Finding Cultural Empathy in Living History

I don’t take many photos with visitors in them (because in general, my interest is in capturing the recreation, rather than the reactions it elicits) but in reality it is the experience of the visitors that gives the recreation its meaning.

In this, the late summer of 2016, I find myself living in a world where daily newscasts seem like thinly veiled cried for empathy: whether it be United States politics, international conflict, or disputes in European beachwear, our world is made up of myriad cultures trying – and these days often failing – to understand each other and co-exist amicably.

Multiple cultures also co-exist at living history museums like my work. One is the world of tourists seeking entertainment and education, and the staff who aim to provide it. The other is the fictional time-warp created to drop those same tourists centuries into the past. Conflicts arise frequently between those two cultures, and it is my job (or at least my goal) to resolve them wherever possible by means of knowledge and, perhaps more importantly, empathy.

Most of these cultural conflicts are small. They take the form of quips and questions through which visitors express their discomfort with the idea of stepping into the past. As a historical interpreter, these statements of lack-of-understanding are often directed at me in the form of questions: “aren’t you uncomfortable in that?” and “is that really what you would have been doing?” Perhaps the most important comment I hear however is the simple “I just cannot imagine what it would have been like to live back then!”

That is my cue; the point in the conversation where I pipe up with the simple statement of “try!” Try to imagine your life – the life of suburban parent, a well-traveled retiree, a seven-year-old about to head off to second grade – superimposed on daily life in 18th-century America. See what happens when you open yourself up to the possibility of understanding. To help with this, I open myself up for questions about my experience of what that life is like. Questions on how comfortable my clothing really is, how my lunch tastes, and whether or not I *have* to mend the soldiers’ breeches. From time to time I even get asked what sort of underwear I’m wearing, and whether or not, in this context, I would actually have been a prostitute. I do this because I understand that living history is a uniquely fictional culture, where blunt or even rude questions can be asked without giving offense, and where honest answers to those same questions can lead to a very frank understanding of why a different culture is, in fact, different.

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I explain various innovations in ironing technology in the context of their time.

I try to set up the world they are observing within the cultural context in which it makes sense. I explain the practicalities behind the clothing us interpreters wear, but also illustrate how fashion leads to impractical clothing in any era, drawing a connection with the peculiarities of their own sartorial choices. I point out analogies between their daily lives, and the lives that we reenact so that they can situate themselves in “our” world, rather than simply observing it as the “other”.

I do this because I believe that taking the time to empathize with what life was like at a military fort in the 1770’s is a skill. One that can translate into empathy with any other group or culture which is at first perceived as so strange and foreign as to be beyond comprehension.

History encompasses countless cultures from which we are temporally estranged. Our present-day world is also made up of diverse cultures which seem impossibly distant from our own. We are separated from them not by time but by geography, religion, politics, wealth, and more. I hope that visitors to my living history museum take their trip to the eighteenth century as an opportunity to practice understanding a “foreign” culture and that they come away from their visit with the tools they need to relate to a life that at first they “could not image” living.





The “Pretty” Problem

You go to a museum to learn a story by means of the objects they have on display. You go to a zoo to be entertained by the animals. You go to a living history museum to to see people bring the past back to life. People who, in their historical clothing, are part zoo animals and part museum objects. They are also, quite often, knowledgeable historians and talented craftspeople, but perhaps you do not notice this. You do notice them, photograph them, as objects, as zebras and giraffes, on display for your enjoyment. 

I’ve got a friend named Will who does living history as a hobby. Our friendship revolves largely around tossing barbed witticisms at each other. At a reenactment a few weeks ago, sitting around the tavern table and passing the punch bowl, he tossed a comment my way that I wasn’t able to forgive him for. It was a revolutionary war event, and I was portraying an army woman – the wife of a continental soldier.

What he said was: “you’re too pretty* to be a camp follower”.

A bit of “no I’m not” – “yes you are” ensued while I recovered from this blow. You see, Will did a remarkable thing – he crafted an untouchable insult: He successfully objectified me, shredding any sense that my knowledge or skill were the more relevant factors in determining my ability to accurately portray a soldier’s wife, and he did this through a comment that everyone else at the table perceived as a compliment. (For bonus points he made me feel uncomfortable. That wasn’t a comment I expected or wanted from a friend.) When I brought this up with him a few weeks later, he said that since we had a relationship based on insulting each other, he had thought of the most insulting thing he could say to me. I offered him my congratulations, because he certainly succeeded.

Aside from the simple horror of being so sharply objectified, Will’s comment touched a nerve; I’ve had the feeling since this spring that “looking pretty” while doing living history is a bit of a problem. This first came to light when I finished a new gown in March. It is pink – a nasty, insipid, little girl sort of a pink that I bought on a lark because I thought it would be funny to make a dress in such a ridiculous color. (There is a perverse pleasure to be gotten from making something historically accurate which is also godawful ugly.) But everyone else seems to think it is pretty, and when I wear it, visitors to my site take my picture; they take it instead of talking to me.  My knowledge and skills become irrelevant; superseded by my appearance. It seems to me that wearing a “pretty” dress means being a museum object, rather than a museum educator.

I received this photo, along we a handful of others, in my work email inbox earlier this week. They were taken by an older man who visited my site back in May. After photographing me multiple times, in two different locations, he asked if he could have me contact information so he could send them to me. That was the extent of our conversation. 

Because of this, Will’s comment had a second meaning of which he was unaware. Looking pretty while doing living history is a problem: it makes it much harder for me to have meaningful, educational interactions with people. To this end, I do not wear that stupid pink dress all that often. I was not wearing it at the event where I got into this little verbal dog fight in which Will struck such a significant blow. And yet, he was able to use the crime of looking pretty against me, to diminish me and my work.

I didn’t come up with the zoo analogy from the opening paragraph – that’s one we throw around at work a lot (when people touch our cloths without asking, put their fingers in our lunches, and interact with us solely through their camera lenses). It stems from the frustrations of a team of deeply knowledgeable people being viewed not as historians, but as figurines in a moving diorama. Our goal is not just to illustrate but to educate, but often we fail in this mission because of how we are perceived.

The “pretty” problem is a part of this. It is an additional hurdle I and my female colleagues are required to jump over, put up by a society that is used to objectifying women. A society where an older male friend doesn’t have to think twice before throwing out a comment that revolves around physical appearance. It makes me so sad. The only fix I know is not to sit quietly while photographed, but to talk to the people who face me through their iPhone cameras, and hope they go home with not just a photograph, but some historical knowledge, and a small sense of the person who they learned it from.


*A note on my physical appearance: I am a healthy, normal-enough person in her mid-twenties. That’s it. I’ve never been in a beauty pageant, so I don’t have any more solid information for you on the topic of my looks, nor do I want it. If you feel the need to form your own opinion, let it remain that: your own.