Living History – origins

Living history is a broad term that originates in the founding of ‘living history farms’ and open air museums that were focusing on creating a total landschape environment of preindustrial times, focusing on everyday life. The terminology was also used when National Park Services began experimenting with living history approaches such as costumed guides since the 1930s and role-play since the 1960s. It is a method to represent the past and attract the public to museums, but it is also used outside the traditional museum context.

Definition Living History ALHFAM

The Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM) an international organisation of people who bring history to life since the 1970s, describe living history as: “the efforts of history museums, historical societies, and other educational organisations to truly engage the public with the impact of history on their lives today. This is accomplished by using historic objects and environs and approriate recreations to tell the stories of the people who used the objects. In the effort to ‘contextualise’ some sites try to recreate a particular time and place in the past, ignoring the intrusions of the present”. (

Definition Living History – IMTAL

The International Museum of Theater Alliance (IMTAL), which was established in the United States in 1990 to encourage theater and life performance as interpretive tools in cultural institutions, uses the concept of living history to describe interpreters in first- or third- person interpretation who engage themselves in historically authentic activities.( The concepts first- and third- person interpretation will be explained shortly.

Concerning the idea of ‘living history’, IMTAL puts more emphasis on the ‘living’ aspect than the ALHFAM concerning the idea of people recreating the past in costumes and in a historical manner, instead of a recreated, but not always inhabited historical environment. This difference is illustrative for the different ideas about living history in European versus American open air museums. In Europe, the museum displays are often called ‘living history displays’ when it seems as if someone has just left a building, whereas in America, they often inhabit the places with real living people. In America, more use is made of the method of first-person interpretation for the purpose of education, whereas in Europe the focus is more on folk life and on the use of living history in a preserved surrounding.This contrast can also be explained in terms of the traditional European ‘object-orientation’, and the American ‘people-oriented’ approach.

First Person Interpretation

First-person interpretation is the act of performing a person from the past. The interpreter is in historic costume and speaks as if he or she lived in the past. According to the ALHFAM, the interpreter employs “a combination of techniques including storytelling, demonstration, question and answer, and discussion.” The interpreter “encourages verbal interaction from the audience, and avoids breaking character.”[ALFHAM definition] First-person interpretation is also called interactive historical character interpretation or interactive historical role-play. In his analysis of Plimoth Plantation, Eddy Snow called first-person interpretation a sub- discipline of theater, drawing analogies between interpreters and Stanislavskian actors. Also Richard Schechner called first-person interpretation a theater method; placing living history museums in the same line as theme parks. Stacy Roth agrees with a theatrical side, but points at the alternative body of methods and techniques that focus on communication and education. Although it is a blurred genre, with many comparisons, to Roth it is not just a subdivision of theater.

Third Person Interpretation

By employing third-person interpretation, the interpreter is dressed historically, but does not assume a character role. The interpreter speaks informative and demonstrative about the past, but from a twenty-first century perspective. The latter method creates less barriers in communication with the visitor than first-person interpretation, but it cannot as effectively show the lifestyle of the period, and give an historical experience. A first-person interpreter cannot step out of character, and thus cannot address modern stereotypes and discuss misconceptions as a third-person interpreter can do. First-person interpretation is far more demanding for interpreters and visitors than third-person interpretation. It requires academic research, communication, education, and performance skills to make it as truthful to the past, and most engaging to the visitor, as possible.

Living History – origins 2

Living history is a rather recent method in the interpretation of history. Many elements however, were already used by Hazelius (Skansen, first open air museum in 1891), but diminished when the academic approach grew stronger than the public approach. Living history definitely found greater expression in the museum world (and in organizations such as IMTAL and ALHFAM) than in the scholarly discourse. Nevertheless, it is not entirely ignored. Jay Anderson, from Western Kentucky University, describes living history very broadly as “an attempt by people to simulate life in another time.” Mostly this ‘other time’ is the past, recreated in order to “interpret material culture; …to test an archaeological thesis or generate data for historical ethnographies; and to participate in an enjoyable recreational activity that is also a learning experience.” Anderson’s concept seems very broad, but he further qualifies living history as “obviously theatrical with its use of costumes (period clothing), props (artifacts), sets (historic sites), role-playing performance (identifying with historical characters), and the designation of time and space as special and somehow not part of our ordinary everyday world.” Living history has three primary functions: research, interpretation, and play. Furthermore, Anderson stresses that in essence, living history is the interference of the “past into our present.”

Thus, since the Second World War, living history became a serious movement in Europe and North America and now, many museums use it as the chief method of interpretation. It became especially popular in the United States where, in the 1980s, more than 800 outdoor museums used this method on a regular basis. Living history became an effective way to show social history. Visitors were given the opportunity to experience the past through narratives about people and their daily life. This experience of history which makes use of the five senses, and which is focused on emotions as well as on the intellect, was propagated already by Hazelius, but was forgotten in time, and now becomes newly established. Living history’s appeal to the spiritual past, instead of a main focus on the material past, brought engaging possibilities to bring the past alive. According to Roth, it was the desire for a more accurate, holistic approach towards history presentation that inspired the “current burst of energy in today’s living history movement.”

Living history as a folk movement – reenactment

In addition to the use of living history in museums, living history also became a ‘folk’ movement in which it was used by the people and for the people to recreate the past. Participants try to bring history to life, either for an audience, or for the participants themselves. In the United States, this movement began in the 1930s with the creation of Rifle Associations, and later with the celebrations of the Civil War Centennial and the American Revolution Bicentennial. This form of living history is mainly associated with battle reenactment in diverse historical times. However, recently, it has spread its scope in topic and period. Often this kind of reenactment is pursued as a hobby. However, the line between hobby-reenactment and commercial reenactment is sometimes thin, because museums often invite reenactment groups who recreate the past in addition to professional actors and interpreters. Despite the fact that for many reenacting is a hobby, it aims to be as authentic as possible, and plays a vital role in bringing the past to life, not denying the criticisms that can be given on issues of authenticity.

According to Anderson, reenactment is pursued because “it provides comradeship, travel, a channel for intellectual curiosity, family fun, camping out, an opportunity to play-act, and finally, money.” He describes this ‘folk’ movement as being “part revival, [a] revitalization movement, [an] ethno historical secular ritual, and [a] nostalgic response to future shock.” Lowenthal adds to this that “re-enactments reproduce past events” to “convince themselves or others of the reality of the past”, “to heighten history’s revelatory significance”, and sometimes “for a sense of purpose or excitement lacking in the present.”



Stacy Roth, Past into Present- Effective Techniques for First-Person Historical Interpretation (Chapel Hill, London, 1998).

Sten Rentzhog, Open Air Museums: The History and Future of a Visionary Idea (Carlssons, Jamtli, 2007).

David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (New York, Cambridge, 1985).

Anderson, ‘Living History: Simulating Everyday Life in Living Museums’ in: American Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 3 (1982).

Anderson, ‘Living Histories: The Symbiotic Relationship of Living History and Historical Film’ in: ‘ALHFAM Proceedings of the 1993 Annual Meeting’, June 19-23-1993.

Richard Schechner, Between Theater and Anthropology (Philadelphia, 1985).

Eddy Snow, Performing the Pilgrims: A Study of Ethnohistorical Role-Playing at Plimoth Plantation (Jackson, 1993).