Living History Sites

“Great cultural institutions – incendiary cultural institutions – feed the flames that illuminate the human capacity to imagine the possible.” – David Carr

Historical education plays an important role in creating active participants in society. An understanding of the past can ground people in their own positions within space, time and society.[1] History, both personal and communal, informs individual identity.

The word “education” generally brings up images of institutionalized learning. Children are taught history in the classroom, learning the names and events that have contributed to the world they live in. However, despite the close

Material culture is an important aspect of living history sites.

bond of school and history, Americans often feel disconnected to the past when in an academic setting.[2] Living history sites provide a supplemental form of education that allows visitors to engage in the past in a way they are unable to simply by reading about it.

Through interpretation and the use of material culture, living history sites depict a snapshot of the past. The purpose of these sites is not to provide an exact replica, which is exact in every detail. Instead they work to show aspects of historical life that have been carefully researched and are “shaped by ideologies as much as political and pragmatic considerations.”[3]

Memory is an important aspect of both history and education. The facts and experiences that people remember through their lives make up a large part of their identity and their knowledge base. Some historians ask if memory plays the same role “when it takes on the collective, social form.”[4] Living history sites are not unaffected by memory. They incorporate the personal stories and folklore of those who once lived on the site.

Memory also informs the relationship between the visitor and interpreter. Each visitor comes to a living history site with a different amount of knowledge on the individuals and time period portrayed. Most come with preconceived notions

Living history museums can be locations for communities to gather.

about what they will see and hear. Also, audience members bring their own beliefs – their own memories of personal and communal experiences – with them to the site. Once there, these value systems can be supported or they can be challenged.

There are arguments as to the place of unpleasant or upsetting aspects of the nation’s history. Many contend that American history can not be understood if the topic of slavery is not addressed. Ira Berlin points out that the institution “shaped America’s economy, politics, culture and fundamental principles.”[5] However, an acknowledgment that slavery is part of the history of the United States does not mean that visitors will be pleased to

Slave Memorial, Mount Vernon

hear slave narratives weaved in with those of the founding fathers. Native Americans at living history sites also must face the stereotypes that visitors carry with them. Many of these interpreters confront the labels that are imposed on them, refusing “to be the symbols the tourists assume they are.”[6]

Debates over historical memory take various forms. They can be calm and respectful, or heated and angry. Even when disagreements are public or unpleasant, they are an important part of the educational experience offered by living history sites. Education can be greatly furthered when strongly held beliefs and opinions are challenged.

David Carr argues that to practice public history it is necessary for the historian to want to effect change. He states that one of the great benefits of cultural institutions is that they assure visitors that “knowledge is not privileged to any but those who can learn from the records at hand and from other people in mutual engagement with a common world.”[7] Living history sites work to be the type of “incendiary cultural institution” that Carr was discussing. Visitors are presented with narratives of the past, and the evidence which supports them. Interpreters answer their questions and listen to their comments. In conjunction with material culture and informational signage, they provide a groundwork on which the audience can build their historical knowledge. What the sites do not do, however, is tell the visitors how to think or feel about the information they are being given. This may be the most important step that living history sites take to bolster the audience’s education. They ask visitors to weigh the evidence against their own beliefs and memories, and to make their own judgments on the past.


[1] David Glassberg. Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), 7.

[2] David Thelen, “Learning from the Past: Individual Experience and Re-Enactment,” Indiana Magazine of History, XCIX (2003): 155.

[3] Laura Peers, Playing Ourselves; Interpreting Native Histories at Historic Reconstructions (Lanham: AltaMira Press, 2007), 31.

[4] David W. Blight, “If You Don’t Tell It Like It Was, It Can Never Be as It Ought to Be,” 20.

[5] Ira Berlin, “Coming to Terms with Slavery in Twenty-First-Century America,” 2.

[6] Peers, Playing Ourselves, 139.

[7] David Carr, The Promise of Cultural Institutions (New York: AltaMira Press, 2003), 38.


Published on December 1, 2010 at 4:31 am  Comments Off on Living History Sites  
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