The Care and Feeding of Living History Practitioners

Some colleagues and I were talking the other day about things they don’t teach you in museum studies/public history class. There’s a lot. The topic that day was living history practioners. I prefer to use this term which I believe better describes them than reenactors, living historians (aren’t all historians living, except the ones that are dead?) or costumed interpreters aka museum-trained and outfitted docents.

My first internship was at an outdoor museum. I was a costumed interpreter and that experience helped me realize how useful good interpretation while wearing accurately reproduced historic clothing can be in grabbing the attention of visitors and opening a door to learning. That is not to say the site I worked at had outstanding interpretation (it was ok) or clothing (not even close).

I am a member of ALHFAM (Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums) and it publishes many very useful resources on creating living history programs and clothing for historic sites. So I’m not going to talk about those topics that leaves the issue of reenactors and living history practitioners. It pains me to see how the term reenactor has come to mean a wacky person in funny clothes. But then in some respects it is accurate but that’s a tangent I will not go on today.

It is true, that it does take a certain mindset, a certain level of understanding and commitment to want to wear what our ancestors wore when there is no cultural or fashion dictate to do so. But it is important for those of us running historic sites and museums to understand that the people who have a strong commitment to historical accuracy are not sideshow performers. Most of them are just as interested in connecting with the visiting public in a meaningful way as the site host is. Isn’t that the purpose of having a living history event in the first place?

Believe it or not, all the people in this picture are experienced living history practioners and have worked in public history for many years (Photo: Heidi Campbell-Shoaf)

I know it is difficult to find quality living history practitioners. The reenacting hobby is quite small compared to say, the hobby of golfing and of that group an even smaller number are capable of providing a high quality living history program for a site. There are ways to find them; talk to members of ALHFAM, do some of your own homework. Go to an event at another site, pick a living history not a reenactment since many living history practioners choose to limit participation in the latter. Study up on the portraiture of the period, the clothing worn, the tools used, etc. and gravitate to people who look closest to what you’ve studied. Be an educated consumer.

Once you’ve found some living history practitioners to do an event, communicate with them. Provide them with materials they will need to interpret your particular site. They can talk all day and night about what they are wearing, the skill they are demonstrating or the gun they are firing. What they need from you is site or event-specific information. Thank them for their time and you will do well in their eyes to feed them, particularly if they are with you for the weekend. You don’t have to have a catered dinner, some food they can prepare themselves is fine. You could also provide them with an experience the general public doesn’t get, a behind the scenes tour, a peak at some items from the collections not on exhibit, some evening entertainment, etc.

Most understand that historic sites have limited budgets and many don’t expect an honorarium but it is nice if it is possible. Once you’ve established a friendly relationship with a number of living history practitioners you can often count on them for at least one event a year, sometimes more. So it is worth your while to pursue this partnership, it can be mutually beneficial.


  1. Donah Zack Beale

    “Most don’t expect an honorarium”? Maybe if they live around the corner, and already love your site, or owe you personal favors, but some of us drive long distances, and take time from our real jobs (not to mentiont hose for whom interpretation is the “real” job.

  2. Donah Zack Beale

    I am only questioning the use of the word “most”, as “most” of the quality interpreters I know need at least gas money to get there. If this is meant to be a primer for sites, they might be surprised by the negative responses. Especially,
    as you wisely suggest that they be provided with information to learn about the specific sites, and weave into their own usual program. your piece implies that site programmers are professionals, and historic interpreters are hobbiests. I have 28 years experience and a $50,000 collection of medical artifacts. I, and many, are professionals too. I certainly give some programs away every year to those sites that are near and dear, or have staff that are my personnal friends. You offer of behind the scenes and private looks into the vault are appealing. Just want to offer a view from the inside.

  3. Richard Heinicke

    is always nice when someone through out the day comes by and asks if they can do anything for you, or just bring a cup of coffee, or juice, and say thanks for being here, that does mean alot to me, have been doing shows for 38 yrs now am living antique

  4. Doug Butler

    The Yarmouth Minutemen group to which I belong generally does not charge to come to public schools or other sites that are open to the public free of charge. If you charge the public admission we generally expect some sort of payment to participate, though the payment is often in the form of food or a year’s membership in the organization. And as Richard says, an appreciative attitude can add a lot.

  5. Pingback: Museum Monday: Researching Museum Collections, for Living History Practitioners | The Still Room

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