Presenting the Past - Approaches to Re-creating History
: Darrell Markewitz
Four Levels of Historic Interpretation
Level one is 'Third person' interpretation
Here the interpreter refers to the historic period by saying,
"They did that," and
seeks to provide a general overview of the time. The costumes roughly
historic period, but are not necessarily accurate. Generally there is
made at this level to suggest that the interpreter is providing any
more than a commentary
from a modern viewpoint. An example of this approach would be that
used at a general
historic site, such as Black Creek Pioneer Village, Ontario (circa
Level two is 'Second person' interpretation
The interpreter refers to the period by saying "We did
that," and conveys an understanding
of social order. The costumes are more accurate to the period in
general, but not
necessarily representative of a single individual. The information
presented is a kind of average viewpoint that would be typical within
the character type recreated.
A good example of this technique would be seen at Jamestown, Virginia
Level three is 'First Person'
Here the interpreter makes references to the period by saying,
"I did that," and
communicates an understanding of the individual in society. The
an individual character. Now it is possible to introduce commentary
the personal history of an individual (usually fictitious). This
method can be seen at a site
such as Louisburg, Cape Bretton (1745 AD).
The last level is 'Role playing'
The interpreter now speaks as a direct voice from the past, stating
"I did that
today," and portrays a detailed personal history. Now costume
reflects not only a
specific individual, but also that person's specific situation. An
example of this
approach is The Viking Adventure, Dublin. (988 AD)
Four Levels of Experimental Archaeology
Level one is 'Form'
Here the rough appearance of an artifact is duplicated. This
produces an object
which is essentially decorative only, and where the both the physical
production techniques used may be modern. Such an item will be
acceptable when viewed
from a distance of several feet. For example, most clothing used in
falls into this category - the cut may be based on period items, but
fabrics are modern and sewing machines are used in the construction.
the simplest of information may be gathered through the use of
objects of this level.
Level two is 'Function'
Here the utility of an artifact is duplicated. Some care has been
used to match materials
and processes to match an existing artifact type. This item would be
held in the hand and would match the performance in use of an
original. A good example would be a hand forged axe properly heat
treated and balanced. Although made
using modern materials, there would be no significant difference in
these items and an original artifacts. Basic information about the
of an object can be gained at this level.
Level three is 'Materials'
Here the original materials and production methods are duplicated,
care made to duplicate the exact measurements of an individual
artifact. A reproduction
shawl made of wool dyed, hand spun and then woven; all utilizing
artifact (or reproduction) tools and methods would be an example of
such an item. The process of creating
the object is a source of information as well as that supplied by
its actual use.
Level four is 'Processing'
At this point the raw materials themselves are created using period
followed by using period production methods to produce an exact
reproduction of a
specific object. The item will be acceptable even using detailed
analysis. At this
level, the chain of production often becomes quite involved. For
example, the production of
an iron boat rivet (such as found at the Norse site at L'Anse aux
involve recreating a charcoal kiln, processing bog iron in a bowl
furnace to produce
the iron rods, then finally the manufacture of the rivet itself using
period styled forge
and tools. Because of the complexity and scope of such experiments,
the amount of
data gathered is large and can often result in unexpected findings.
Considerations for Physical Demonstrations
- Are there special requirements? Some techniques are not
safe to demonstrate.
- Are the correct replica tools available?
- Modern materials are not always a substitute for
- Remember interpreter have instant 'authority' in the
eyes of the public!
The ability to work as a creditable artisan, plus be able to
with the public, plus frame this all in a way that is historic
accurate, represents three entirely separate skills.
- Each demonstration should also communicate how it
relates to the larger story of the historic period.
- Always remember KISS - 'Keep it simple, stupid', the
demonstration does not have to be elaborate to be effective. Remember that every
single action carried out within a historic environment is a potential demonstration.
- It is always easier to show than explain. Is the action in
hand part of a larger process? (Have a number pieces at different steps in the
production sequence.) Consider secondary effects such as noise or smell which draw
attention to the demonstration. Remember you can can pull an audience by merely starting work.
- Set Up
- How can the work space be arranged to make the best use of
the demonstration? The work space should retain a 'natural' feel, providing for both
clear vision, necessary safety, and a lay out of tools and process. Can the work in process be seen or passed to the public? Can finished samples be distributed (tasting) or even 'waste' (off cuts or damaged work)? Never
underestimate the significance of such simple actions in tying object to memory.
- A skillful demonstrator will make interconnections to
and the historic culture.This will produce a number of positive
effects on the
- Many visitors will feel that their own individual concerns and
interests have been
- It can serve as a tool to allow for gentle crowd control and flow.
- It provides an easy way for visitors to understand how the various
to illustrate the historic period as a whole.
- Often by providing a specific destination the visitor can be
transformed from an
observer into a participant. "I was sent over here by..." can break
the ice and
allow for greater comfort in entering into conversation.
- Ideally each demonstrator should develop a number of
different approaches to providing the same basic information:
- A more complex picture of the individual topic can be presented.
- For the interpreter, the work remains fresh and interesting, a lively delivery also
inspires the interest and enthusiasm of the visitor.
- The repeat visitor will find something new to discover and learn on
- Special needs of visitors (language, disability) can be overcome.
Safety: History Ends Where Safety Starts
All interpreters are still entitled to full and complete protection
under existing Provincial and Federal laws.
This may seem to present a conflict between historic accuracy and
workplace standards, but in truth the public is often very sensitive to, and knowledgeable
on, these issues. Experience has shown that the public is generally more concerned
about the absence
of appropriate safety measures than their presence
. The skillful demonstrator will in fact include the presence of
obviously anachronistic equipment as another tool for education about the past.
Demonstrators always have a special responsibility to ensure that
what ever they are doing will not become a danger to the public:
- Is there room? ALWAYS consider the potential for accident. Is
the public far enough back to keep them for being hit - or even reaching things
after they have dropped?
- Can someone grab? Consider the placement of cutting tools or hot
objects. Is it possible for a member of the public to reach for them? The single
best thing to impose between such objects and the visitor is your own body.
Remember to replace covers on cutting edges or place them into chests when not
directly in use. There are several ways to show someone a cutting tool and still retain easy
control of the object, become familiar with these methods and employ them.
- Is it clear? Always remember to check the way is clear before
you move. Demonstrators should practice the use of their peripheral vision - and
constantly remain aware of all movements within their work area.
- How can you keep them back? Even a low box or bench can create a
barrier that most will not cross. In some cases it may prove necessary to use
ropes to control access. Never forget that almost any barrier can be crossed, so
the presence of a barrier does not eliminate the need for caution.
Presenting an effective physical demonstration is a challenge, which requires thoughtful planning before the fact - even more so with the added level of complexity required by working within a historic frame of reference. As with many other aspects of historical interpretation, a combination of experience, knowledge and enthusiasm can produce a highly effective display.