The re-creationist view of history

Yeah, right!

What happens at the intersection of history, art, and commerce, when historical sites and/or historical re-creations are turned into tourist attractions?  Some folks on my blogroll have been writing thoughtfully on these questions. 

First, Flavia at Ferule and Fescue went to North America’s “Shakespeareapalooza” this summer (a.k.a. the Stratford Shakespeare Festival) and writes about the curious flava of the festival:

[T]he best parts of the festival were the most amateurish, in the best sense of that word: though the actors were all professionals, there was a palpable sense that they and the audience (even the annoying lady with the dyed-red hair in the row behind us, who was loudly showing off her Shakespearian expertise before the show and during intermission) were there out of love for the plays, for Shakespeare, and for live theatre. And if you have to be a tourist in a tourist town, it’s pleasant for it to be one with three bookstores on the main drag, where you can saunter to a tasty post-show dinner at midnight, and where all the other tourists also have rolled-up programs popped beneath their arms.

But the less amateurish stuff was less agreeable. The mainstage production–the one in the fancy theatre, with the big-name star, and with lots of special effects–was dreadful.

And speaking of dreadful–some inept “social media” hack from the Stratford Festival “argued” in the comments with points she didn’t make, in a commentary on the festival that was overwhelmingly positive.  Whatever, d00dz!  Keep on practicing using those interwebs, will you?

Next, Chauncy DeVega at We Are Respectable Negroes wonders about the practice of sleeping in slave cabins:  is it “Honoring the African Holocaust and our Ancestors, or Trivializing their Memory?”  He writes,

Civil War reenactor Joseph McGill has been trying to commune with the ancestors by sleeping in slave cabins throughout South Carolina. His mission is noble and ought to be admired. However, part of me is uncertain about his project. For example, I have always wanted to go on a tour of the underground railroad where one traces the actual routes used, sleeping in basements, navigating north to freedom over several weeks. I have also wanted to go to Goree Island in Senegal, where I would meditate in the slave fortresses where thousands upon thousands were imprisoned and died.

As powerful as the experience would be, I wouldn’t have slave dogs on my heels and bounty hunters a step behind me. I wouldn’t be trapped in the belly of a beast, exhausted and frightened beyond all belief, for I knew not what would happen to me tomorrow. What would you do? How does one balance a yearning to experience just a tiny bit of the unimaginable with a fear of reducing hallowed ground to a tourism destination?

I think these are important questions–but ultimately, I come down on the side of opening up as many public history sites as possible, especially those that commemorate the lives of people whose histories pose challenges to Whig history or American exceptionalism.  All re-creations are ultimately performative and sanitized versions of the history they re-create–Stratford, Ontario offers just a highly selective view of Shakespeare’s world.  Colonial Williamsburg (for example) is undoubtedly lice-free and the re-enactors there bathe or shower and launder their clothes a lot more often than they would have in the eighteenth century.  Plimoth Plantation doesn’t hold public executions, and all of the bodies remain buried at Gettysburg. 

My bet is that the people who would choose to visit or even stay the night in a slave cabin are people who are genuinely curious about the history and would be respectful of the sacred grounds they visit.  It would be wonderful to have public history sites that commemorate the histories of enslaved and working people in the same numbers as the sites that recreate their owners’ and bosses’ lives in high-style Georgian and Victorian mansions.

What’s your view of the intersections of history, art, and commerce?

0 thoughts on “The re-creationist view of history

  1. I worked at a historic settlement for two years and, as a historian-in-training, I was always struck by the selective interpretation of “authenticity” practiced by both the settlement administration and the public who visited it. Administration shoved this notion of historical accuracy down our throats all the time, never pausing to wonder if their over-priced, made-in-china niknaks for sale at the gift store were appropriate souvenirs. After a while it seemed as though “authenticity” was just another method of employee control, whereby the only authentic reenactment was that endorsed by our supervisors, as if we could actually be expected to recreate the past in all its nuances but in a way which made the past quaint and marketable.

    I also found a good number of the visitors came, not to learn about the past, but to have their nostalgic, classist, sexist and racist understandings of the past reaffirmed. I have been TOLD many times, that women never left their houses (not even to care for gardens and farm animals), and that all black people were slaves (in post-civil war British North America). Trying to correct these people is like trying to beat a nail into the wall with your forehead: it doesn’t work and you have a headache for the rest of the day.

    But of course, many of the employees had a death-grip on these types of nostalgic understandings of the past too, so many were ready and willing to spew quaint ahistorical nonsense to the masses anyway.


  2. _The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg_, by the anthropologists Richard Handler and Eric Gable, which I used in a colonial history course could it be a dozen years ago, (c. 1997) already, addresses some of these issues, in a somewhat interdisciplinarily awkward but largely humane and even sometimes humorous way. I guess I’d say I’m basically with Historiann on this one, although if there was ever a question that argued aloud for a “case-by-case” approach, this would probably be it. The devil would definitely be in the details. Slightly off-topic, but that groaning board of a colonial table up top has got me anticipating what will hopefully be the third annual Thanksgiving recipe exchange “special issue” here, hopefully?!?


  3. Speaking of which, while in Virginia I saw the creepiest ads on TV for Jamestown. They talk extravagantly about how Jamestown reflects the melding of three vibrant cultures, which are, explicitly, Native American, African, and British. (I guess the improvement here is the acknowledgment of the existence of non-whites and their historical significance?) I’m not doing a good job of describing why the ads gave me the “ick”. The tone of the ad made it seem like these cultures came together seamlessly in this wonderful rich melting pot (not much in the ad about the horrific treatment of slaves or genocide of indigenous, let alone how the settlers might have viewed the concept of cultural melding in the 17th century). This seemed to be the “bad” or at least potentially dangerous side of historical reinactments. Unfortunately, I think most such sites are driven by ahistorical nostalgia, as Meaghan experienced, rather than genuine interest in the past as it was lived. I don’t know if that’s a particularly American way of insisting of viewing the past, but it does seem rampant here.


  4. Places such as Colonial Williamsburg feel awkward to me. The commercial aspect is way more dominant than the historical and cultural ones. Similar places without the pomp and circumstances of Colonial Williamsburg are peppered all over the country; I prefer them. Of real interest are detailed archeological digs augmented by audio/visual shows. You can find them in the US, Europe and the Middle East. Such places have an almost universal language and enjoy decent popularity.

    Staying in caves doesn’t appeal to me since one doesn’t get the original feeling no matter what one tries to recreated.


  5. I visited Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown both, between 10-15 years ago. It’s not my area of study so I was essentially there as a tourist. There is just no comparison. You could spend days at Williamsburg without being aware that there were slaves there, whereas at Jamestown you could see the slave cabins. I found the emphasis on the three cultures very well done; I didn’t think they were whitewashing the treatment of slaves or indigenous people. I am sorry to hear the ads are not representing it that way.

    The reason we did our family spring vacation there is that I was giving a paper at William & Mary. At a meal with some of the faculty, I mentioned how well done I thought the video at Jamestown was in terms of the idea that Virginia wasn’t just built by white people, and it turned out that one of the people at the table had been a consultant on it.


  6. A black friend of mine has lived in South Carolina her whole life. When her future mother-in-law, also black, visited the state for the first time (their first meeting), one of the first questions out of her mouth apparently was, “So where can I go to pick some cotton?” She was also surprised that my friend had never “experienced” picking cotton — and wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about finding out where there even was a cotton field available for tourists. Reenactment isn’t for everybody.

    (And thanks for the recipe link, I will try to try it soon 🙂 )


  7. Agreed that as many public history sites as possible should be open–my question would be what rules should govern them? At point do we go “ick”? Is Williamsburg just too big and commercial to maintain integrity?

    There’s a board game called Puerto Rico: The Game of Colonialism. Each player is a settler, who may act as a planter, trader, mayor, military, etc. To win the game, you need to produce and ship sugar/cotton/tobacco, etc—to produce crops, you need to have little dark brown gamepieces that are labeled “colonists”. Okay, those are slaves. (I’m simplifying–fuller description here, which description is quite at odds with the issue of slavery) Should the game call them slaves? I kept calling them slaves anyhow, but I’m not sure my multi-cultural group of friends was really happy with me saying “hey, I’ll trade you some slaves for some corn.” Should I have not done that? Would my pretense of “colonists” be more or less trivializing? Should the game not be made? Should the game be used in the schools to teach both the history and the memory of the plantation complex?

    [Sorry. Just questions. No answers. I think I meant to blog about that game, come to think of it.]


  8. I used to be active in the Society for Creative Anachronism, which we described to people as “recreating history but not exactly as it was.” Some parts of the recreation experience can be very accurate and helpful — a friend of mine, Darrell Markewitz, is just back from running a bog iron smelt at L’Anse Aux Meadows where he, as a recreationist and smith, has set up a lot of their technological recreation:


  9. When I did my diss research in the UK, I ended up doing some teaching. One of my students was older, and a re-enactor of the ENGLISH civil war. Re-enacting had got him interested in history, sent him back to college to do A-levels and then to University. And it could be quite interesting — he’d say, but you have to understand how HEAVY the clothes are, and other such things.

    Reenactment is a way of reminding us all that history was in fact embodied. Though the selective amnesia is amazing.


  10. I’ll fess up that reenacting was what got me interested enough in history to want to do a PhD. I started out at 15 working at a village museum, and then worked at a couple of other museums in high school and college. I finally started going with a couple of volunteer groups on my own, and the kinds of questions I was interested in as a result didn’t seem to be talked about or written about. So off to grad school (more or less). And when I mention that I used to do reenactments to my students, I’m always surprised by how many of them are involved in it–I think it gets people interested in history in ways that elementary school narratives don’t.

    I’ve seen the nostalgia trap that Meaghan mentioned, and while there’s varying degrees of it everywhere, part of the concern is marketability, and not just of the nik-naks kind. At one of the more authentic sites I worked for, we were thinking about staging a public execution, but the administration was concerned that it would hurt the site’s reputation for family-friendliness. We considered carding (ie, this part of the site is R rated) but it ultimately got nixed. Even the most authenticity-conscious sites have budgets to think about. All the places I worked were very concerned with balancing authenticity with number of visitors attracted.


  11. Just as a point of clarification, Plimoth would not be able to show a public execution as they are set in 1627. The first execution to take place there was John Billington in 1630. But I do understand your point nonetheless 🙂


  12. I think our culture has a bad conscience about commercialization, which it tries to relieve by (among other things) taking holidays in an imagined past.

    I’m not a historian, I’m a musician. Starting about fifty years ago there was a wave of “authentic” performances of Baroque and Renaissance music, followed, when the term “authentic” was challenged, by a hasty retreat to “historically informed performance practice;” Richard Taruskin argues, persuasively I think, that the aesthetic is actually Modernist, and I’d go further to say that unless we can recreate the Baroque audience, complete with its Baroque ideas and beliefs and experiences, we need to make even HIPP claims with caution.

    So I’m surprised that such explosive material as slavery and genocide, and how to incorporate them in more or less “authentic” re-enactments, should be treated with what strikes me as casualness. I think sleeping in a slave cabin, like sitting in the electric chair at Huntsville Prison in Texas (yes, you can do this–bring the kids!), is both irredeemably false and offensively trivializing.


  13. One can actually recreate a journey on the Underground Railroad at a living history place in Indiana:

    There’s a great popular book from the ’90’s on history, the American South, and Civil War re-enactments called “Confederates in the Attic.” To be sure, it’s all white people out there reenacting the Civil War; and it’s mainly doods of a certain variety. The best parts of the book were when the author tarried along on an overnight reenactment where the 15 or so members of a regiment slept on the ground and ALL SHARED THE SAME SINGLE WOOLEN BLANKET and vied for authenticity while eating moldy bacon. Good times in the 19th c.!


  14. I dunno. I personally don’t see the appeal of living history, but I have sent on a student to do an MA program in public history with an emphasis in first person interpretation. I did get the sense from this student that both the “dress-up and make believe” and the research were integral parts of the experience. I think that the kinetic, tactile, and embodied parts of re-enacting can help some people learn some profound . Its clearly also a form of entertainment for some, a hobby for others, and a going commercial enterprise. But as a form of history and social memory, I don’t think its any better or worse than the Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kerns-Goodwin, Shelby Foote practice of history (minus the icky plagiarism in the first two examples).

    My only concern [/open pearl clutching] is that this will be the only form of history in the future. I am not sure public universities are committed to history or other humanistic disciplines unless they have a clear vocational purpose. If thats the case then we will only be teaching history in a form that is digestible by school teachers and public history specialists. The academic practice of history will shrink to meet the needs of a few R I’s and some tony private liberal arts colleges. [end pearl clutching/]


  15. Pingback: Of Follow the North Star and Steal Away Jordan: Would You Play a Roleplaying Game Set During Slavery in the Antebellum South? « SpeakEasy

  16. Is there something in between re-enactment and guided tours? Fifteen years ago I was a docent at The Tenement Museum in New York City. Where else is the immigrant story celebrated–granted, a limited view of 19th & early 20th century Germans, Jews, and Italians. The building was not overly fixed–visitors saw bathtub in kitchen, toilets in halls. As we crowded together, there was some reality to reality of too many bodies living, sleeping in shifts in tiny, airless rooms.

    Short dramas were offered periodically to give a sense of family interactions that might have occurred. Walking tours of the changing neighborhood were encouraged. In my dreams I imagine an iconic, genuine structure, one where early arrivals lived in cities across the nation.


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