Sunday, March 9, 2014

"The Truth of the Story...

...lies in the details." ~ Paul Auster, The Brooklyn Follies

There has been some discussion happening lately in the social media sphere regarding what it means to do living history. Specifically, what is the purpose of living history and why is it so important to pay attention to the details. I'd like to engage on this topic because it is something very meaningful to me, and honestly I fear what this has the potential to do to the living history community as a whole if we stay this course.

In the Midwest, at least, the living history community sometimes hardly feels like a community at all; We are divided. We reinforce these divisions amongst ourselves, using terms like stitch counter, history nazi, farb, rennie, vouzer, and the list goes on-which only further alienates us from each other. This begs the question: Why?

It seems that a large number of us have somehow stumbled upon the idea that to be engaging we must sacrifice authenticity, (or worse-that if we are accurate we do not need to be or are by default not engaging.) The fun vs the accurate. The Farb vs the Thread Counter. The machined vs the hand sewn. The lowly vouz-er vs the elitest snob. It boils down to two core values of living history: engaging and educating.

Sadly, we see these values as two opposing "sides" of living history, where one invalidates the significance of the other. Some think that to engage the public, or new members to the community, we must sacrifice accuracy. Others feel that accuracy trumps all. When in truth, they are both equally valuable parts of a whole. One part alone cannot accomplish the purpose of living history. For those of us in living history to be successful, both parts must be equally present, and I don't just mean some people who are engaging and some people who are accurate. I mean we need to have engaging interpretations based on solid research.

Living history is a way for a community of people to share history with others in a more meaningful, personal, and engaging way than any textbook could accomplish. While we may not be presenting scholarly research to the public, in order to have meaningful, informed, and authentic interpretations we must personally engage in research at a scholarly level. Research makes it possible for us to craft informed interpretations that relay meaningful information. Without this, we run the risk of misrepresenting history and living "something kind of like or loosely based on history", instead.

While we are weaving narrative, it is a historical narrative. Historical fiction author Sara Sheridan says this of writing historical fiction:
"Historical fiction of course is particularly research-heavy. The details of everyday life are there to trip you up. Things that we take for granted, indeed, hardly think about, can lead to tremendous mistakes....You've got to make an effort to get the details right, because even though ... they know it's not real, if you make a small mistake they will cease to imaginatively engage with the story."
In some ways, is living history not similar to historical fiction? Some of us portray composite characters based on a research of a particular class/profession/region. We sometimes make educated decisions when filling in narrative gaps. The key is that those gaps and material which fills them are based on a sound understanding of the given body of research available to us.

I personally take pleasure in the details and the research- not at the expense of my interpretation, but rather to the enrichment of it. Whether we are military or civilian, we are sharing with the public a little piece of what life was like in whichever time period/context we portray. The details are important. The facts are important. The ability to engage is important. The things we wear, use, and display cannot be mere props to set a stage. If we are indeed living history (like we live our modern lives) these things must be seen as authentic pieces of who we are. Just as my couch in my living room is not a prop, but a part of my home, so must the chair in which I sit at historical events not be a prop but a possession of my persona.

Believe me, the facts do not have to get in the way of a good story. In truth, they are the foundation of the best stories. Our interpretation of these facts/details brings history to life in a way that no other medium could. We are able to infuse those dates, events, or items with spices like emotion, connection, and meaning. Without these facts and details, our interpretations would be hollow and inauthentic. Without interpretative abilities, the same could be said for those dates, events, and items. Without the ability to make the facts meaningful, they will be forgotten.

Are we going to get all of the details 100% right? Probably not. Are we going to be 100% engaging in our narratives to 100% of our audience all of the time? Probably not. Should we ever sacrifice one of these parts for the sake of other? Definitely not.

Should we come together as a community to build into each other, and to positively invest in each other  rather than continue to divide, deride, and dishearten? If we want living history to survive and thrive in the coming years, I believe the answer must be yes. An overwhelming, resounding yes.

All in favor?
All opposed?


  1. Great post! I was recently at the MOMCC/ALHFAM conference and had such a great time because most of the folks there get this concept...some have higher authenticity standards than others but all are in it to educate and engage. Thanks for the lovely read!

    1. Thanks so much for commenting!

      I missed the conference- I really wanted to attend the FPIPN conference, but couldn't make it due to work. ALHFAM is an organization of which I'm proud to be a member for that reason- most of the people are really great about this and we need more of that out there to keep us encouraged and learning.

  2. I very much agree that living historians in the midwest are barely a community at all. I'd like to see that change!

  3. Then there is also the division between those who do this hobby just for themselves, or for educating others. The key is to be approachable. We are all giving our own interpretation of history. We read, we absorb, and then we interpret the information in our own style/opinion.
    I used to work as a National park ranger over 20 years ago....I would always end my talks with the fact that this was just my interpretation of information....and if someone doesn't agree with me, it's up to them to research and come to their own conclusion. If I inspired one person to "look something up"...I felt that I accomplished my job.

    Regardless of whatever section of the living history community we belong to, we all need to be approachable and welcoming. There is no excuse for rudeness in living history interpretation, to each other or to the visitor. I am not one for absolutes, but the one I do feel deeply on is that if you think to interpret history, you have to act "haughty" or are doing it wrong.

  4. Well stated! One thing to keep in mind is that many people who come across as rude or haughty are merely showing their real personality mixed in with an interpretation.

  5. As a musician I see a great parallel between musicians who play for the public (audience) and those who play for other musicians. Those who play for other musicians are the ones who will sit in the audience at a gig and criticize everything from the sound to the fact that the chord you played in the second chorus wasn't the way (insert famous musician name here) played it and probably should have been a 7th! I'm a musician who plays for the public with the best of the abilities I am able. If miss the slightest little nuance that only the most perfect of ears can hear, but yet still play to best of my abilities (or talent) and the public tells me they enjoy what I'm doing, then I consider my job well done.

    I have found some reenactors to be the same. Let's be realistic. Example - some of us don't wear the exact period footwear because if we did our feet would be shredded. But, we do what we can to get it as close as we can and make it look as good as our funds are able.

    I'm in it for the the public to share my love of the history of the era I portray. Sure, I want it to be as right as possible and am always asking questions of my fellow reenactors to get advice to help me improve. The majority of the general public won't know if the seams they can't see on the clothing I'm wearing aren't hand sewn and suspect they don't care.

  6. I have always believed that we not only educate the public but other living historians as well. We learn everything we can about a specific trade, or type of clothing, or time period and try to share what we have researched with both the public and our fellow historians to #1 keep the information out there so we can learn and to grow when new information comes available. As a new re-enactor I was constantly asking questions of other re-enactors and got lots of mixed information. I learned that you can glean information from everyone the wrong and the right of it. As I learned more I found that my own research was better than most and also found who I could trust to provide the most accurate information. I agree that we need both but I also feel that we as living historians need to share our into with those that want only to play as well as those that want to educate. Then we all grow and , you never know if we educate the re-enactor who like to play more we can help them love what they love to do even more and help them be more period correct at the same time. Then we will have educated both sides of the coin. Sorry if I ramble, I have grown and learned so much of this countries history, life styles, and livelihoods by being open and learning what I know and asking Questions about what I don't know.

  7. Yours is the second recent post I have seen looking for more LH community. Now I need to go back and find the first! I think LH is almost at the tipping point where some sort of large organization, or magazine, or something, covering all time periods, and many different levels becomes a possibility. I've rather given up on it myself, because I've been looking and wanting for so long, but whenever i see another post it does give me a little hope.

    1. I completely agree. And let's agree together not to give up on the idea of more LH community! It takes more than any single one of us if we want living history to be viable.

      P.S. While I totally get why you guys stopped doing it, I thought the living history podcast was ahead of it's time and a great way of bringing some sense of trans-time period community to us. Have you guys ever thought of resurrecting it? No pressure, just curious. =)

  8. Christina, excellent as always.

    Mellisa, Alena, some of us are trying to change that issue. We've started The Endeavor to bring together resources for people and actually get them written down somewhere for people to reference back to for their own research or as a starting point for other people. Come join us!

    The key to our interpretations and helping others improve theirs (in my opinion) is to recognize everyone is at a different stage of development in their accuracy and work with them at that stage.

    All excellent thoughts. I know Christina will have more insightful things for us to read in the future.


I would sincerely love to hear your thoughts on all this, so please feel welcome to comment here :-)