Living History Programming

Whether you know it best as living history, costumed interpretation, or first- and third-person interpretation, this section is a quick reference guide for all things living history. We hope it can serve as a guide for institutions interested in incorporating living history into their programming and those already embarking on living history programming.

What is first-person interpretation and what can it do for your institution?

Lamar Kewicz quickly explains the various kinds of costumed interpretation and the difference between first-, second-, and third- person interpretation in his post, “First Person Versus Third Person Interpretation.” 

Ironbridge Gorge Museums in the United Kingdom is a complex of museums, working historic factories, and recreated Victorian villages that utilize a combination of first- and third-person interpretation to enhance visitor experience. While set in the context of an industrial community in Victorian Britain, Ironbridge Gorge Museum’s video, “An Online Guide to First and Third Person Interpretation” serves as great introduction to these interpretive tools, how to use them, and what they can do for your institution. While this museum uses living history on a scale similar to that of Colonial Williamsburg, smaller living history programming can add new dimensions, help tell new stories, and attract more visitors.

Carol Spacht, Betsy Ross Claypool interpreter delivers a TEDx talk titled, “Being Betsy: Why Living History Matters.” Spacht makes the case, in part as Betsy, for the importance of first-person interpretation as an educational/experiential tool for visitor engagement.

Bill Weldon, Director of Historic Area Planning and Production at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation explains the history of first-person interpretation and provides insight for those interested in pursuing a career as a living history interpreter in his digital article, Living History: A Character Study.

How can you initiate or improve upon living history programming at your institution?

The National Park Foundation Blog Post, “Living Breathing History” by Hollis Lowe provides some examples and links to ways the National Park Service has incorporated living history interpretation into some of its historic sites.

University of Delaware, History of American Civilization PhD Candidate, Nicole Belolan’s blog post, “Change Over Time” on the UD AmCiv PhD Blog provides some information on how interpretive hearth cooking can be incorporated into programming. There are some useful links at the bottom of the post as well that link out to other historic-hearth-cooking related resources. The smells, tastes, sounds, and warm produced from cooking enliven spaces and make visitor experiences more authentic, not mention provide other outlets for learning. The way to a visitor’s heart is through their stomachs.

Open hearth programming is a relatively easy way to ease your organization into living history interpretation.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Instant Living History: 10 Tips for Costumed Interpretation at Historic Sites” provides a quick and handy list of dos and don’ts for those organizations interesting in beginning or improving any living history interpretation.

Jas. Townsend and Son Inc. is a company dedicated to the creation and retail of 18th and 19th century living history ephemera. They also sponsor a wonderful Youtube channel full of smaller living history programming, such as foodways interpretation ideas that can be interpreted in either first or third person for a variety of audiences.

Here is a four-part series from Jas. Townsend and Son Inc. about Getting Started in Living History.

Dale Jones, first-person interpreter, coach, and owner of the company, Making History Connections provides helpful performance tips and strategies for first-person interpreter training in his essay, “Theatre 101 for Historical Interpretation.

The Association for Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM) is a professional organization organized regionally and nationally. It holds conferences and provides access to resources for members. Some of their links are older and some are not working, but the organization itself hosts many different interest groups, including First Person Interpreters, Historic Apparel and Textiles, Historic Foodways, and Historic Crafts and Trades. Each of these interest groups hosts its own Facebook page or forum, connecting the communities and allowing for shared resources and conversation.

African-American, First-Person Interpretation and Slavery

Efforts to give voice to those people silenced in the traditional historical narrative, particularly enslaved people of color, can be seen in new interpretive efforts at historical sites across America. This historical awareness has also given rise to a new movement of African-American costumed interpretation that is poised to reinvigorate and diversify costumed interpretation across the country. Engaging with minority communities and the general public through interpretive programming of this nature helps build community, honestly acknowledges the past, and contributes to our educational missions.

Cheyney McKnight, first-person interpreter and owner/operator of the business and blog Not Your Mamma’s History discusses her experience with past interpretation of African American history and her efforts to change it in an interview with Vox subsidiary, Racked.

McKnight’s Youtube channel, also called NotYourMammasHistory serves as a vlog for her website and contains several great videos both for institutions interested in improving or engaging in African-American first-person interpretation and for African-Americans interested in pursuing living history interpretation themselves.

Why Don’t Black People Reenact?

Michael W. Twitty, culinary historian and first-person interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg maintains a blog titled, Afroculinaria. His book, The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African-American Culinary History in the Old South are redefining the racial history behind our American culinary and agricultural traditions. In this PBS NewsHour spotlight, Twitty explains his work and provides insights on new ways to interpret foodways and agriculture at historic sites.

In this video from HBO Vice, Twitty explains more about his interpretative process and foodways interpretation.

Ayinde Martin, Journeyman Carpenter at Colonial Williamsburg shares his experiences as a member of the historic craft and trade program at CW and the experiences of enslaved carpenters at Williamsburg.