Living history

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A reenactress playing the role of Mary Queen of Scots at a Scottish fair in 2003. Mary Queen of Scots reenactor.jpg
A reenactress playing the role of Mary Queen of Scots at a Scottish fair in 2003.

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 museums, historic sites, heritage interpreters, schools and historical reenactment groups to educate the public or their own members 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.



Eastern German Living history at an "Indianistikmeeting" 1982 in Schwerin Bundesarchiv Bild 183-1982-0703-021, Schwerin, Indianistiktreffen.jpg
Eastern German Living history at an "Indianistikmeeting" 1982 in Schwerin
The Guedelon Castle in France is a castle currently built using only medieval construction techniques, tools, costumes and local materials. Guedelon - mai 2014 - 24.JPG
The Guédelon Castle in France is a castle currently built using only medieval construction techniques, tools, costumes and local materials.

Living history approach to gain authenticity is less about replaying a certain event according to a planned script as in other reenactment fields. It is more about an immersion of players in a certain era, to catch, in the sense of Walter Benjamin the 'spiritual message expressed in every monument's and every the site's own "trace" and "aura"', even in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. [1]

An early example of the spiritual and futuristic side of living history can be found in Guido von List's book Der Wiederaufbau von Carnuntum (1900), [2] which suggested rebuilding the Roman Carnuntum military camp in Vienna's neighborhood as a sort of amusement park (compare Westworld ). List, himself a right wing neopagan, asked his staff of landlords, waiters and rangers to be dressed in historical gear. He also asked to have any visitors redressed in costumes and described rituals to signify "in-game" and "out-game" status to enhance the immersion experience. E.g. the role of the garment is of interest till today. [2]

The term 'living history' describes the performance of bringing history to life for the general public in a rather freewheeling manner. The players are less confined in their actions, but often have to stay at a certain place or building. Historical presentation includes a continuum from well researched attempts to recreate a known historical event for educational purposes, through representations with theatrical elements, to competitive events for purposes of entertainment. The line between amateur and professional presentations at living history museums can be blurred, same as the border to Live action role-playing games.

While the pros latter routinely use museum professionals and trained interpreters to help convey the story of history to the public, some museums and historic sites employ living history groups with high standards of authenticity for the same role at special events. Such events do not necessarily include a mock battle but aim at portraying the life, and more importantly the lifestyle, of people of the period. This often includes both military and civilian impressions. Occasionally, storytelling or acting sketches take place to involve or explain the everyday life or military activity to the viewing public. More common are craft and cooking demonstrations, song and leisure activities, and lectures. Combat training or duels can also be encountered even when larger combat demonstrations are not present.

In the United States, on the National Park Service land, NPS policy "does not allow for battle reenactments (simulated combat with opposing lines and casualties) on NPS property." [3] There are exceptions i.e. Saylors Creek, Gettysburg. These are highly controlled with exacting safety factors, as well as, exacting historical truths.

In Germany medieval reenactment is usually associated with living history and renaissance faires and festivals, which are found in nearly each city. So e.g. the Peter and Paul festival in Bretten. [4] the Landshut Wedding or the Schloss Kaltenberg knights tournament. [5] The majority of combat reenactment groups are battlefield reenactment groups, some of which have become isolated to some degree because of a strong focus on authenticity.

Events with the professional reenactment-group Ulfhednar lead to a controversy in German archaeology. The German Polish living history group was supported by large museums and scholars and, since 2000 has largely coined the image of early history in Germany and international. Among others, a paper with the programmatic title Under the crocheted Swastika, Germanic Living History and rightwing affects [2] started the dispute 2009. On the other hand, communist Eastern German had some problems with accepting "indianistic" living history reenactors, a widespread variety in Eastern Germany, which were closely monitored by the security forces. [6] [7] That sort of 'second hand' living history [8] is as well part of western Germany folklore and tries for a high level of authenticity. [9]


1970 Mandan Indian real history event in Taucha, near Leipzig, Eastern Germany Bundesarchiv Bild 183-J0628-0006-001, Interessengemeinschaft Mandan-Indianer.jpg
1970 Mandan Indian real history event in Taucha, near Leipzig, Eastern Germany

Activities may be confined to wearing period dress and perhaps explaining relevant historical information, either in role (also called first-person interpretation) or out of character (also called third-person interpretation). While many museums allow their staff to move in and out of character to better answer visitor questions, some encourage their staff to stay in role at all times.

Living history portrayal often involves demonstrating everyday activities such as cooking, cleaning, medical care, or particular skills and handicrafts. Depending on the historical period portrayed, these might include spinning, sewing, loom weaving, tablet weaving, inkle weaving or tapestry weaving, cloth dyeing, basket weaving, rope making, leather-working, shoemaking, metalworking, glassblowing, woodworking or other crafts. Considerable research is often applied to identifying authentic techniques and often recreating replica tools and equipment.


A Viking encampment. Vikingtent.JPG
A Viking encampment.

Historical reenactment groups often attempt to organize such displays in an encampment or display area at an event, and have a separate area for combat reenactment activities. While some such exhibits may be conducted in character as a representation of typical everyday life, others are specifically organized to inform the public and so might include an emphasis on handicrafts or other day-to-day activities, which are convenient to stage and interesting to watch, and may be explained out of character. During the 1990s, reenactment groups, primarily American Civil War groups, began to show interest in this style of interpretation and began using it at their reenactments.[ citation needed ]

In education

A reenactor from a living history group. Highlander-actor.jpg
A reenactor from a living history group.
Abraham Lincoln in present time. Lincoln living.jpg
Abraham Lincoln in present time.

As David Thelen has written, many Americans use the past in their daily lives, while simultaneously viewing the place where they often encounter history – the school – with varying levels of distrust and disconnectedness. [10] Living history can be a tool used to bridge the gap between school and daily life to educate people on historical topics. Living history is not solely an objective retelling of historical facts. Its importance lies more in presenting visitors with a sense of a way of life, than in recreating exact events, accurate in every detail.

Many factors contribute to creating a setting in which visitors to living history sites can become active participants in their historical education. Two of the most important are the material culture and the interpreters. Material culture both grounds the audience in the time and place being portrayed, and provides a jumping-off point for conversation. [11] “Interpreters” are the individuals who embody historical figures at living history sites. It is their responsibility to take the historical research that has been done on the sites and decide what meaning it has. [12] These meanings are often a melding of fact and folklore.

Folklore is an important aspect of living histories because it provides stories which visitors relate to. Whether it is an interpreter embodying a past individual's personal story or discussing a superstition of the time, these accounts allow the audience to see these past figures not as names on a page, but as actual people. However, folklore is also more than stories. Objects, such as dolls or handmade clothing, among others, are considered “folk artifacts,” which are grouped under the heading of “material culture.” [13]

Individuals can participate in living histories as a type of experiential learning in which they make discoveries firsthand, rather than reading about the experience of others. [14] Living history can also be used to supplement and extend formal education. Collaborations between professional historians who work at living history sites and teachers can lead to greater enthusiasm about studying history at all grade levels. [15] Many living history sites profess a dedication to education within their mission statements. For instance, the motto of Colonial Williamsburg, “That the Future May Learn from the Past,” proclaims the site's commitment to public edification, as does the portion of the website created for the sole purpose of aiding teachers in instruction on the village. [16]

Certain educators, such as James Percoco in his Springfield, Virginia high school class, have chosen to integrate public history into their curricula. [17] Since 1991, Percoco has led a class entitled “Applied History,” in which his students have contributed over 20,000 hours of service to various institutions of public history. [18] Formal education can help visitors interpret what they see at living history sites. By providing a structured way of looking at living histories, as well as questions to think about during visits, formal education can enrich the experience, just as living histories can enrich learning in the classroom.

Some museums such as Middelaldercentret in Denmark provides living history for school children as a part of their education. [19]

See also

Related Research Articles

Museum institution that holds artifacts and other objects of scientific, artistic, cultural, historical, or other importance

A museum is an institution that cares for (conserves) a collection of artifacts and other objects of artistic, cultural, historical, or scientific importance. Many public museums make these items available for public viewing through exhibits that may be permanent or temporary. The largest museums are located in major cities throughout the world, while thousands of local museums exist in smaller cities, towns, and rural areas. Museums have varying aims, ranging from serving researchers and specialists to serving the general public. The goal of serving researchers is increasingly shifting to serving the general public.

Historical reenactment activity where people recreate aspects of a historical event

Historical reenactment is an educational or entertainment activity in which people follow a plan to recreate aspects of a historical event or period. This may be as narrow as a specific moment from a battle, such as the reenactment of Pickett's Charge presented during the Great Reunion of 1913, or as broad as an entire period, such as Regency reenactment.

Living museum type of museum, in which historical events showing the life in past time periods are performed

A living museum, also known as a living history museum, is a type of museum which recreates historical settings to simulate past time period, providing visitors with an experiential interpretation of history. It is a type of museum that recreates to the fullest extent conditions of a culture, natural environment or historical period.

Plimoth Plantation museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA

Plimoth Plantation is a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts founded in 1947. It attempts to replicate the original settlement of the Plymouth Colony established in the 17th century by the English colonists who became known as the Pilgrims. They were among the first people who immigrated to America to seek religious separation from the Church of England. It is a not-for-profit museum supported by Administrations, contributions, grants, and volunteers. The re-creations are based upon a wide variety of first-hand and second-hand records, accounts, articles, and period paintings and artifacts, and the museum conducts ongoing research and scholarship, including historical archaeological excavation and curation locally and abroad.

Renaissance fair Outdoor weekend gathering which emulates a historical period

A Renaissance fair, Renaissance faire or Renaissance festival is an outdoor weekend gathering, usually held in the United States, open to the public and typically commercial in nature, which purportedly recreates a historical setting for the amusement of its guests. Some are permanent theme parks, while others are short-term events in a fairground, winery, or other large public or private spaces. Renaissance fairs generally include an abundance of costumed entertainers or fair-goers, musical and theatrical acts, art and handicrafts for sale, and festival food. Some offer campgrounds for those who wish to stay more than one day.

Open-air museum museum that exhibits collections of buildings and artifacts out-of-doors

An open-air museum is a museum that exhibits collections of buildings and artifacts out-of-doors. It is also frequently known as a museum of buildings or a folk museum.

American Civil War reenactment activity where people recreate aspects of the American Civil War

American Civil War reenactment is an effort to recreate the appearance of a particular battle or other event associated with the American Civil War by hobbyists known as Civil War reenactors, or living historians.

Heritage interpretation Communication of information to visitors of parks, museums and other sites

Heritage interpretation refers to all the ways in which information is communicated to visitors to an educational, natural or recreational site, such as a museum, park or science centre. More specifically it is the communication of information about, or the explanation of, the nature, origin, and purpose of historical, natural, or cultural resources, objects, sites and phenomena using personal or non-personal methods. Some international authorities in museology prefer the term mediation for the same concept, following usage in other European languages.

Medieval reenactment subcultural scene

Medieval reenactment is a form of historical reenactment that focuses on re-enacting European history in the period from the fall of Rome to about the end of the 15th century. The second half of this period is often called the Middle Ages. This multiplicity of terms is compounded by the variety of other terms used for the period.

"The Vikings" is a British-based society of re-enactors, dedicated to the study and re-enactment of the culture of the Viking Age (790–1066) and the display of authentic Dark Ages living history and combat.

Combat reenactment

Combat reenactment is a side of historical reenactment which aims to depict historical forms of combat. This may refer to either single combat, melees involving small groups, or nearly full-scale battles with hundreds of participants.

In historical reenactment, authenticity is a measure of how close an item, prop, action, weapon, or custom is to what would actually have been used or done in the time period being depicted.

Conner Prairie Living history museum in Fishers, Indiana

Conner Prairie is a living history museum in Fishers, Indiana, United States, which preserves the William Conner home. The home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the museum recreates 19th-century life along the White River.

Regia Anglorum

Regia Anglorum, or simply Regia, is a Medieval reenactment organisation reenacting the life and times of the peoples who lived in and around the Islands of Britain from the time of Alfred the Great to Richard the Lionheart. Its members portray Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Norman and British living history from the period before the Norman Conquest. The society has gained in popularity as a result of being featured in prominent television programmes such as Michael Wood on Beowulf, Time Team and A History of Britain.

Middelaldercentret Archeological open air museum in Denmark

Middelaldercentret is an experimental living history museum in Denmark, which depicts the middle ages in the Denmark of the late 14th and early 15th centuries. It is located in Sundby Lolland, some 4 km northwest of the centre of Nykøbing Falster on the waterfront of Guldborgsund.

Museum theatre the use of theatre and theatrical techniques by a museum for educational, informative, and entertainment purposes

Museum theatre is the use of theatre and theatrical techniques by a museum for educational, informative, and entertainment purposes. It can also be used in a zoo, an aquarium, an art gallery, and at historic sites. It is generally performed by professional actors. Varieties of museum theatre include historical characters, puppetry, movement and music.

Heritage commodification

Heritage commodification is the process by which cultural themes and expressions come to be evaluated primarily in terms of their exchange value, specifically within the context of cultural tourism. These cultural expressions and aspects of heritage become "cultural goods"; transformed into commodities to be bought, sold and profited from in the heritage tourism industry. In the context of modern globalization, complex and often contradictory layers of meaning are produced in local societies, and the marketing of one's cultural expressions can degrade a particular culture while simultaneously assisting in its integration into the global economy. The repatriation of profits, or "leakage", that occurs with the influx of tourist capital into a heritage tourist site is a crucial part of any sustainable development that can be considered beneficial to local communities. Modern heritage tourism reproduces an economic dynamic that is dependent upon capital from tourists and corporations in creating sustained viability. Tourism is often directly tied to economic development, so many populations see globalization as providing increased access to vital medical services and important commodities.

The Museum of Everyday Culture is a museum of cultural history in Waldenbuch, a town close by Stuttgart, Germany. It is a branch of the Landesmuseum Württemberg and one of the most important museums of folk culture in Germany.

Commemoration of the American Civil War

The commemoration of the American Civil War is based on the memories of the Civil War that Americans have shaped according to their political, social and cultural circumstances and needs, starting with the Gettysburg Address and the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery in 1863. Confederates, both veterans and women, were especially active in forging the myth of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy.

Foteviken Museum building in Vellinge Municipality, Skåne County, Sweden

The Foteviken Museum is an archaeological open-air museum on the Höllviken peninsula in southern Skåne, Sweden. It contains a reconstruction of a large Viking Age settlement and a "viking reservation", and visitors participate in living history reenactments; it also performs research and functions as the municipal museum of Vellinge Municipality and part of Fotevikens Kulturcenter, a group of cultural facilities on the peninsula.


  1. Michael Petzet: "ln the full richness of their authenticity" - The Test of Authenticity and the New Cult of Monuments, Nara Conference on Authenticity in Relation to the World Heritage 1994.
  2. 1 2 3 Karl Banghard: Unter dem Häkelkreuz. Germanische Living History und rechte Affekte: Ein historischer Überblick in drei Schlaglichtern. In: Hans-Peter Killguss: Die Erfindung der Deutschen. Rezeption der Varusschlacht und die Mystifizierung der Germanen. Verlag NS-Dokumentationszentrum, Köln 2009, ISBN   978-3-938636-12-1. (Mit Beiträgen von Professor Reinhard Wolters, Dr. Tilmann Bendikowski, Dirk Mellies, Michael Fehrenschild, Karl Banghard, Alexander Häusler, Jan Raabe, Dr. Michael Zelle)
  3. "Wilson's Creek National Battlefield FAQ". National Park Service. 23 April 2017.
  4. "Der Tross 10. – 14. Juni 2004". Archived from the original on 2016-05-13. Retrieved 2014-09-24.
  5. "Home".
  6. Borries/ Fischer: Sozialistische Cowboys. Der Wilde Westen Ostdeutschlands, Frankfurt/ Main: 2008, S. 35–39.
  7. Friedrich von Borries, Jens-Uwe Fischer: Sozialistische Cowboys. Der Wilde Westen Ostdeutschlands. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/ Main 2008.
  8. Volkskultur aus fremder Hand - Indianer- und Westernhobby in Deutschland zwischen Amerikanisierung, " Anti-Imperialismus" und popularisierter Ethnologie, doctorate Albert - Ludwigs - Universität zu Freiburg i. Br, Gabriele Wilczek 1997
  9. Zu Besuch bei deutschen "Indianern" Deutsche Welle 07.05.2013, Ananda Grade
  10. Thelen, David. "Learning from the Past: Individual Experience and Re-Enactment." Indiana Magazine of History, Jun 2003, Vol. 99 Issue 2, p. 155
  11. Peers, Laura. Playing Ourselves; Interpreting Native Histories at Historic Reconstructions. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2007. p. 91
  12. Peers, Laura. Playing Ourselves; Interpreting Native Histories at Historic Reconstructions. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2007. p. xiv
  13. Folklore, "Artifacts"
  14. Experiential learning, "About"
  15. Vanderstel, David G. ""And I Thought Historians Only Taught": Doing History Beyond the Classroom." OAH Magazine of History; Jan2002, Vol. 16 Issue 2, p.7.
  16. Colonial Williamsburg. "Our Mission." Retrieved 2010-10-18.
  17. Vanderstel, David G. ""And I Thought Historians Only Taught": Doing History Beyond the Classroom." OAH Magazine of History; Jan2002, Vol. 16 Issue 2, p. 7.
  18. James Percoco. "Biography." Retrieved 2010-10-18.
  19. Skoletjenesten (in Danish)

Further reading