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Real value in costumed interpretation.

My first encounter with costumed interpretation occurred at Disneyland in southern California. No, it was not Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, or Donald Duck, though my sons did enjoy meeting them. For me, the inspirational moment came from hearing President Abraham Lincoln speak. "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" is an oratory given by a mechanical Lincoln. In a darkened theater, I was transported to the 1860s as the seated Lincoln began speaking. He then rose to stand, telling the meaning of liberty. The theater was packed with those who came to see and hear an experience that had been the hit of the 1964 World's Fair.

For a few minutes, I was able to do more than read the words of Abraham Lincoln from a book. The unlikely man who became president was speaking to me, and I could feel the passion and conviction that drew people to him. The exhibition conveyed insight into a time and person in the past. It provided meaning without a live person being involved. Decades later, when the opportunity to become involved in living history presented itself, I understood the potential of this medium to provide an opportunity for the members of the audience to make a meaningful connection.

Costumed interpretation can range from playing dress-up as a tour guide to excellent first-person presentations. Many historic sites discuss the pros and cons of adding people in period clothing. Visitors as a whole enjoy the experience but want to retain the ability to choose the amount of contact and type of interaction with participants. If interpretation impedes the visitor's experience, then it has failed. Some ways to help the visitor gain the most from period reenactments are to have good research and well-prepared interpreters, have a way to communicate outside of character, and remember that even the best costumed interpretation is pretend. No one will value a poor or inaccurate program, which means quality research must be a priority--and never underestimate the value of practice. People are often frustrated when there is no communication with the character or it is limited to the period conversation. People are more comfortable when there is someone available to answer their questions, whether it is an interpretive guide mediating between the reenactor and the audience or the interpreter stepping out of character for questions at the end of a presentation. After all, interpretation's aim is to provoke opportunities, and unanswered questions will frustrate the audience. Finally, no matter how good or accurate a portrayal of another person and time is, it is never the real thing. The goal is not to fool people but give them a glimpse into the past and create an opportunity for the audience to take more from the event than they came with.


In 2006, Fairview Cemetery, a historic cemetery listed in the National Register of Historic Places, needed to find a way to help the community value its existence and see the need to fund preservation and restoration. A plan for a living history production using costumed, first-person interpretation by students grew from collaboration with the cemetery committee and the historical interpretation program at University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. Students under the direction of Professor Tom Wing began to research and develop dialogue for each person chosen by the cemetery committee to be portrayed. Appropriate period clothing and accessories were acquired. Hairstyles were researched and tour guides trained from among the researchers. Weeks of development turned into the moment of truth. Would the public pay to peek into the lives of former citizens at their graves? The response was overwhelming, with more than 300 visitors in two hours at the small cemetery. Van Buren's "Tales of the Crypt" program at Fairview cemetery is beginning its fourth year with hundreds of repeat visitors valuing the opportunity stewardship affords them while reconnecting to the resource each year. Many damaged monuments have been restored and missing grave markers erected.

When I joined the staff of the Clayton House Museum in Fort Smith, Arkansas, I became acquainted with the Chautauqua program. It is a revival of early public lectures by notable persons for the edification of the general public. Director Martha Siler made it historic by re-creating characters from the past. A United States Marshal, the wife of a prominent pioneer businessman, the first woman to run for president of the United States, a Union chaplain, and Belle Starr were among those presented for audiences. During the first year of the Chautauqua program, visitor-ship to the museum increased by 64 percent and continued to increase the second year. Living history began to be added to other events, resulting in greater interaction between visitors and interpreters. The costumed interpreters gained confidence due to the research and the reception by the public. Visitor time in the museum increased significantly during events with period activities with first- and third-person interactions.

The opportunity came to share the success of these programs with others in NAI Region 6. A favorable response and discussion with Dr. David Knotts of Lindenwood University in Missouri led to quarterly Chautauqua presentations at the Boone Home and Boonesfield Village. This was an expansion of candlelight tours presented at Christmas time by costumed volunteers and staff. In the program, visitors are taken into historic buildings to watch scenes of times long past. More than a dozen buildings are decorated in 19th-century fashion and are illuminated with thousands of candles, lanterns, bonfires, and starlight. Period music completes the experience. Additionally, throughout the year, school groups and Scout troops have the opportunity to dress in period clothing and participate in pioneer activities. These programs and the number of participants are increasing at the Boone Home.


On-site presentations have an advantage of controlling the amount of modern intrusions into the program. Does this mean the value of costumed interpretation is seriously diminished in a modern setting? Not necessarily, as the programs presented by the living history group HIstorytellers (the capital "HI" stands for Historical Interpretation) have shown. Interpreters have used historic clothing and props in public school settings with excellent results. Children from kindergarten through sixth grade participated in interactive demonstrations on clothing, school, and household items of the Victorian era with much enthusiasm. Teachers and administrators request repeat performances because of the positive feedback. Interpretive programs involving music and sing-alongs from the period being covered are overwhelmingly popular. The setting is completely modern, but the presentation gives a glimpse of the past. Children are engaged by question and answer games, hands on opportunities, and being included in demonstrations. When the interpreters of HIstorytellers leave, we know from the expressions of the children and their reluctance for our time to end that this extension of education is engaging and successful. Often, the teachers will comment on some piece of information learned themselves.

See it, hear it, say it, touch it, and smell it to increase the value of any learning experience. The more of these included in programs without being intrusive or overbearing, the better the opportunities for audiences to connect. If something is missing, such as the smell of unwashed bodies in the hot 19th-century kitchen, acknowledge it. Then, ask visitors to imagine the heat and lack of deodorant. It will be easy to see by the wrinkled noses that the connection was made. By engaging the audience and gauging their reactions, we can use costumed interpretation judiciously in a variety of settings to enhance visitor connections and stewardship. If a mechanical Mr. Lincoln can do it, then trained interpreters will bring it to life. The measure of success is best summed up in the words of one audience member at a "Tales of the Crypt" presentation. After watching the life portrayal of a deceased citizen, she went to the costumed interpreter after the presentation and said, "I knew you when you were alive." What a connection!

Leita Spears is a graduate of the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and a graduate student at Lindenwood University. In addition to being a certified interpretive guide in NAI Region 6, she is a co-founder of HIstorytellers, and a member of the editorial board for the Journal of the Fort Smith Historical Society.
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Title Annotation:Commentary
Author:Spears, Leita
Publication:Legacy Magazine
Article Type:Viewpoint essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2009
Previous Article:A fork in the river: experiencing the change from first- to third-person interpretation at Historic Fort Snelling.
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