Friday, January 14, 2011

Introduction/A Newbie's Thoughts on First-Person Historical Interpretation

I should begin by stating that I am still completely new to the first-person style of history, especially compared to those who have been doing this their entire lives. I have probably amassed something like a month's worth of reenacting experience my entire life, so it's needless to say I am no expert at it (and I still don't consider myself a reenactor - at least not with only a month's worth of experience). However I thought it would be interesting now that I at least have my feet wet to contrast my thoughts on history and historical interpretation today with how I felt about the subject at around the time I graduated college in 2009.

I started off wanting nothing to do with first-person history or reenacting. In fact, when I applied for my job at the living history museum I basically told my boss that at the interview. I went into college hoping to eventually become a professor or perhaps a museum historian. I focused on the American Civil War, although at the undergraduate level your "focus" usually means the difference of two or three classes. Throughout my years at Ohio University I heard numerous sarcastic remarks from professors and students about the idea of "playing history", and I more or less agreed (my apologies to anyone who is offended, but even today I find the number of people who push themselves too hard and get heat stroke at reenactments a little over the top). Without getting into too much detail, the prevailing attitude I witnessed at college seemed to be that serious historians go to grad school and eventually become professors or go into research of some sort. Not all the professors thought this, but my strong impression was that most did. A very small part of me agrees with the argument even today, although my moral objections to grad school (it's a money-making scam) prevented me from pursuing that route. The reason I partially agree today is that it is incredibly hard work to get through graduate school, and I give those who are dedicated enough to pursue that route a lot of credit. They must be serious to put themselves through that. Since graduation, however, I have come to realize more and more that universities do not have a monopoly on the proper way to teach and learn history.

There have been a number of experiences that have changed my mind since leaving college. For example, I used to avoid books on the Civil War by Stephen Sears. Why? Because he did not have his Ph.D (or at least that was my impression at the time, feel free to comment if you know otherwise) and a small part of me wondered if that would somehow change the truth of what the author was saying. Then I read Controversies and Commanders, a book where Sears debunks or confirms a lot of the prevailing legends about certain generals in the Civil War using actual facts and evidence instead of generalized statements like "McClellan was a bad general because he lost" that I saw in the books of even some of the most distinguished authors (as an aside, my favorite part of the book was his defense of General Hooker. Aside part 2: McClellan was bad, I'm not arguing against that). Not bad for one of us simpletons without Ph.Ds!

My experiences volunteering and working at museums has caused the biggest change in my views on history. Most, if not all, of the employees and volunteers there have nothing more than their bachelors degree, and sometimes not even that. And yet I see way more passion about the subject than I did from many of my fellow students at OU, and in some cases they're even more passionate than the professors. Of course some of the interpreters are a little iffy about the information, but a lot of them are incredibly knowledgeable about the subject, and not just with random facts and talking points. When I was still very new at the historic village I work at, my co-writer Mrs. Flattery trained me on one of the houses I was to be in charge of interpreting. When I asked her how she knew so much about the house, I found out that much of the information came from her own reading and research on the internet (things like the misreading of "Flattery" happen to everyone, by the way). She wasn't just told what to say by the higher-ups or some employee manual. She went and found her own information beyond just the dates and bland facts about the house and was able to create an interesting interpretation that actually helps visitors see the importance of the structure and time period, instead of random talking points about the date the house was built and how many rooms there are.

This leads me to another realization I've had since graduation: it's not just about what I think is the most legitimate way to interpret and portray history, it's also about what the audience wants. I don't mean we should cater to the masses and make everything like Pirates of the Caribbean; what I mean is that people have different ways of learning history, and there is no one method that is best for all. My preferred way of learning history is to find specialized books on related topics and getting as in-depth about it as I can. It's not the only way I research or learn history, but it's how I usually approach a new topic. To other people, though, that gives them too much unnecessary detail for what they need and they get bogged down with all the various aspects of something as big as the Civil War - there are bookshelves worth of related topics. In that case, reading as many generalized books about the subject as possible may be a better route, where you get only the information that is necessary or relevant while still avoiding some two-paragraph treatment of the subject from a high school textbook. Other audiences approach history in a casual and curious way, or perhaps they learn best visually: in that case, I think reenactments or historic villages is the way to go. There are many other "audience" types out there, and each one has a different way of learning history.

Today, I'm in more of a gray area regarding historical interpretation. All methods of interpretation are legitimate so long as the facts are correct (or at least backed up with examples and evidence). I still can't really call myself a first-person interpreter, but after trying it out I realize that some people enjoy learning history that way and for that reason it is an important method.

1 comment:

  1. Well done!
    I practice living history at nearly every event I participate in. It can be quite difficult initially, but once it falls into place it can be a wonderful experience for both the living historians as well as the visitors - IF done correctly. One must know when and how to 'step out' to answer any question a visitor may have, for we are there to teach, are we not?
    You might enjoy a posting I wrote last September - it pertains to what you have written here on college degrees: