types of interpretation (first, third, museum theater). Yet these techniques, when done well and thoughtfully, can bring life to a structure or site in most unique ways and leave visitors invigorated and wanting to learn more. When done poorly, they absolutely can leave visitors feeling awkward, put-off, and out of place.
The book is hesitant towards (not against) interpreters in period dress in historic houses. What do you think? What have your experiences been as a visitor? As an interpreter? What techniques do you (interpreters) use to break down barriers with visitors when you’re decked out in “work clothes?” How do you help guests figure out what is expected so your interactions don’t become stilted?
The ALHFAM website is a wonderful resource if you’re interested in learning more about living history and interpretation (in period clothing or not). Of special interest are the Professional Interest Groups for first person interpretation, historic apparel and textiles, historic skills and foodways, and interpretation and education.
I look forward to your comments.