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?