[10 on Tuesday] Instant Living History: 10 Tips for Costumed Interpretation at Historic Sites

Posted on: December 17th, 2013 by Sarah Heffern 2 Comments

Whether you call it costumed interpretation or living history, having volunteers at a historic site reenacting events from the past can be a compelling way to bring stories alive -- or the quickest way to leave site visitors snickering.

Creating a program that engages guests without stressing out docents doesn’t have to be an overwhelming task. These 10 tips, developed for the 2013 Bmore Historic Unconference by the “resident historian” of Baltimore’s Admiral Fell Inn, Steven Lampredi, are designed to get your interpretation program off on the right foot.

1. Think about action, not acting. Developing an in-depth character is not necessary for costumed interpretation to work. Just seeing someone engaged in activities which are no longer commonplace -- such as cooking over a fire, writing with a quill pen, or sweeping with a handmade broom -- will grab visitors’ interest.

2. Focus on everyday activities. By putting the emphasis on day-to-day tasks and not on a complex historical backstory, you can eliminate two common problems: the awkwardness of docents tripping over scripted information or running on while guests’ eyes glaze over.

A pioneer encampment at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center outside Baker City Oregon. (Photo courtesy Baker County Tourism, Flickr)

A pioneer encampment at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center outside Baker City Oregon. (Photo courtesy Baker County Tourism, Flickr)

3. Avoid the first person. When talking to visitors, encourage volunteers to use the third person (“Mr. Benjamin Franklin used this printing press”) or second person (“You would use this to light a fire”) so they’re focused on skills and information, and not on being a character.

4. Get visitors involved. Ask children to help with drying dishes or other easy activities to draw them in and allow them to “experience” the past. Find any small task that can be done with common (and safe) props.

5. Use your volunteers’ existing skills. When you’re interviewing potential volunteers, learn about their hobbies and passions, as they might have contemporary interests such as sewing, knitting, and cooking that easily translate into historic activities.

6. Allow time for practice. If you’ve assigned an interpreter a skill they’re not already familiar with, allow them enough time to become comfortable with it before they take it public. Evaluate their progress and make adjustments as needed during this time.

7. Match volunteers to your existing needs. It is important to match your volunteers’ abilities and personalities to the themes, physical space, and costuming available at your historic site. Consider whether your site needs upper-, middle-, and lower-status roles interpreted. If so, determine which volunteers would be most convincing in those roles, or if they can take on more than one part.

A blacksmithing demonstration at Ardenwood Historical Farm in Fremont, Calif. (Photo courtest Konrad Summers, Flickr)

A blacksmithing demonstration at Ardenwood Historical Farm in Fremont, Calif. (Photo courtest Konrad Summers, Flickr)

8. Assemble the objects you need. To make your interpretation appear authentic, you will need appropriate-looking replica items for your volunteers to use, such as sewing kits, period cleaning supplies, tea sets, or children’s toys. The type of site, period you’re working in, and activities being done will determine what you need to have on hand.

9. Dress for success. Set the bar for costuming as high as you can within the budget you have available. Emphasize the importance of avoiding anachronisms such as modern jewelry, wristwatches, and glasses.

10. Provide resources. As your volunteers become comfortable with the basics of interpretation, chances are they will want to learn more about many aspects of their work. It can be helpful to provide a list of on- and offline resources that share more information about the general historic period as well as background on that era’s clothing, cooking, and other elements.

Have you ever worked as a living history interpreter, or set up a program at a historic site? What tips would you add?

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Sarah Heffern

Sarah Heffern

Sarah Heffern is the social media strategist for the National Trust’s Public Affairs team. While she embraces all things online and pixel-centric, she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having fallen for preservation in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class.

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2 Responses

  1. L.Keipp

    December 18, 2013

    Learn to read your visitors. You do not have to keep everyone engaged it what you are doing; some folks just are not interested in millinery, or blacksmithing or soapmaking. Leave pauses as you talk about your work, allowing people to ask questions, or walk away as they see fit.

  2. Sassy Countess

    December 19, 2013

    Excellent tips! Reblogging!