Can Living in History Bring Us Together?

The Work of a Historical Interpreter is More than Just Reenactment

Historical interpreters help Americans connect and interact with the nation’s past. Theater historian Megan Mateer considers the history and promise of the profession. Wig shop in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. Courtesy of Jim Griffin/Flickr. Public domain.

It’s 7 a.m., and Crystal is getting ready for her day as a historical interpreter.

To begin the transformation, she puts on the period-appropriate dress she laid out the night before: 19th-century underclothes, overclothes, and an apron. Next come the stockings, which she pulls up and over the knee, boots, and jewelry.

She then heads over to the historical site she works at, thinking about the day ahead. When she arrives, she sits before a mirror and continues transforming, putting on a bald cap first, then pinning on her wig. Finally, she switches out her modern glasses for the round wire-rimmed period ones.

At 9:35, transformation complete, she gathers with the rest of the team to learn what roles they will portray that day. Will she be a shopkeeper, the wife of a blacksmith, or will she stroll down the avenue with the guests?

The life of an interpreter demands extreme flexibility because every day is different. Whatever the day calls for, though, Crystal is prepared to help draw guests out of the contemporary moment and transport them back to the world of the 1800s.

Historical interpreting is an ever-growing and evolving profession that has the potential to serve as an antidote for these polarizing times. By creating a welcoming space to stoke curiosity—rather than endless partisanship debate—historical interpreters like Crystal help people interact with and understand the past in a more broad-minded way. They can, quite literally, bring history to life, warts and all.

The professional historical interpreter is usually traced back to the creation of Colonial Williamsburg in 1924, when Reverend W.A.R. Goodwin approached John D. Rockefeller Jr. to help him create a living monument to America’s past to “tell of how patriotic spirits wrought here to erect an enduring spiritual temple to liberty.” What started as a way of stroking the American ego post World War I has evolved into a means of presenting audiences with a dynamic window into the past.

Historical recreational sites are now established across the United States, including the Plimoth Plantation, Jamestown Settlement, and Ohio Village. Alongside the rise of these historical sites is the evolution of dedicated interpreters, who have shifted from amateur participants to recognized professionals. While a degree is not usually required today to be a historical interpreter, it is desirable. Crystal earned hers in historical and natural interpretation at Hocking College, an immersive hands-on program where she learned many aspects of how to communicate science and history to visitors.

As the tapestry historical venues weave is fluid and ever-changing, interpreters are put on the frontlines of communicating these adjustments to guests.

The Hocking College program focuses on the idea that an interpreter’s job is not to be overly thorough or “info dump” on guests, but instead to strategically light a spark of curiosity in people walking through these historical sites. This philosophy is grounded in the idea that people can be shown all the data in the world, but if the meaning behind it cannot be communicated, then it will not resonate.

Historical interpreting goes arm-in-arm with the rise of experimental archeology, where researchers seek to better understand the lives of ancient peoples by replicating their practices. This could mean building and driving a chariot to attempt to learn what it was like driving it across the desert sands 3,000 years ago. Or reconstructing and living in an Iron Age house, complete with a thatched roof, wattle walls, and historically accurate tools and household goods. Similarly, at historical sites, buildings and many of the artifacts serve as replicas that can be used by interpreters to present as accurate a portrayal of the past as possible.

Historical sites’ duty to history means many have needed to adjust their grounds and practices to reflect our changing picture of what was. In Massachusetts’ Plimoth Patuxet, for instance, interpreters no longer wear the stereotypical black Pilgrim outfits and tall black hats with buckles, as we know now that most colonists did not wear black. They have also incorporated raised gardening, as new research has suggested they would have been used back then. Colonial Williamsburg will—and has gone as far as to—pick up and move an entire building if it is found that it is not in the correct placement. In recent years, Colonial Williamsburg has also added slave quarters and interpreters to tell crucial African American stories that were not included in earlier iterations of the site.

As the tapestry historical venues weave is fluid and ever-changing, interpreters are put on the frontlines of communicating these adjustments to guests. They have to be willing to admit when they are wrong or when they do not have an answer, and in that case, work to find one out. That means that their preparation never ends, and no program is ever static from year to year. Not all guests will be open to updates that interpreters convey due to their own misinformation or personal biases, so interpreters are also trained to de-escalate, redirect, or gently tell the truth in the face of pushback. While interpreters know they will not win over everyone who visits, they have a responsibility to portray history as they currently understand it, and be ready to update their stories as more research and the inclusion of more marginalized voices alters existing narratives.

The job of an interpreter is not a one-size-fits-all position. At historical venues, you likely will encounter either a third-person or first-person interpreter. A third-person interpreter usually dresses in the period style, but engages the guests at the venue from a modern perspective, helping them to understand when and where they are. First-person is more complicated. There are two major types: scripted and impromptu. For scripted, the guest receives more of a show, an activity within the historical moment. With impromptu, however, the interpreter is fully immersed in the moment, freely engaging with the guests to draw them into the past. Improvisation becomes the keystone to success. Because impromptu interpreters are not part of a static exhibit, they can dynamically respond to every person they encounter through both of these lenses.

Crystal’s preferred interpreter character is first-person impromptu. On this day, she is assigned to perform this role in the form of a shopkeeper.

Each time a guest walks into her shop, she’ll consider them from two lenses: within their modern context, entering the venue ready to learn, as well as in the contemporary context of a customer entering the shop. Around her, all the aspects of her shop have been carefully researched and recreated to further the experience, down to the real soup that Crystal is cooking over a real fire. She lets her guests drive the conversation when they enter. By engaging with them as the shopkeeper might talk to potential customers, she helps them to immerse themselves in the sights and even smells of the past.

Carefully, Crystal closes up her shop at 5 p.m. Even though the day is over, she does not drop character until she has left the venue.

Only then does she take off her wig, switch out her glasses, trade her basket for her purse, and head over to her car. At home, she changes out of the rest of her clothes, stepping out of the 19th century and back into the 21st.

Crystal reflects on the day, on what people might have learned about the politics, economy, and identities of quotidian life at the site. She considers what she did well and what could be done better.

She then lays out her clothes for tomorrow.

Megan Mateer is a theater historian who earned her PhD at Bowling Green State University, where she examined the efficacy of learning and engaging with history through living history experiences.
Explore Related Content
, , ,


Send A Letter To the Editors

    Please tell us your thoughts. Include your name and daytime phone number, and a link to the article you’re responding to. We may edit your letter for length and clarity and publish it on our site.

    (Optional) Attach an image to your letter. Jpeg, PNG or GIF accepted, 1MB maximum.