Tell Your Story
The best living history events for visitors and participants are those that tell one of the unique stories within a site’s history. After decades of living history events, generic Revolutionary War reenactments are too common and do not draw the interest they once did. No event should try to bite off the whole Revolutionary War, Colonial America, or etc. Broad generalities inevitably result in an attempt to explain huge topics which force the use of such seemingly innocuous terms as, “Continental Soldier,” “Camp Follower,” or “Colonial Craftsman.” These broad generalizations miss the incredible diversity of the unique stories and people in any given place and moment. Not only are these generic stories and portrayals so broad as to be false, they miss the core opportunity within a living history event. Any site worth preserving and worth highlighting within a special event has at least one great story to tell. A special event, which has the potential to draw some of the biggest crowds of the year, is a great opportunity to tell a signature story. Telling a site’s unique story not only helps set a site a part from others, it also serves to help mobilize public interest, to answer, the “so what?” about the place whether on a local, regional, or national scale.
Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!
To achieve the storytelling and awareness building potential of a living history event requires communication. This communication is two-fold: to reach a site’s potential audience; to help coordinate participants to be engaged partners. Press and social media outlets have the potential to create a lot of interest about an event, but the message itself is also important. While a living history event should tell site-specific history, the broader message should not lose sight of wider conflicts or periods. At the same time, generic Colonial or Revolutionary War events do not have the impact they once did; audiences meet exaggerated proclamations of an event’s significance with more skepticism than anything. Not every battle can be the turning point of the Revolutionary War; messaging about an event has to be honest. Inspiring potential visitors with real significance and context requires drawing upon the best of historians’ tools. Personal letters, journals, and even objects intimately tied to a moment can serve to entice visitors with the great story a living history event can tell.
For an event to tell the great story it advertises, participants need to know the story too. The basic communication of setting expectations for participants and explaining the goals of an event as a whole is vital, but often missed. In the run-up to a successful event, participants should be engaged with the great story they will help tell. Documentary sources, especially diaries from different perspectives, hold vital background information to send to participants beforehand. Documents alone won’t cut it; participants in an event can’t answer visitors’ questions with long recitations of diaries or journals. Brief articles and blogs provide useful, synthesized content to convey an understanding of events to guests. Illustrated guidelines for clothing and equipment are great tools to help participants correctly set the scene, but they are only as powerful as the explanations for these guidelines. Having the correct coat or gown is not nearly as important as the understanding of why they are correct. The preparation and coordination of participants can’t end with email attachments. Site or event leadership must make the time to engage participants when they arrive at an event or site. Clear communication of schedules, campsites, facilities, etc. are just the beginning. Orientation tours and specialty talks about an event specifically for participants before an event can help answer grand questions about historical significance down to where visitors can find restrooms. No site would send its employees to engage visitors without support and training. To have a great event, participants cannot be exceptions to this rule.
The Battle is Just the Beginning…
All too often reenactment battles are the end goal of a living history event. Guns, smoke, and flashes of rushing lines of soldiers in advance certainly have the potential to capture the imagination of visitors. Yet, events often end their programming with a battle, effectively quitting right when they have an audience ready for more. Rather than an end in itself, battle reenactments should be planned as programming tools within the broader story of an event. Even when a battle reenactment is choreographed and executed well, it is still just the beginning. The programming before and after a battle reenactment is equally important as the reenactment itself and presents an opportunity to engage visitors. Site leaders and event planners have to think creatively about what these programs look like. Visitors come with their own diverse backgrounds and interests, which may be very different from military or colonial history. Demonstrations of boiling laundry en masse or the mechanics of simple machines used to move heavy cannon might be more engaging to visitors than the firing of guns. The personal stories of real people who lived at the time or within a given place may be the most memorable part to guests. When an event is envisioned as an opportunity to tell a story, all programs and aspects are important and impactful. Creative event and site-specific programs in all their forms have the potential to engage visitors, fulfilling interests far beyond military history. These opportunities can only be fully realized if at the core of an event, there is a great story and this story is woven throughout the event for visitors and participants alike.
Experience it for Yourself!
Join Fort Ticonderoga on May 5-6, 2018 as we kick-off Campaign and daily visitation season with the No Quarter Living History and Battle Reenactment Event! For more information on Fort Ticonderoga events, visit www.fortticonderoga.org.