The Dilemma of First Person Interpretation

These past few days, as I have been working on my Regency short stays, I've been engrossed in watching the Edwardian Farm BBC series. It has been absolutely fabulous! Just as good as their Victorian Farm series, if not better. These programs are experimental history at its finest!

This is one thing that I've always been passionate about - the bringing to life of the past, turning it inside out so that we can examine it in the best way we can through the actual doing. I was drawn to this as a teenager and was thrilled that I got a job at a superb living history museum, Conner Prairie. We went through vigorous training for 3 months before we even got to go work in the village which was 100% first person interpretation of all the characters. I loved, adored, and soaked it all in. It was awesome... until I actually had to work in the village and deal with visitors.

Now, I actually really love to teach. But when you couple that with trying to stay in character and be true to the time period with children asking obnoxious questions like 'Is that real food?' 'Are you really eating?' and 'Is that a real fire?', it suddenly becomes very stressful. At least it was for me. It was like being an actor in a movie but the camera was never turned off and you couldn't drop your character ever. Of course there were times when no one was around and we would relax and talk like our normal selves, but then you'd have to spring back into character the moment a visitor showed their face around a corner. The whole thing was incredibly wearing on me. To be honest, I just wanted to hoe my garden and for everyone to leave me alone. (That's my introversion talking!)

I guess for myself I was searching for something - that elusive, rural, romantic history that I read and dreamed about. I really believed that if I dressed up and was installed in an 1840s log cabin that I would be magically transported to back then. Somewhere along this frustratingly naive journey it hit me like a ton of bricks that it was absolutely impossible to travel back in time. Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? But really, a lot of people believe, however secretly, that they can be transported into another time if they just do X, Y, or Z.

When I figured this out, I literally cried and was heartbroken, knowing I would never be the same. And things haven't ever been the same for me. The spell was shattered and reality stared me full in the face. Fortunately for me, I learned some valuable lessons from this experience that have affected the way I look at history and most especially, living history museums.

Enter ---- My Soapbox.

There are some major pros and cons when it comes to living history museums who practice first person interpretation. You might find that I am solidly against first person, but first I'm going to give the big, and most obvious pro to first person in museums (though this might obviously be open to other opinions):

1. First person interpretation gives visitors an experience they can get no where else - that of "stepping back in time" and "talking" with people who might have actually lived in a certain place.

Conner Prairie was very strict in their first person interpretation. You did not break character - ever. And here comes the cons:

1. First person interpretation is a lie. While some people find it magical, interesting, and even amusing, some people find it extremely frustrating. I remember this one distressing conversation with a visitor who really, really wanted to know if I really, really slept in the loft of the cabin and lived there for real. I told him over and over that I did, and I could feel his frustration mounting. In the end he left in complete bewilderment, and I was left with the sense that I was nothing but a bald-faced liar. He just wanted to know whether I was a reenactor or if this was a true and living village where we lived and worked and didn't go home to another place at the end of the day.

2. It is impossible to be completely in character. You know too much. You speak differently. You think differently. You react differently. There is no way you could ever know exactly how they acted, spoke, or behaved. You can approximate, yes. You can do mountains of research and know the time period backwards and forwards, yes. But you would still be guessing at many things. I don't believe it's an honest way of bringing history to life, because the interpretation is only ever going to be from the interpreter's perspective and limited by what they know.

3. First person interpretation is not a very valuable way to teach history. The interpreter, limited by what they know, will only be able to teach so much. They have to find a way to connect the time period with modern times without actually "knowing" about modern things - like cars or cameras! We referred to cameras as "boxes with bright flashes" or something similar. I mean, really? How ridiculous is that?! I feel a much more valuable way to teach history is to teach from a modern perspective (because HELLO, we live in modern times!) and using our extensive research to help the visitors relate to what you are saying or showing them. If you're wearing a period-accurate costume, using the same tools, applying the same methods you are still in a powerful place to teach. Better yet, put them in the clothes, hand them the tools, and tell them to dig in!

In other words, I think first person interpretation is a big waste of time and energy. My idea of valuable history learning involves getting your hands dirty, i.e. experimental history. There are no gimmicks here. You are using the actual tools, wearing the clothes, eating the food, doing the chores, etc. of the given time period; all the while bringing your modern knowledge to the table. Here is where the truly valuable learning takes place.

Wearing historical clothes is an experience in itself, because when made authentically, you can feel the difference in the cut, you walk differently, you sit differently, you feel differently compared with what you wear today. When you work with historical tools and try your hand at the different trades, you can begin to understand what kind of skills were actually needed compared with today. And if you go whole-hog and try something like in Edwardian Farm where you live in the house, wear the clothes, do all the chores, consult the books of the time, and try your hand at living a period of time in their way, then you can begin to wrap your head around what it was really like. We'll never 100% get there, but we can get close enough to appreciate the time period from our modern standing.

The real value in this experiment is comparing what we understand through the doing with the way we live our lives today.

How apt the quote by L. P. Hartley: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

So try your hand at spinning. Make some clothes and try them on. Play some games from the past. Try your hand at cooking from an old recipe - in other words DIG IN! That's where the learning is.


  1. I feel like I could cry with relief after reading this post. I kept saying to myself "Yes." "YES" AND "OMG YES!!!"

    Thank you so much for posting this. I don't really "do" first person unless I am by myself with some friends, or with my husband and children.

    When we are alone with people who want to "play" , it is easy to pretend. It's not much different from the little girls who play tea party with pots and pans from mom's kitchen, and their dollies propped up around a table. It's playing. And when we play with others who "get it", it's fun and enjoyable.

    But a living history, a museum, or a reenactment is a completely different thing. The majority of the time, the event is NOT about giving the historians/reenactors a "step back in time" experience. It's about giving the public what they want. And they want to learn.

    In that case, as you very aptly said, it becomes frustrating to interact with the public when they ask questions it is impossible to answer correctly while remaining in first person.

    For the past few years I have been very burned out by reenacting. Both more progressive stuff and the more mainstream stuff. In mainstream reenacting there is a gross lack of attempt at authenticity in the appearance of things. In progressive reenacting, the appearance is there, but the first person impression often stipulated is uncomfortable.

    I think the events I enjoy the most is where there is a balance between the two. A proper appearance of things and yet the flexibility to a, what shall we call it "tour guide" to the past for our visitors. Illustrate by what we do. Instruct by what we say.

  2. Thank you for your comment! It is good to know there are other people out there who feel the same way. I agree with what you said about the reenacting. That is one of the big reasons why I stopped Civil War reenacting. It was so unsatisfying! Many people were there to just play and "step back in time", but I was serious about learning and teaching history. I just wanted something to do, not play act on an outdoor stage. I agree with what you said about the events that have a balance of the proper appearance and the tour guide approach. It really is the best way to help people relate.

    One thing I did appreciate about Conner Prairie, despite the 1st person thing, was that they made the entire outdoor village literally hands-on. Visitors could touch ANYTHING and were encouraged to touch and pick up and examine things. Because of this most of the original artifacts were replaced in the cabins with replicas and having to replace breakages was expected. Conner Prairie completely revolutionized the idea of what was considered a "museum" and the hands-off mentality. It was so hard for visitors to understand this new idea at first, but you could just see their excitement and joy at being able to get in there and participate and not just having to be a spectator. Because I got to see the beginnings of this - what they called their "Open Doors Initiative" Conner Prairie will always have a fond place in my heart. Now if only they could do away with the 1st person interpretation, it would be perfect! :-)


Post a Comment

Thanks for visiting! I love hearing your feedback!

Popular posts from this blog

Wartime Menu Challenge: March Breakfast, Lunch, & Dinners

Things Were So Cheap Back Then!... or were they?

Newsboys' Strike of 1899: 120th Anniversary - The Beginning