Image: A living history interpreter addresses the crowd in Colonial Williamsburg during a reenactment of the events leading up to the Revolutionary War. Photo: Bmrbarre.

Living history is the interactive practice of re-creating a historical period to investigate and understand its social, political, cultural, and material properties. Historian Jay Anderson has called it “time travel” because it ostensibly allows the museum visitor to go back in time and see what life was like in the past.

One of the earliest examples of living history is the Finnish open-air museum Skansen, created by Artur Hazelius in 1891. Skansen is a museum in which original buildings, native plants, and authentic artifacts are set in their accurate historical and cultural context. Yet Hazelius felt that the conventional model was only, “a dead museum, a dry shell of the past”1 and so he brought in traditional musicians, folkdancers, reindeer herders, and handicraft makers to populate the site and make the first “living museum.”

Decades later, Henry Ford began to create Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. Based on the Skansen model, Greenfield Village opened in 1929 to show, “American life as lived…for by looking at things people used and that show the way they lived, a better and truer impression can be gained than could be had in a month of reading.”2 While Ford was summoning the past in Michigan, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was restoring, reconstructing, and refurnishing the five hundred structures that came to be known as Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Virginia, “an authentic, three-dimensional environment” that is “essential to understanding the ‘lives and times’ of early Americans and appreciating their contribution[s].”3

Interpreters are living history practitioners that reenact the folklife and social history of a time period. Some interpreters are mainly interested in educating the public about the realities of life in the past; others use reenactment as a research tool for generating data about material culture; while still others perform the roles of well-known historical figures such as George Washington and Paul Revere, in order to create an “impression” that is as accurate as possible. Living history interpreters populate the “dry shell” of the museum in order to enliven it and show the social context of artifacts by enacting everyday existence.

By entering a living history museum, the visitor is transported to another time and context. In the words of Jay Andserson, the living history museum is, “both the time machine and the destination of time travel.”4


Sources: 1. 3. & 4. Anderson, Jay. Time Machines: the World of Living History (Nashville: The American Association for State and Local History, 1984). 2. Kelsey, Darwin. "Outdoor Museums and Historical Agriculture," Agricultural History 45 (1972): 105-127.