After all the work that goes into a great living history portrayal–long nights of sewing, hours of driving to be at an incredible historic site–meaningful conversations with visitors make it all worthwhile. You have said, “Hello,” and you have sparked their interest. Here are three ways to make this conversation count.
Whether cooking mess, cleaning a musket, or merely resewing a button on your shirt, so often these activities have drawn a visitor or a crowd. In explaining what you are doing, you do not have to be a historic person or a character. It is 2017; you have a smartphone and you know where the bathroom is. It is totally OK to be a completely modern person who happens to be dressed up in period clothing and is doing something from the period. Often visitors assume you are going to portray a character. Politely breaking this assumption may allow for a more engaging conversation, freeing you to discuss current surroundings and layers of history between the time you are portraying and the current moment. Conversely, you do not have to overanalyze your modernity. It is complicated and unnecessary to introduce yourself as a modern person portraying…X…Y, or…whatever you might be. Instead, just be present, in the moment of what you are doing. We all strive for those neat period moments in living history, and this can extend to conversations with visitors too. If you are slicing up beef to go into the camp kettle, that is what you’re doing right now in 2017 and what you would have been doing back at the time of your portrayal. Enjoy the elegant simplicity of these period moments and explain them in the present tense so that you can better capture what is the magic of living history.
In portraying a different period or people, new words from their vocabulary are inevitable. Historians and linguists alike study peoples’ vocabularies, dissecting the meanings of words to gain incredible insights into their perceptions of their world. Period words can be powerful bridges to the past, but quite often, they are foreign to visitors. It is easy to start throwing around terminology while visitors begin to smile, nod, and begin slowly backing away. Likewise, it is easy to start using shortcuts, well-worn phrases that seem insightful, but really leave visitors in the dark. Phrases like, “linear warfare,” or “rank & file system,” sound okay, but lack the much deeper understanding of the period. Carefully using and defining period words is both essential and a great opportunity. This requires a real period understanding of an object or concept. Explain this period understanding, comparing and contrasting this with modern ideas of the same. These discussions, bridging peoples and ideas of the past with modern visitors, is the fundamental goal of living history interpretation and is a powerful goal in its own right.
It is Not About You
Well…sometimes it is. You are dressed in period clothes; people will want to know why. In as much as you are comfortable, feel free to briefly explain why you do what you do in living history. However, every conversation has at least two sides to it and the visitor is two-thirds of any good conversation. Just as spatially, you have to leave room for visitors, leave room in the conversation for visitors as well. Right, wrong, or in-between, visitors need the space to explain their understandings of the history you are portraying. Even if they are completely off the mark, respectfully listen. They have made the effort to come to your museum or event, so make the time to hear them out before responding to their thoughts. Often as you are speaking or immediately after, visitors—especially young visitors–will want to explain their understanding of what you describe. Visitors’ work to understand and articulate period concepts is good and healthy, and can be encouraged through questions too. You do not need to have all the answers, nor should you. Reading visitors to best engage them in conversation with explanations, questions, and active listening is challenging and a skill that takes years to learn. Ultimately, this skill is vital. Talking about history is not about you, it is about the visitor and fostering their interest and understanding.