Living History Museums: Would you do It?

Throughout our six-week road trip, we encountered many costumed individuals at living history museums.  Some looked accurate–and some not so much (I’m thinking about the red-headed pale Native American we saw at one place).  This woman sat outside a home at Colonial Williamsburg to gather tourists to view this home.  She knew a great deal about the family that owned this home and the work they did on behalf of the American Revolution.

I’ve been interested in living history museums and their costumed citizens for a while.  In some ways, this might be the ultimate job–you get to pretend to be someone else and some place else all day everyday.  Since I live in my head a lot of the time, it might just suit me.  On the other hand, I’d have to go all day everyday without all the comforts of my own time.  But is a little discomfort worth it?

I think a bigger question is, do costumed guides help you learn more about the past?  It’s nice to see a historical location in its own time–nice to imagine this home or campfire as it was in 1776 but imaging is really all we can do.  We can’t go back to the past and see it as it truly was then.  We can pretend, which is what living history museums do, but it’s not real.

Maybe what we want is just a sense of the past but without all the realities–the smells, the dirt, the daily grind.  Living history museums let us pop into the past for an hour or two and be entertained.  Seems like the people who learn the most from these encounters are the costumed individuals; the people who have researched into the past, read about their roles, and studied the social dynamics of the time.  And despite their efforts to relay this information, most of it doesn’t stick.  But that’s the nature of teaching–the teacher always learns more than the student.


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