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.





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