August 8, 2023

The Dilemma of First Person Interpretation

young man and young woman dressed in historical garb guiding an ox cart

Why First Person Interpretation Within Museum Settings Isn’t Helpful for Teaching History

(I originally wrote this post back on April 16, 2013 on my old blog, but have posted it here with updates.)

Have you ever been to a living history museum with first person interpretation? Many times these types of museums are held up as prime examples of history interpreted, the best museums to visit, and certainly the most fun. While the fun is definitely there, in my experience, first person interpretation in a museum setting isn’t helpful or accurate in educating the public.

These past few days, as I’ve been working on my Regency short stays, I’ve been engrossed in watching Edwardian Farm. 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: bringing the past to life, turning it inside out so that we can examine it through the actual doing. I was drawn to this as a teenager and was thrilled that I got a job at a 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 became very stressful. At least it was for me. It was like being an actor in a movie but the camera was never turned off. 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!)

Time travel does not exist

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 naïve journey, it hit me like a ton of bricks. It was absolutely impossible to travel back in time. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? I think 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.

a woman in historical gab is bent over picking weeds in a garden with a wooden fence behind her

Pros and Cons to First Person Interpretation

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 I’m going to give the big and most obvious pro to first person in museums. (This is 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. This provides a unique visitor experience.

And here come 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. He wanted to know if I 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. I was left with the sense that I was nothing but a bald-faced liar. He just wanted to know if 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!). We need to use our extensive research to help the visitors relate to what we’re 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!
  4. Finally, no one can go back in time. Perpetuating the fallacy that living history time travel in any form is an accurate interpretation of history isn’t doing anyone favors.
a woman in historical garb prepares a meal at a table in an old house with a brick hearth and wood fire

Lessons Learned

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 authentically made historical clothes is an experience in itself. You can feel the difference in the cut, you walk differently, you sit differently compared with what you wear today. While working with historical tools and trying your hand at different trades, you begin to understand what kind of skills were needed. 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.

Understand and preserving the knowledge and skills of times past is a worthy pursuit in and of itself.

a man with white facial hair and dressed in old fashioned gray pants, white shirt and suspenders works at an old machine

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.

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