First Person Versus Third Person Interpretation

First, a quick word about what I mean by “interpretation.” Costumed Historical Interpretation is a term that is used at Fort Edmonton Park and some other historical sites to refer to what it is the people in historical costume do at these living history museums. As opposed to popular conceptions of historical “re-enactment”, interpreters do not present or represent themselves as carbon copies of past events. They strive towards historical accuracy, but they acknowledge that everything they do is an interpretation of the past. Hence, “interpreter”, not “re-enactor”. The terms have different philosophies at their terminological roots, though both may draw from common theories and techniques. The goal of historical interpretation is to educate the visitor about a certain time period and its people in ways that can’t be achieved through books or traditional static museum displays.

There are several different types of historical interpretation, and each has its own advantages and drawbacks. The system that I learned uses the grammatical terms “first”, “second”, and “third” person – i.e., think “I”/”we” for first, “you” for second, and “he”/”he”/”they” for third.

North West Mounted Police Officer, 1885 street at Fort Edmonton,  from the Mountie Strike Program in 2012.
Interpreting a North West Mounted Police Officer on 1885 street at Fort Edmonton Park, from the Mountie Strike Program in 2012. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz.

First person interpretation is probably one of the most well known and expected. In essence, the interpreter projects the persona of a historical figure or character, speaking as if they were that person in that time period: e.g., a blacksmith, a tennant farmer, Sir John A. MacDonald,  Louise Umfreville, Father Lacombe, etc. Some historical parks, such as the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village outside of Edmonton, do not allow their interpreters to break character in front of visitors except under very specific circumstances, which I think are limited things such as first aid emergencies and interpretation within a consecrated church. For most intents and purposes, they try to react as if they are indeed Ukrainian immigrants from the early twentieth century. 

If anachronisms are pointed out to an interpreter operating in strict first person – e.g., a visitor commenting upon an airplane flying overhead to someone acting as if they live in 1860 – the interpreter may insist that it’s a bird, dismissing things that don’t fit into the 1860s worldview. Visitors can get some pretty nifty responses this way. Interpreters don’t have to pretend not to understand anachronistic things that visitors tell them but can use it as an opportunity to practice their wit and verbal gymnastics.

This is where the elusive second person interpretation fits in, in which the visitor becomes more heavily involved. Think of it as a game of tennis: a costumed interpreter acts in-character with first person interpretation, and the visitor responds to that volley by sending the ball back, also pretending to be a historical person, though ignoring the fact that they aren’t dressed in period costume. Many interpreters performing in first person set this up automatically when they speak with visitors. They may say things like:

“Oh, are you new in town? When did you arrive? Was it a long journey?” Based on the visitor’s period-appropriate response, they can then have a conversation as if both individuals existed in the same historical time period, discussing (or commiserating on) the hardships of immigrating to Western Canada or other topics. The goal of interpretation, after all, isn’t just to be entertaining, but to be educational and informative.

Visitors don’t have to be history majors to interact in this way with interpreters. Even a “wrong” answer – guessing that they would arrive by train or automobile before they were invented or reached that region of the country, or indicating the wrong length or route of the journey – gives the interpreter the opportunity to express surprise and explain that they thought that the roads were too rough to allow for motorcars to come to town, or express hope that a proper highway or railroad will soon be built. The visitor doing second person interpretation does not have to provide historically accurate responses for the skilled costumed interpreter to “play ball”.

Acting as a customer in a store, in this case at the milliner's, is a common example of visitors engaged in second person interpretation. 1885 Street, Fort Edmonton Park, summer 2012. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz.
Acting as a customer in a store, in this case at the milliner’s, is a common example of visitors engaged in second person interpretation. 1885 Street, Fort Edmonton Park, summer 2012. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz.

Now, of course, first person interpretation can be problematic. For instance, an historical interpreter cannot wholly adopt the views of the past and react to visitors accordingly. I have seen some interpreters berate young female visitors for being immodestly dressed, which can embarrass them rather than teach them something valuable. Furthermore, how does one address issues of racism or other distressing topics such as eugenics while being incapable of breaking character? How do you explain that such negative views existed without coming across as being a supporter of them? Some visitors also like to force interpreters to break character. They may see it as a game, but it can come across as a power trip when they try to trick or force the costumed expert to acknowledge that they are a twenty-first century actor through the visitor’s “superior” knowledge of the past.  Often, if first person interpretation is not done well, every interaction with a visitor can end up being a confrontation of some kind. (More on how to avoid this in an upcoming post: Challenging Visitors and Challenging Visitor Expectations.) How would someone who was really from 1880 react to an immodestly dressed set of strangers barging into their farm house and interrogating them about their livestock and insisting upon eating some of their food?

Demonstrating how to make fire with flint and steel at Fort Edmonton, summer 2011. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz.
Successfully demonstrating how to make fire with flint and steel at Fort Edmonton, summer 2011. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz.

In third person interpretation, the interpreter openly acknowledges that they are a contemporary of the visitor, simply one in historical dress. Some interpreters operate exclusively in third person. This means that they never attempt to be in-character and fully acknowledge their role as a modern museum or park guide; the costume is treated no differently from an employee uniform in that case.

For example, in the above picture, the interpreter is performing a fire starting demonstrating with flint and steel. As she prepared the kindling she narrated what she was doing and explained the history of matches (which existed in the 1840s in different form and were completely unreliable and unhealthy compared to flint and steel), when and why one would light fires within a fur trading fort, and perhaps even when flints fell out of use and other topics related to fire starting. Lighting a fire for no practical purpose and putting it out right afterwards in the middle of the courtyard in front of an audience is not something that a Métis country wife would do in 1846, but this a demonstration of a historical skill that is made all the more interesting and education from situating it verbally in a wider historical context.

The main advantage of third person interpretation is that it can provide much needed perspective. Interpreters can feel free to broach numerous topics without their hands being tied by the need to remain in-character.  This interpretive style allows the interpreter to comment upon the park as a museum, explaining which houses or artifacts may be original and where they came from, or what happened to the people who originally lived or worked in that building, and so on, which visitors are often keen to know.  A friend and classmate portrays a pregnant prisoner in the Goderich Gaol in Huron County, Ontario, and one of her most popular questions is: “What happened to your baby?” Without third person interpretation, the visitor leaves with that question unanswered, unless the interpreter, in first person, speculates what could happen with a wink and a nod.  In third person, I could speak at length with visitors about changing perceptions of fur trade “country marriages” from the 1700s through to the late 1800s based on recent scholarship and a twenty-first century perspective. This breadth and understanding cannot be achieved if I were genuinely trying to remain in-character as a young illiterate Métis country wife who had never left Fort Edmonton. That is one of the main advantages of third person interpretation: perspective. If a visitor is intensely interested in the subject, remaining in first person – in-character – can be very limiting, particularly if the visitor wants to know “the end of the story.” Did this person get out of their current troubles? How did they die?

Many Fort Edmonton Park employees use what is termed Loose First Person Interpretation. They often begin speaking with a visitor in first person, but are not afraid to break we call their “historical bubble” by stepping out of character and acknowledging that they are in fact a person from the twenty-first century, in costume, who has done historical research, and elaborating on their previous points. They do this so that they can discuss concepts that, say, an illiterate Métis country wife or a soldier just returning from the battlefields of Europe in 1919 could not possibly know. Think, for example, of the interpreter dressed as a returning soldier, discussing their experience in Europe during the Great War, reacting to a question from a visitor: “What’s the Great War?” The interpreter can then feel free to stop and explain that the First World War wasn’t termed as such until the Second World War had occurred. (Before the 1940s, it was the Great War: the biggest war anyone had ever seen. When you referred to the “war” in 1920 everyone knew which one you were talking about. It was only after the second had occurred that you could refer to the first one as the first.) Switching to third person can help the visitor get a fuller picture.

Loose first person has its own set of challenges. It is often quite difficult to then switch back to first person once the interpreter has broken character. Furthermore, many visitors expect a person in costume to remain in character at all times and would rather get that than further historical detail, despite their questions. They can be thrown off by the change, or become disappointed, as the interpreter has failed to live up to their expectations. Some visitors, by contrast, get frustrated if the interpreter dances around their questions by remaining in first person and just want their question answered. The interpreter has to be adept at reading the situation and determining what the visitors really want: no easy task.

I am aware that some historical sites only teach one of these forms of interpretation, but I feel that we were quite lucky at Fort Edmonton to have the flexibility to react to visitor needs. Some of my interpreter colleagues were only comfortable in third person; others exclusively used first. I would love to know what other historical sites use. I imagine that there must be other ways of thinking about costumed historical interpretation out there, and I welcome any comments about alternate interpretive styles from other veteran interpreters – or dedicated and observant visitors!

Coming soon: Challenging Visitors and Challenging Visitor Expectations


22 thoughts on “First Person Versus Third Person Interpretation

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  9. suzanne B

    Interesting post. I’m not a fan of first person interpretation. It usually feels so stilted and it’s frustrating not to be able to ask an interpreter direct questions. My kids are a bit shy and clam up when addressed by costumed characters that speak in an unfamiliar manner to them.On the other hand, I’ve seen impromptu history museum “street theater” which was absolutely wonderful. Spectators could watch the action unfold, but didn’t feel pressured to participate.

    1. I realize that some people aren’t fans of first person, but I personally love it in many, but not all, situations. I know that sometimes at places like the Ukrainian Heritage Village, in my experience, it can get quite awkward because some of the things that they do can seem quite rude (in a visitor services kind of perspective) because they can’t explain out of character that, say, because of food safety/inspection laws and site policy they can’t serve food to visitors.

      On the other hand, in my experience as a Fort Edmonton Park interpreter, I have had hundreds of extremely positive experiences with adults and children while in first person. I think it also depends highly on the training of the interpreter, the attitude of the visitor, and the feeling of immersion or lack of immersion in the site. (Though I have had great success doing first person interpretation with only me in costume in a modern schoolroom teaching five year old Sparks about the suffrage movement: If you don’t mind me asking, what was your experience with first person interpreters – at a smaller site, a bigger one, etc.?

  10. Tim Lunceford

    I appreciate your perspectives on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person interpretation. I, too, dislike 1st person interpretation as it oftentimes draws the visitor into a scenario in which they aren’t always able to correctly react or participate. This happened to me once where, at our local living history museum, Missouri Town 1855. The staff had invited a group of interpreters in for a special event who, without intended malice, were about 30 years later than was appropriate. One of the “cowboys” abducted my daughter from the hay wagon we were on in order to “take” a wife before he “traveled west.” He then asked if they had my blessing to get married on the spot by a make-shift preacher, which forced me to become involved in what I felt at the time to be an inappropriate display of “wild west” hooliganism. It took quite a bit of restraint to just play along. But, as I said, there was no intended malice in their prank and I felt that they sensed my discomfort and quickly turned my daughter loose and solicited other guests for their hand in a much more restrained manner appropriate to the time-frame.
    The staff and volunteers at Missouri Town 1855 utilize the 3rd person format while in period clothing, almost exclusively for the purpose of interacting with the visitors and answering their questions more easily. My family currently has 4 generations interpreting at several locations in both Missouri and Kansas, and we’re (my wife, my son and myself) joining the others this year as a tinsmith, wife and apprentice. Though I have about 30 years of metal working experience in this day and age, I’m taking greater pains to recreate the process of tinsmithing as it would have been in a small, Midwest, farming community in the 1800’s, than a specific character who may have worked the trade. Since I’m unable to find an extensive amount of first person accounts about this trade during the 1800’s, it might prove to be more detrimental to the interpretation of the process.

    1. I completely understand your dislike of first person interpretation in that scenario! I was always taught that first person can make some people uncomfortable, so we were trained to really “read” a group of people and react accordingly. If the visitor looked uncomfortable, we would often break character. We also never “forced” visitors to participate in programs. Often first person conversations would begin with a mere greeting – “Good day!” – and would often involve the interpreter as a storekeeper or host/hostess and the visitor the customer/guest, which generally involved minimal discomfort on the visitor’s part. We didn’t do a lot of “surprise” programming like that.

      I’ve met many a blacksmith, but never a tinsmith! That is super interesting! I’m not even sure what sources one could seek out to research their lives more… Maybe in the British context there may be some written accounts that you could use? Were tinsmiths ever a part of the guild system in Europe, which could have left documents?

      1. Tim Lunceford

        You might be right about looking into the British accounts, there were far more of them there, than here. There were definitely affiliations with guilds, both in Europe and here in the US, but I’ve not done any research into them, as yet.

        More precisely to the period (1830ish to 1855), I’ll be interpreting the role of a whitesmith (as opposed to a blacksmith). A whitesmith didn’t work in “black” iron, their iron plate was coated (hot-dipped) in tin and tin is worked cold without the need for a forge. The terms tinsmith and tinner weren’t used prior to the Civil War. A whitesmith would have worked in a variety of metals and applications of them; i.e., copper, brass, possibly some silver and pewter, wire for making wire rug beaters, jewelry, etc. Since there’s very little that survives of those yesteryear tin-benders and their wares, I’m forced to use my own resources, financial and otherwise, to start out. I’ve been able to acquire a few hard-to-find tools on the internet, one very rare one from a fellow in Toledo, Ohio that was made in about 1830-1840. Patterns for making reproductions have to be made from articles found in antique shops and other museums, though there aren’t many dedicated to everyday household items. I must say, the research I’ve done in preparation of this venture has been MOST enjoyable, regardless of the difficulty in assembling the tools and raw materials to pull it off. It’ll grow as we go!

        1. That research sounds absolutely fascinating, particularly as you will have physical/tangible/material results at the end!

          I’m a Canadianist (AKA I study largely Canadian history) but you could always give these two online archives a try if you haven’t already? (No university library subscription fee required):

          The latter has a lot of American content, too, but you may hit upon British and other sources there as well. I’m not sure if they’ll be of any use, but it’s always worth doing a few searches!

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  16. I thought that it made sense when you said that one thing to consider in accurately attempting to impersonate a historical figure is to get into the habit of speaking in first person instead of a third person in order to make it more believable. I have been thinking about becoming a historical impersonator but I have been worried that I wouldn’t be able to succeed in sounding just like the figure I have chosen. I will be sure to practice speaking in the first person when discussing relatable historical events so that I can be successful in impersonating the person I choose.

  17. Anonymous

    This is an interesting article. I work at the Halifax Citadel, where we use third-person interpretation, and it’s intriguing to read about the other kinds as well. I’m not sure I would ever be comfortable doing first-person interp; i feel that third-person suits visitors’ needs more. But maybe I’m just biased. ;) Thank you for a very interesting article!

    1. I think it depends on the visitation trends at various sites! Some visitors really seek out the immersive experience of interpreters who work in first person, but at other sites third person meets visitor needs better – but it depends on the context of the site and the makeup of your visitors I think.

      Thanks for reading and commenting! :)

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