I just got back from ReConference 2018, hosted by Hands on History in the National Museum of Denmark, and boy is my head reeling! I’ll try to summarize some of what I learned and my thoughts.
The premise of the conference was to bring reenactors (or as we now know them, Lhistorists), and museum directors together to try to understand and develop the scene of reenactment, and discuss how museums and reenactors can work together.
We started by trying to define terminology that had hitherto been only vaguely understood by all of us, despite having done the activities for years. We didn’t entirely agree, but here are my definitions:
Reenactment: A re-created event that occurred in history, such as a specific battle, with a script, main characters and background characters, all of whom are typically dressed according to the period. Preferably the re-creation takes place at the site of the original event, or at least somewhere similar to it. The purpose is to perform for an audience.
Living History: An immersive gathering/event where participants (aka Lhistorists) dress as people from a certain period, and perform everyday tasks historically done; crafts, cooking, music-making, etc. There is no script or characters, and participants are mainly interacting with one another. No audience is required (and they are typically discouraged), and the purpose is self-education of the period, and socializing.
Costumed Interpreters: professionals who dress as people from a certain period, and interact and engage the public in discourse about that period. The discourse can be scripted or improv, and can be first person (in character) or third person. The goal is engagement/entertainment through an interpretation of the information, and there is always an audience.
Some of the topics we discussed that I thought were the most interesting are:
Motivations for reenactment/living history and museums/academics: Reenactors/Lhistorists have many motivations, roughly divided into fun-seeking and immersion. Most Lhistorists at the conference starting living history because of the social aspect; they enjoyed socializing with the community, seeing their friends at trainings and reenactment events. Secondary, almost, but growing over time, is the drive to learn, but for the purpose of immersion. All Lhistorists eventually have to learn about the real viking age: what artifacts there are, what clothing they wore in which regions, how they did crafting; and maybe even the history of the vikings: where they went, who they raided, etc. This allows them to more accurately portray the viking age and create a more immersive experience.
Academics are also, of course, driven to learn. They have a passion for history, and take their education about it very seriously. They may enjoy socialization with fellow academics, and certainly are all trying to impress each other, and may also try living history or professional activities, but ultimately learning for them in the main goal.
Professionals within the reenactment/living history scene, including vendors, costumed interpreters, musicians, and museum directors, have the main goal of giving the audience a good time, and hopefully making money while doing it. They already have the information, either because they are academics themselves, or they acquired it from others, and they want to transmit it to the public in the most engaging way possible. They don’t care about socializing or self-education/discovery, but may care about learning.
The tensions between professionals/academics and reenactors: Because of the different motivations behind what they do, Lhistorists, professionals and academics rarely see eye-to-eye, and rarely respect one another. Academics see Lhistorists as amateurs who don’t take learning seriously, professionals see Lhistorists as amateurs who don’t take the audience seriously.
Meanwhile, Lhistorists believe they have more intimate knowledge of the period they re-create because they touch and use the objects from that time, and everything they have learned they had to seek out themselves, rather than it being handed over or bought from a school. They also dislike the audience, and barely tolerate them as a necessary evil, because they break the illusion for their immersion.
However, all these groups have something to gain from one another: Lhistorists can learn from academics, and can participate in immersive events with the support of museums. Academics can combine what they do with living history into experimental archaeology. And Museums can use Lhistorist volunteers for events for the public, having a free source of entertainment for their audience.
But the problem with this relationship is that Museums really need professionals to engage with the public, and Lhistorists really need isolation from an audience to get true immersion. The two working together without altering their motivations is a compromise that leaves both sides unhappy.
How multi-period living history/reenactment can inform us: I also learned that cross-period reenactment can really deepen one’s knowledge of living history for two reasons:
a) Reenactors from different periods focus on different activities. In the Viking scene, there’s a strong focus on combat, textiles, woodworking and blacksmithing. In 18th century reenactment, there’s a strong focus on tall ship navigation. In Fur Trade reenactment there’s a strong focus on horseback riding and survival skills. So you can gain general skills from one period, and translate them into another.
b) Objects are not isolated in history, they evolve over time. The Viking age is lacking in artifacts, but by looking at the kinds of tools and clothing that were present before and after the period, we can infer that those objects were present in the viking age (otherwise we wouldn’t find these objects in later times). The exception to this might be objects where the technology was lost (such as aqueducts), but many items that are used in specialized trades would logically have been present in the Viking Age, even though we have no hard evidence of them (such as a leather jerkin for sailing).
My take-away from the conference is on two levels: the direction of my personal growth as a Lhistorist, and my approach to creating Vikingård.
Personally, I’m much more interested now in multi-period reenactment, and even LARPing. I already was thinking about trying out other periods, both before and after viking era, as well as LARPing, but this conference definitely reenforced those desires. I want to learn more about camping, horseback riding, etc. from other periods such as fur-trappers in Quebec. Jeremie and I actually already have a contact who does hikes and camping with the gear from this period, and are planning to do an exchange with him.
As for how this will effect Vikingård, it has become abundantly clear to me that the point of a tourist destination is to ENGAGE the tourists, not to inform them. We are not a museum, nor are we a place exclusively for reenactors (because that couldn’t be lucrative), we’re an interactive site. By engaging tourists in activities and stories, we’re helping them connect on an emotional level to the idea of Vikings and traditional living, which will drive them to learn and explore the real viking age in museums, and hopefully to learn crafts on their own as well.
We have to sell the experience, not the information.
We also cannot only aspire to be lhistorists/reenactors. We have to let go of the idea of being separate from an audience, and realize that we require professional entertainment skills in order to engage that audience. We hopefully will continue to learn through living history, as well as through traditional methods, but we can only do so after hours, unless we take a very different approach (such as establishing a crafting school, or an experimental archaeology program).
I clearly learned a lot, and hope to continue having meta-conversations about living history.