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Presenting the Past - Approaches to Re-creating History

Creator: Darrell Markewitz
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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 suggest the historic period, but are not necessarily accurate. Generally there is no attempt 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 1850 AD).

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 (1615 AD).

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 costume reflects an individual character. Now it is possible to introduce commentary that reflects 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 materials and 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 historical presentations falls into this category - the cut may be based on period items, but usually the fabrics are modern and sewing machines are used in the construction. Generally only 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 acceptable when 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 handling between these items and an original artifacts. Basic information about the characteristics of an object can be gained at this level.

Level three is 'Materials':
Here the original materials and production methods are duplicated, with special 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 techniques, 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 Meadows) could 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 historic ones.
Remember interpreter have instant 'authority' in the eyes of the public! The ability to work as a creditable artisan, plus be able to effectively communicate 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 other demonstrations and the historic culture.This will produce a number of positive effects on the visitor:
  • Many visitors will feel that their own individual concerns and interests have been provided for.
  • 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 elements combine 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 each visit.
  • 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:
  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

      Updated: 4 Dec, 2007
Text © Darrell Markewitz, 2005
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