Sexism at Historic Sites: Should Women in Historical Costume Blacksmith?

It should not be too surprising for you to learn that sexism is present in historical parks. I mean, sexism is still present in 2013, shockingly enough. However, when your job as a costumed historical interpreter is to portray a woman in a time period before the emergence of the feminist movement in the mid-twentieth century, you will likely encounter a certain amount of sexism, inherent in the part, particularly when it comes to portraying women’s roles, women’s etiquette, and the treatment of women by men. The extent to which various historical parks insist upon their staff matching their behaviour to historical roles differs, but in many cases obvious portrayals of historical sexism is a given: e.g., female interpreters (doing first person interpretation, anyway) will not speak publicly as often as men, will more often be found “at home” or “on the farm” than in a workplace (though not always), will often be discouraged from walking the street without a male escort, and so on. Male interpreters may make disparaging remarks about a woman’s place in front of visitors, women may be required to do certain tasks that men wouldn’t do (e.g., serving food or cleaning up if they are visible to visitors), etc. Even programs involving, say, interpreters marching in support of women’s suffrage may also involve some costumed anti-suffrage “protesters”. 

However, in these cases, these actions are generally expected and, well, forgivable, as the people in costume are essentially actors playing a role. Agreeing to work in a living history museum generally means that those in costume knew what they were signing up for, and most parties know that what’s said in costume when in front of visitors is not a true expression of one’s opinion of a women’s place in the world. In fact, by portraying historical instances of gender inequality, costumed interpreters hope that they can educate visitors on the origins of sexism today and can unpack and even debunk concepts like “traditional womanhood”. (“Women have always worked outside of the home! No, I’m not going to wait for my husband to come home to chop this firewood. Hand me that ax.”) Addressed in a conscious manner, portrayals of historic examples of sexism society should be used to educate visitors, not make cheap jokes at the expense of women. 

This woman isn't oppressed enough, judging by this man's expression! Photograph by Lauren Markewicz, 1885 Street at Fort Edmonton Park, Summer 2011.
This woman isn’t oppressed enough, judging by this man’s expression! Photograph by Lauren Markewicz, 1885 Street at Fort Edmonton Park, Summer 2011.

Most of the male interpreters I have known, despite the act they put on in front of visitors, are some of the most progressive feminist allies I know. I have worked with colleagues who have felt bad about the “show” they put on for visitors and do all they can to make it up to us. For instance, after I served the gentlemen their tea (in my position as a lowly maid in the fort) for a program for the benefit of visitors, these men would make a point of rolling up their sleeves and doing all of the washing up in the employee-only areas, out of sight of visitors who may question why Fort Edmonton’s Chief Trader or Chief Factor was doing the dishes while the maid put her feet up. While the line between sexism as an act for the benefit of the audience and everyday sexism as encountered in the workplace can be a fine one that is crossed at times – even if it is an act, the psychological effects can still be similar – most male interpreters are conscious of these gender issues and try to make it clear that the historical views of a woman’s place are not their own. Having a respectful workplace is important, even when your workplace involves portraying historical examples of disrespect.

However, aside from the expected performance of historical sexism for the benefit and education of the visitor, there are other forms of sexism at play in historical parks. Namely: can or should female interpreters take on male roles, up to and including portraying men or performing historically male tasks? These issues are particularly important when it comes to positions that are considered prestigious, especially when it comes to job training and acquired skills. For example, at historical military forts such as Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario, or the Fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, where a great many interpreters are in military positions, is it acceptable to have a female interpreter don a man’s uniform and portray a man? I have heard that in some Civil War re-enactment circles there is some controversy over women wanting to participate more fully than in the “camp follower” or “nursing” positions. Need they limit themselves only to historical women soldiers who dressed up as men to fight for the cause? Or do too many people invoke the nebulous “it’s not historically accurate” “rule”? I’d welcome an inside view, from both the visitors and the men and women in costume! (Side note: one MA student at Carleton this year is writing her thesis on the subject of women soldiers at the Fortress of Louisbourg – I look forward to reading her work, as should you.)

While I am no expert on women in male military uniforms (though I have portrayed a (female) military nurse with the rank of Lieutenant), I can speak to my experience at Fort Edmonton Park. (Disclaimer: I am no longer an employee of Fort Edmonton Park, so my views are my own and do not necessarily reflect current park policy.) One of the skills I most like to brag about is my ability to drive vehicles from the 1920s. However, as far as I understand it, women interpreters on 1920s Street did not often drive the cars until relatively recently. Why not? Because it was thought to be “historically inaccurate” for a woman to get behind the wheel in 1920. Sorry ladies, but get in the passenger seat, because only men can drive automobiles.

Understandably, this policy would be likely to cause some tension in the workplace. There is a lot of prestige attached to driving such cars, and let’s be honest, it’s incredibly fun. Was it “fair” to exclude costumed interpreters from learning this valuable skill simply because of their gender? Now, in this case, there was a fairly simple solution: women interpreters (before my time), fed up with not being allowed to drive, did some digging in the library and the archives and found that yes, women did drive in Edmonton in the past. In fact, while still a minority, female drivers were not even that uncommon a sight in the 1920s in North America and Great Britain! (For example, Hazel Rutherford, daughter of Alexander Rutherford, Alberta’s first Premier and a very important figure in the early history of the University of Alberta, played chauffeur to her father for over thirty years in the early twentieth century, as he never learned how to drive.) The “historical accuracy” argument barring women from driving fell apart in the face of documentary evidence, and female interpreters were allowed to get behind the wheel at the park. As is generally the case with programs at Fort Edmonton Park, if an interpreter can prove that it happened in Edmonton during that time period, it’s generally acceptable to present to the public. (This is why the park does not show train robberies, gun fights, or other “Wild West” style performances, no matter how exciting to the public that may be, for the simple reason that as of yet they have not found any evidence of such things occurring in the Edmonton area.)

On a similar note, female interpreters were not allowed to participate in the York Boat arrival program in the fur trade era. (In summary, it involves a contingent of men with a York boat loaded with goods rowing down the river to be greeted by visitors on shore, a spectacle that further emphasizes interpretive themes of travel and trade.) Why weren’t women allowed in the boats at the park? Again, it’s historically inaccurate. The Hudson’s Bay Company didn’t want European women taking up valuable space in the boats that could go towards carrying more valuable cargo, and from the late 1600s through to the 1830s, white women were banned from fur trading posts and boats. This ban – which also generally encompassed missionaries and their wives, as they also were not considered profitable goods – was one of the reasons for the rise of “country marriages”, or unions between First Nations women and Euro-Canadian or Scottish company employees. Too bad, female interpreters: you can’t participate in the largest program of the season at Fort Edmonton Park, because we have few written records of women in boats.

The York Boat arrives at Fort Edmonton! Photo credit Cassidy Foxcroft, August 2011.
The York Boat arrives at Fort Edmonton – with a lady on board. (From left to right: Tom Long (rowing), Joseph the carpenter and boat builder (steersman) and myself, Lauren Markewicz (waving).
Photo credit Cassidy Foxcroft, August 2011.

There were further practical considerations to be had. The York Boat program requires all hands on deck; it’s one of the largest programs run by the park and requires about twelve or more people in costume to pull off: not only the rowers, the steersman, and the lookout on the boat, but it also at least one person on shore to direct and talk to visitors and one or two people to literally “hold down the fort”, as it can’t be left empty while the program down by the river is under way. As the fort rarely has more than ten paid interpreters present on any given day, plus potential volunteers, to even get enough people at the oars, supervisors and even interpreters from the other time periods would get into the costumes of labourers from the 1840s. In this context of staffing numbers, it was really difficult to justify having additional interpreters – women – as “dead weight” in the boats, and so often they were left on shore, unable to fully participate in what was often considered the biggest program of the year at the fort. Yes, women participated in after-hours rowing practice to fill the ranks of rowers, but could not be in the boats in that position in front of visitors because it was “too inaccurate.”

In this case, with some debate, women were allowed to participate, again by subverting the “historical accuracy” clause: instead of coming from the Hudson’s Bay at the end of a long journey, the boat was portrayed as coming from a different fort, Rocky Mountain House, along with its Chief Trader, John Edward Harriott, and Nancy Harriott, his mixed-blood wife (also the daughter of the Chief Factor of Fort Edmonton, John Rowand). In fact, changing the program to one of inter-fort travel instead of the return of the boat brigade from Hudson’s Bay made the optics of the program even more realistic; the park never had enough cargo to fill the boat to “accurately” portray the huge mounds of trade goods that would have been brought from the Bay. (By some accounts, these one ton York Boats could carry up to four tons of cargo!) However, it was just right for some inter-fort travel.

Mrs. Harriott Disembarks the York Boat with the help of Tom Long dit "Pas de Cheveux" and Erik who had no potentially embarassing fur trade nickname. Photograph by Cassidy Foxcroft, summer 2011.
Mrs. Harriott disembarks the York Boat with the help of Tom Long, dit “Pas de Cheveux”, and Erik, who had no potentially embarrassing fur trade nickname. Photograph by Cassidy Foxcroft, summer 2011.

In this case, the question of whether or not the park could allow women on the boats had a relative “easy” solution, simply by demonstrating through historical documentation that women would be on the boats in the past in certain contexts. The “it was really historically accurate!” card was waved to justify the change in policy. More often than not, interpreters at Fort Edmonton Park would rather do additional research to “prove” that women in the past did indeed do the things that interpreters in the present are banned from doing, challenging the supposed historical accuracy of that particular sexist ban rather than the concept of historical accuracy itself. There is good reason for this – as people trying to portray elements of Edmonton life in the past, they don’t want to challenge visitor expectations too much. They want to “accurately” interpret the past as much as possible, holding themselves up to an idealized standard. By subverting visitor expectations a little bit – by challenging the notions that “women didn’t drive in the 1920s!” or “no women were ever on HBC boats ever!” – but in a way that was “true to the past”, interpreters can use the supposed “inaccuracy” to further discussion of historical events instead of just shrugging and awkwardly explaining that what they’re doing isn’t completely “accurate” and missing out on a learning experience for the visitor.

Sorry ladies, only real men can interpret in the trade store.  Photograph of "Mr. Anderson" by Lauren Markewicz, summer 2009 at Fort Edmonton Park.
Sorry ladies, only real men can interpret in the trade store.
Photograph of “Mr. Anderson” by Lauren Markewicz, summer 2009 at Fort Edmonton Park.

However, what about positions that cannot be “proven” to be “historically accurate”? For example, the “Trade Store” in the fort is one of the most dynamic buildings in which to interpret fur trade history to visitors; it is full of excellent artifacts – furs and trade goods, as illustrated on the left – and allows for some very interesting conversation starters. In many ways it is the “heart” of the fort. However, technically, this is a post that would have been literally “manned” by a (literate) officer who would conduct trading. Would women be in the trade store by themselves? Probably not. (In fact, labourers like Mr. Anderson, pictured, may not have been in there either.) Interpreters don’t often comment on it; if asked, women often claim to be the Cree or Blackfoot interpreter or the wife of the interpreter, whose room is in the trade store, around the corner from the fireplace, out of view. In this case, men and women, who portray a range of socio-economic classes in the fort, all interpret to visitors in this location, for the simple reason that everyone should have a turn to staff the most popular building in the fort.

Then there is the issue of blacksmithing; historically, this was not a skilled trade that First Nations women in the West learned. (Remember, there were no white women at Fort Edmonton in 1846, only Cree and Métis.) Blacksmithing at the park is normally done by experienced volunteers, historical workers, or volunteers, who often teach male employees the basics: e.g., how to make nails, how to make a cloak pin, and so on. Visitors greatly enjoy seeing these men at work. But what about the female interpreters who want to give it a shot? As far as I understand it, this debate is still ongoing, in particular because there are also health and safety issues in play. Men in the fort were allowed to learn to blacksmith but they must wear appropriate footwear: steel toed boots. It isn’t terribly difficult to find black leather boots that look accurate enough for the 1840s to be worn while blacksmithing in costume, but the ladies of the fort are all interpreting First Nations or Métis people. Their costumes always involve mocassins and dresses, which are not ideal blacksmithing wear. Health and safety should always be a consideration, but is it waved as an excuse, leaving only men with the training to learn this fascinating skill?

However, if women are barred from learning historically male skills like blacksmithing because of health and safety issues, should men be barred from learning other skilled female tasks? Alternatively: if women aren’t allowed to blacksmith, should men learn how to do  beadwork? The women at the Fort all tend to quickly learn how to do plains-style beadwork on looms, embroider leather, or make beaded necklaces. In fact, considering the busy lives of these indigenous women historically, interpreters probably spend a bit too much time doing beadwork everyday, but it is a source of fascination for visitors as well as entertainment and pride for the staff, and opens up many fascinating conversations about trade goods, status, fashion, and skilled labour. I much preferred to be doing a skilled task when visitors approached me to speak, as opposed to waiting and twiddling one’s thumbs and “springing to life” when a visitor enters the room. You want to appear to have been going about your day when the visitor comes upon you, and asking about what you are doing is an ideal conversation starter. However, male interpreters at the fort really wanted to learn how to do beadwork as well, and in the years I was at the Fort it wasn’t uncommon for men to learn and be found at their bead loom, particularly during the slow hours. Nevertheless, the argument that it was historically accurate for men at the forts, particularly French Canadian or Orkney Islander employees, to do beadwork is a difficult one to make. Often these men would rely upon third person interpretation to explain how beading works instead of addressing visitors in-character while beading.

Yes, this is a lady's bike - note the low body for ease of pedaling while wearing an ankle-length skirt - and yes, I did cycle in that uniform. Summer 2012. Photo Credit: Bert.
Yes, this is a lady’s bike – note the low body for ease of pedaling while wearing an ankle-length skirt – and yes, I did cycle with relative ease in that uniform. Summer 2012. Photo Credit: Bert.

On the same note, there are a few other objects that should be reserved for the exclusive use of women but are not. With only a handful of accurate and working artifact bikes available on site, all but one of which have the low lady’s bar (to allow for riding while in skirts), is it acceptable for a man to use a lady’s bicycle? Especially if the visitors generally “won’t notice” the difference? Can you single these bikes out exclusively for lady’s use?

Why is it okay to be historically inaccurate in some ways but not in others? Is historical sexism an appropriate justification for modern sexism at historic sites? Need we kowtow to “historical accuracy”? Probably, to some extent, because if we deconstruct the concept too much then it may chip away at the very methodological foundations of living history museums.

Still, I’m not about to give up my historical driver’s license. And let’s be honest, if/when I return to the park, I’d love to give blacksmithing a try. Hey, it’s 2013: we have the right to vote and regularly wear trousers. Nothing can stop us now!

Definitions:

For the purposes of this blog post, I have defined sexism as, roughly, distinguishing between the sexes/genders in a way that is detrimental to one and giving advantage to the other: or, the elevation of one gender over another.

The concept of “historical accuracy” is very nebulous and contested, and I have mused upon it before in an overly-long blog post. Look out for a follow-up post some time in the new year.

Related Posts On Costumed Historical Interpretation and Fort Edmonton Park:

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(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part IV: the 1846 Fort and the Return to 2013

Last Time: (Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part III: 1885 Street

Circle

Circle:  Teepees are erected with a base “tripod” of three poles tied together. The other poles are laid in place in a circular fashion before another rope walked around them.  The canvas is attached to the tops of the tops of the last two poles and is dragged up – these form the smoke flap.  The poles are heavier and more unwieldy then they look.

“Ceiling shot!  Ok, I do this thing where I take pictures of ceilings.  Teepees are no exception.”

Continue reading “(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part IV: the 1846 Fort and the Return to 2013”

(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part III: 1885 Street

Last Time: (Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part II: 1905 Street

Dominion Day Bunting

Dominion Day Bunting:  I love the word “bunting”.  I find it a cheerful piece of vocabulary, although I also associate it the action of booting/kicking for some reason.  These are also the colours of the British/Imperial flag, not a celebration of France or the United States, though some visitors do get confused.  God save the Queen!

A tourist’s confusion.  While I was taking this picture one of the other visitors made the comment about how the bunting (Not a permanent fixture, just a Dominion Day decoration) must be an homage to the French contingent of Canada’s history.  I’m fairly certain that it’s just the colours of the Union Jack and not the French flag though, especially in a province that was named after a member of the British Royalty.  Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, daughter of Queen Victoria who at the time was the ‘Queen of Canada’.”

Continue reading “(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part III: 1885 Street”

(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part II: 1905 Street

Last time: (Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part I: 1920s Street

Fire Station Red Brick, Red Engine:  This building is one of the reasons that the man who interprets the police officer on 1905 street is often mistaken for a fireman.  The interpreter this past summer kept a running tally of how many time he was mistaken for a fireman over the course of the season, and it was in the hundreds.

The Lost Kids.  When we were small kids my brother and I crawled into one of the sections of the building that was roped off to prank our mom and hide.  We didn’t always consider the rules…  or the angry mother… or the angry interpreters…”

Continue reading “(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part II: 1905 Street”

(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part I: 1920s Street

A photograph of myself taken by my good friend Cassidy Foxcroft, during the York Boat arrival program in August 2011.
A photograph of myself taken by my good friend Cassidy Foxcroft, during the York Boat arrival program in August 2011, which is one of the most involved programs in the fur trade (1846) era of the park. I was interpreting the mixed-blood wife of the Chief Trader of Rocky Mountain House: hence the bonnet and lace.

My name is Lauren Markewicz, but in years past, when I worked at Fort Edmonton Park as a costumed historical interpreter, I was also known as Nancy Harriott (when working in the reproduction of the 1846 Fort) or Nancy Sparrow (when working on 1920s Street). Fort Edmonton Park portrays four distinct time periods of Edmonton’s history: 1846 (fur trade era), 1885 (early European settlement), 1905 (industrial era: post-railway but pre-war), and 1920s (roughly post-First World War to the 1930s). It is a park full of original buildings and reconstructions of buildings and sites that once existed in the Edmonton area. The park is animated by costumed historical interpreters who interpret past events, activities, and personages to visitors. As an interpreter, it was my job to try to bring Edmonton’s past to life, so to speak.

The following photographs were taken last summer by Kirsten Seiersen; this post appears in near duplicate on her blog, which you can find here. I look upon these images with nostalgia, as they were taken in the first season after my four years at Fort Edmonton were over. I was doing an internship at Library and Archives Canada in Gatineau, Quebec, bound to my desk in a cubicle instead of being paid to bake Saskatoon berry pies, knit socks, drive historical vehicles, and talk to people about history all day. I suppose I had to get a “big kid” job that didn’t involve dress up at some point, though if the park were open year round I honestly would never consider seeking another profession. Alas, this lovely historical park nestled in Edmonton’s river valley is only open for four months of the year. But what a season!

I was invited by Kirsten to comment upon the photographs she took while at Fort Edmonton on Dominion Day – that’s Canada Day, July 1st, to the rest of you – to get two alternate but at times complementary descriptions. My comments appear alongside hers. In my version of the post, her writing will appear in quotation marks and will be italicized. These posts will also be divided roughly according to era, creating a four part series. Allons-y!

Going to Fort Edmonton Park really is like stepping into the Tardis and popping back out in a different era.  I’ve been to the park plenty of times as a kid but the great thing about it is that each time you visit you notice something that you didn’t before.  The pictures in this post were taken the last time I went to the Park on Canada Day (July 1st); although at the Park it’s still referred to as ‘Dominion Day’ due to the fact that most modern area in the Park dates back to the 1920’s when Canada was still under more direct British rule.  I would also like to note that I think the interpreters at Fort Edmonton Park are superb.  They really are the root of what turns the park into an interactive experience rather than just another open museum.  It’s not that they simply dress up according to what time they supposed to be from and recite a couple historical tidbits here and there; they really act the part, stay in character, and engage visitors by sharing the current events of their time.  I also happen to know an ex-interpreter and history major who ever so kindly agreed to coauthor this post with me.”

(For ease of reference for those who have never visited the park, you can find a PDF map of the site here! We begin at the park entrance, on the Eastern side of the map, and work our way Westward. Isn’t that just the way?)

Drive to Work – All the Way to Work The 1906 Orient, seen on the left hand side of the frame, parked in the Motordrome’s office, is the oldest of the many functioning vehicles at Fort Edmonton Park. Made by a bicycle manufacturer, it is fairly light weight. No seatbelts of course, and like other comparable vehicles (like the one I talk about in this blog post https://historyboots.wordpress.com/2013/08/26/postcards-that-intrigue-me-1-the-first-car-in-canada/ or other vehicles https://historyboots.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/get-your-historical-drivers-licence-part-i-motorcars-at-fort-edmonton/) it does not have a conventional steering wheel but a rudder (the red bar). It is owned and operated by a volunteer who comes by a few times a season to take it out. Very few have had the opportunity to ride in this vehicle.

Continue reading “(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part I: 1920s Street”

Challenging Visitors and Challenging Visitor Expectations

A quick scenario: you’re a costumed historical interpreter at Fort Edmonton Park or another living history museum, wearing a bonnet and petticoat, sitting in front of a chuck wagon and attempting to light a fire with flint and steel. It isn’t going well. One of your esteemed colleagues used up the last of the extremely dry wood the day before and the kindling you have is slightly damp from the rain last night. You have all the ingredients for a delicious batch of drop scones, but you need to get this fire going soon or you won’t be finished in time to help out with another program that afternoon: Glee Club at MacDougall’s church, your favourite.

A visitor walks up to you, watches for a moment as you struggle with the flint and steel, making sparks on occasion which just aren’t quite catching onto your charcloth. Then, he quips: “Hey, wouldn’t life be easier if you just got a microwave?”

You are the first person to ever tell me that extremely original joke, sir, you can be sure. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz, summer 2012 on 1885 Street at Fort Edmonton Park.

How do you respond? Do you acknowledge that you are in fact a twenty-first century kind of gal in costume and explain that you can’t make good scones in microwaves? Do you feign confusion, and repeat the word slowly: “micro…wave?” Do you ignore the comment and greet him as if he hadn’t said anything?

Here’s another scenario. Let’s say you are in the Alberta Government Telephones office, working as a Hello Girl: a bright young thing in the 1920s. You have just finished “training a new telephone operator” (i.e., a visitor to the park) on the switchboard, demonstrating how to connect calls, make the telephone ring, and so on, and one of the observers (why are they always young men?) calls out: “yeah, that’s great, but can it send text messages?”

You now have a few options. As I have already mentioned, I have seen people at other historic sites repeat the phrase slowly – “text… messages?” and then ask if the person has been in the sun for too long. It doesn’t matter what it is: “micro…wave?”, “eye… pod?”, “astro…not?”, etc. Personally, I feel that is a lazy way out, and it’s easy to sound more condescending than intended. I have seen interpreters do it with some success, granted, but it can easily be overused, especially if all interpreters at the site do it. However, more often, visitors get frustrated with this kind of response, particularly if they’ve heard it from the mouths of multiple people in costume that day.

The visitor may also have had a valid question that just has modern terminology; perhaps they were inquiring into how long distance phone call quality and costs may compare between 1920s landlines and cell phone reception in 2013, and by responding with feigned confusion the person in costume is shutting down their curiosity and leaving a legitimate question unanswered. The visitors may also take your inane response as a challenge and try to trick you, the costumed interpreter, into revealing that you aren’t actually from the 1920s and have been deluding yourself. (I never understood what people get of trying to do this, but be warned, it happens often enough.) In any case, feigning complete confusion causes annoyance and unnecessary confrontation on both sides. Interpreters should be continuing a conversation with visitors on mutual grounds, not shutting it down because of one anachronistic comment or word. Because how can a visitor respond to something like a flat denial?

You can't always turn your back on modernity (represented symbolically by this grasping modern hand of a visitor). Keep a firm hold on your historical goat! (A metaphor for something deep, I am sure.) Photograph taken by Lauren Markewicz on 1885 Street at Fort Edmonton Park, 2012.
You can’t always turn your back on modernity in the historical park (represented symbolically by this grasping modern hand of a visitor). Keep a firm hold on your historical goat (a metaphor for something deep, I am sure), look visitors and their modernity in the eye, and engage them. Photograph taken by Lauren Markewicz on 1885 Street at Fort Edmonton Park, summer 2012.

Feigning confusion or denying what a visitor says entirely can also backfire spectacularly if it’s a concept that a person in the past would know and the visitor is genuinely trying to engage you, while in character, on the subject. For example, a few years ago I visited a small living history museum which shall remain nameless which interpreted the fur trade era. (There are quite a few such places in Western Canada, so that won’t narrow it down too much for you.) The interpreter asked me where I was from, and I replied “Edmonton”. He slowly replied “Ed…monton? Where’s that?”

“The Saskatchewan District,” was my reply. While the city of Edmonton is now in the modern province of Alberta, before Canadian Confederation when the region of Rupert’s Land was nominally under the jurisdiction of the Hudson’s Bay Company, any HBC forts along the North or South Saskatchewan Rivers were in what was termed the Saskatchewan District. This is something that most in the area during the time period he was interpreting would know, because almost all employees of forts in the West would have to pass through the Saskatchewan District at some point along those very waterways. If nothing else, it dominated maps.

“Sas…katchewan? What’s that?” Was his unoriginal response.

I was actually genuinely confused by his answer. I mean, as an interpreter he would have presumably learned something about other HBC forts… and basic geography. The Saskatchewan River would have been known by that name in the time period he was portraying. It’s as if a Canadian trucker had asked me what the Trans-Canada Highway was. You should know that simply because of your job description. It’s what you travelled on. The Saskatchewan Rivers were integral to the very job of being a fur trader during the time period this man was interpreting.  So my response was something like: “Uh… it’s the largest district of Rupert’s Land? Just east of the Columbia District, and the Athabasca district? Home of Fort Edmonton, the largest Hudson’s Bay Company fort in the West?”

The interpreter continued to deny knowledge of Edmonton. Apparently he was used to asking that question, and his go-to schtick was to point out the fact that he didn’t know such modern places existed. Haha, look how oldey-timey I am! See, that response only works if you know for sure that that a place didn’t exist or wasn’t well known in the era that you are interpreting. Denying the existence of things that did exist in the past, and were common knowledge, doesn’t educate anybody and in fact promotes misinformation, not to mention frustration from the part of the visitor. It also reveals the interpreter’s ignorance of the history that he is supposed to be teaching, making me mentally fact-check anything else he said.

I had been trying to engage him, with a wink and a nod, to say that I too have interpreted the fur trade, working as an employee at a different Hudson’s Bay Company fort. We could have had an amazing conversation that way – I have done so with the interpreters at the Ukrainian Heritage Village North-West of Edmonton, who are very on the ball about sly references like that. They know their history and can run with any metaphorical conversational ball you toss them, using many otherwise innocuous visitor comments, such as where they were from, as a jumping-off point for interpretation. Even if I hadn’t been trying to engage him as one interpreter to another, spouting misinformation about the history of a visitor’s hometown isn’t terribly professional and is not only historically inaccurate but I would even say rude.

A skilled interpreter can take something like my response – “I’m from Edmonton” – and respond with something like “Ah, the jewel of the prairies! Have you lived there for many seasons? You know, some of the men in our brigades pass through there on their way to York Factory!” That could then lead into an (in-character) educational conversation about the historical links between this interpreter’s fort and the city in which I lived. I have done the same with visitors who were from Scotland – “Oh, are you new on the brigades? Many of our men are from the Orkney Islands!” – or from Montreal – “You’re not a Nor’wester are you? We don’t like them very much, unless they want to defect to the HBC.” Visitors generally respond very well to getting a bit of their own region’s history linked to the history portrayed at the historical site. Conversations with interpreters who don’t break character don’t have to always be confrontations between present and past.

Now, it’s not like every interpreter has an encyclopedic knowledge of world history and geography. But you should be aware of what is happening in your region and around the world during your time period, on a basic level, and feigning ignorance can reveal your own actual ignorance. Your options as an interpreter aren’t stick to your (confused) guns or break character entirely (and “lose”). You should not be competing with the visitor. You can remain in character without acting completely confused and denying the existence of the object or concept. In fact, having a few witty replies can trick the visitor into learning something, even when the visitor’s intentions were to be snarky or combative.

At the Ukrainian Heritage Village, the interpretive staff, who cannot break character, are very game with playing interpretive ball when confronted with something that doesn't fit into their historical world view. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz, June 2009.
At the Ukrainian Heritage Village, the interpretive staff, who cannot break character, are very adept at playing interpretive ball when confronted with something that doesn’t fit into their historical world view. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz, June 2009.

Engaging the visitors in some way is of course the goal. However,  I have also seen interpreters whose comments can be seen as a personal attack upon visitors. I feel that the first interaction between an interpreter and a visitor should not be a negative one. For example, I have seen costumed interpreters chastise visitors in short-shorts for being improperly dressed in public.  An historically accurate response? Perhaps. Nevertheless, one of the duties of interpreters is to make the visitors comfortable and to give them a pleasant experience. Fashion mores have changed. You should be able to bring it up, and you can do so in-character, but criticism or negative comments should be treated with care. For instance, you can wait to bring it up when prompted by the visitor about the differences between modern and historical clothing; you can be selectively blind until that point about their modern clothing. All people in historical dress  are familiar with this question from people dressed in modern clothes: “Aren’t you hot in that?” (As if we need reminding.) That common question is an excellent point to jump in and talk about the practical use of the bonnet as a sun screen, and the fact that having bare skin exposed to bright sunlight can actually make you feel more hot than by having a protective layer of light cotton, or whatever you wish to discuss regarding historical clothing. (I personally love to “complain” about “old-fashioned” fashions that my historical character’s mother would have worn, and point out what makes my particular outfit fashionable by the standards of whatever era I am portraying.) Comparisons between past and present can be gentle and don’t require a verbal attack on the visitor’s fashion choices. Gentle teasing often works far better than aggressive, unsolicited comments about modern clothing.

Of course, sometimes the visitor is not trying to be polite, but instead wants to show off their wit or their superior modernity, trying to get a one-up on you, the person representing the past. Many visitors suffer from prestentism, or judging the past by the standards of the present, and will assume that everything in the past is inferior in some way to the standards of their present. Visitors may try to force you to break character by pointing out what they perceive to be anachronisms, or by making fun of a historical task you are performing that is much easier to do or completely unnecessary in the modern era. However, with some thought you can still incorporate such comments into your historical world view and make it into a learning experience for the visitor. Let’s revisit a few favourite exchanges of mine, in which I turned a snarky visitor comment into a learning moment. Assume that each of these bits of dialogue is followed by  a conversation about the historical point introduced:

  • Recall the story about the telephone operator above: “Yes, but can it send text messages?” – to which I replied something to the effect of, “No, you would need a telegraph machine for that. This is much more modern!”
  • Also at the telephone office: “Don’t you have a cell phone?” / “No, this machine doesn’t run on batteries.” (The “cell” in “cell phone”, as you well know, refers to the fact that it runs off of a cell of batteries, not electricity via a cord like a land line.

These were all responses I came up with on the fly, and only had limited circulation later on – mostly when a different visitor made the same terrible joke. Even if you do have a favourite line – that aforementioned “have you been in the sun too long?” when a visitor speaks about something anachronistic – don’t rely on it too heavily. Be inventive! Come up with other phrases or jokes! Share with your fellow interpreters; even a good line can become stale very quickly if used by multiple interpreters with the same visitor.

The fact is, whether their intention is to ask astute comparative questions or to try to force you to break character, visitors by their very definition introduce modern elements into your historical site. You can answer their “modern” questions with a wink and a nod without breaking character.  For example, an easy way to ground a visitor in a time period, if your park has different eras, is to make mention of specific events and dates in your conversation, so the visitor isn’t forced to ask you what year it is: e.g., “A few years ago, after the end of the war, you know,” or “We were really pleased to begin the new century with the arrival of the railroad!” Your historical bubble remains unbroken, and the visitor has received the information they wanted and needed. If you want to pursue first person interpretation, it is entirely possible to be engaging and informative to modern visitors with modern perspectives without breaking character in many instances.

In general, I would advise you to fit any anachronistic comments made by visitors into your world view without shutting the visitor down. A positive and open attitude is essential. Your response should not be the verbal equivalent of a slammed door, but an open doorway, leading to further discussion and learning. You may notice that these examples provide just such an opening for further conversation. That being said, if the visitor is genuinely being verbally combative and abusive, use your own judgement. You should feel capable of extracting yourself from the verbally abusive situation and finding a colleague; most visitors are not dangerous, but if you feel uncomfortable, don’t stay. You should be supported by your employer and feel safe at your workplace. It is your job to interpret history to visitors, not to be subjected to abusive or belligerent comments or actions. However, most often it doesn’t come to that; I would say that the vast majority of visitors I have had the privilege of meeting are genuinely interested in the past and what I have to tell them.

Costumed historical interpreters have to come to terms with the modernity of visitors and react in engaging, educational, and original ways. They may not be wearing bonnets and petticoats, but visitors by their very presence are indicating their willingness to learn history. Don’t shut them down because of an off-hand reference to Sputnik or Angry Birds.

(Incidentally, costumed interpreters have been known to make sly references to information gleaned on social media between each other in front of visitors, but in code. “I read about it in the Book of Faces,” for Facebook, for instance, or “A little bird told me,” for Twitter. A wink and a nod, folks: a wink and a nod.)

If you are a costumed historical interpreter or re-enactor, I’m sure that you have some metaphorical (or perhaps literal?) war stories to tell. Please share them in the comments below!

Further Reading

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

Immersive Visitor Involvement at Living History Museums, or, Blacksmithing and You!

One of the things that always gathers crowds at living history museums are blacksmiths at work. It’s easy to understand why. Smithing isn’t often practiced these days. My spellcheck doesn’t even recognize it as a word. In this industrial age I’d wager the vast majority of the objects in your house, from the clothes you wear to the computer you’re using to read this blog entry, were created in a distant, far off land so far removed from where these goods ended up that it takes some prompting to remember that these objects were produced by human hands and machines in a process that took time and energy. It’s fascinating to watch something take shape on the anvil under the hammer and in the blacksmith’s fires, to go from raw material to finished product.

At Fort Edmonton Park, there are two smithies: one on 1885 street, home to a blacksmith I know for a fact has made it a personal goal to become competent in almost every skill possible before he dies, and in the 1846 fur trading fort, which is used by several more blacksmiths, including this awesome volunteer who often comes to staff parties dressed in costumes that include a minotaur and Robert the Bruce, complete with broadsword. He’s also skilled at leatherworking. Our blacksmiths tend to be a skilled bunch all around.

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Here is the longtime Fort blacksmith, pictured wearing a lady’s hat from 1885 street wielding a dag he forged himself, because he is an awesome human being. Photo from 2009 by Lauren Markewicz.

Now, as I may have mentioned before in my heavy post on “historical authenticity”, at Fort Edmonton and many other living history museums, health and safety always trumps the nebulous concept of “historical accuracy.” The forges at Fort Edmonton remain roped off to visitors at almost all times, whether or not the site is in use – even with no fires lit, it still contains numerous sharp/heavy/dirty implements and many dark corners and tripping hazards. Enter at your own risk. The blacksmiths have special health and safety training as well, and I’m going to burst the historical bubble just slightly here… there are always modern fire extinguishers hidden just within reach inside the blacksmith’s work space. Always. And they’re regularly checked. And everyone in costume aside from the junior volunteers needs to have up to date First Aid certifications. So that nurse I portrayed last year on 1920s street, and the nurse who’s there this year? They can actually help you if you’re in the park with a first aid emergency, and will rely on modern first aid training not historically accurate procedures. Just in case you were wondering.

So what am I getting at here with all of this health and safety talk? If you wanted to come into the forge and try your hand at blacksmithing at Fort Edmonton? Sorry, no can do. And for good reason. Please be content to watch metal take shape in the skillful hands of the trained blacksmith behind the safety lines.

This isn’t the case at other parks. I visited Fort Langley in the summer of 2011 with a friend.  (And got pretend-married à la façon du pays to my friend in a fur trade style marriage program: perhaps more on that in a later post.) Fort Langley (near Vancouver) is also a living history museum, centered around a single fur trade era fort. They are all about visitor inclusion in their programs. Not that Fort Edmonton isn’t, but those at Langley involve their visitors in some programs in a more extensive way than Fort Edmonton  that gives them more of an experiential encounter with living history than they would as a spectator. One of the things I was shocked, and then pleased, to see, was visitors being allowed into the smithy. Observe:

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Forging a metal hook at Fort Langley. Interpreter on the right, inexperienced visitor on the left. Note safety precautions and close supervision. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz.

You will note that my friend is wearing an apron, heavy gloves, and protective glasses. I wasn’t even allowed inside the building (the photos were taken from an open wall) because I was wearing sandals: closed toed shoes only, a sensible policy which I completely agreed with. My friend made a pretty nifty burnished metal hook (with a decorative twisted stem) in less than fifteen minutes under the close supervision of the blacksmith. And it was awesome.

Now, I’m sure that there are tons of insurance factors at work – Fort Langley is also a federal institution, whereas Fort Edmonton is run by the city that bears its name, and their funding and policies come from very different sources. (Some parks take insurance considerations to an extreme, and won’t serve food made in stoves by costumed interpreters to visitors, though thankfully Fort Edmonton continues, as far as I am aware, to happily serve visitors bannock and other dishes made by interpreters.) I’m sure it took a lot of negotiation and paperwork from someone on site at Langley to get such a program up and running, even with safety precautions. I’m not saying that Fort Edmonton should start putting that kind of visitor inclusion in practice. I’m not sure it would work in that context, considering the larger numbers that Fort Edmonton gets. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from observing and being a visitor, if you see one visitor doing something cool, everyone wants to try it, particularly if it’s free. This is the case with 1920s motorcar or horse rides, climbing on the palisades of the fort, or blacksmithing. It would be impractical in the Fort Edmonton situation: the blacksmith would do nothing but teach visitors how to smith, and coal and other supplies are expensive. That’s not to mention the insurance paperwork. However, this program worked extremely well at Fort Langley during a slow time of the season where there wasn’t the expectation that everyone would be able to try their hand. The exclusivity of the experience also added to visitor enjoyment: we felt special. We (he) had acquired a new skill and he probably remembers the experience – and the procedure – of blacksmithing far more than I did as an observer and photographer.

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Testing the strength of the newly-forged hook by hanging one of the heavy metal tongs on it. Success! Photo by Lauren Markewicz.

Experiencing living history should not be limited to the interpreters in costume. Actually forging a clothes pin yourself is a very different experience from watching someone else, no matter how skilled, do it. It’s why interpreters at Fort Edmonton are encouraged to involve visitors in any activity they are doing, be it beadwork, knitting, pie baking, or (sometimes) driving an antique car. (Though, sorry, no getting behind the wheel unless the car is off and it’s for photographs… and you have the express permission of a person in costume.) Immersing oneself in history is much more easily done if the visitor is not simply an observer, but an active participant in the proceedings. That’s one of the main advantages of living history over, say, historical documentaries: visitor involvement and immersion in the experience of being in the past. (Or at least an approximation of it.) Being a blacksmith – being capable of the act of smithing something – is extremely cool, and extremely rare in North America in the twenty-first century.

Disclaimer #1: I am no longer an employee at Fort Edmonton Park. I am currently employed at Library and Archives Canada for the summer, mostly working in a cubicle with super cool classified documents that I can’t tell you about without having to kill you after to preserve secrets. (Different kinds of shenanigans are going on behind the scenes at LAC, though, in ways that I can’t talk about yet.) I miss being paid to bake pies, knit socks, drive motorcars from the 1920s and chat with visitors about fun historical facts. Hence, the blog: I miss you guys! But my bigger point is that I am no longer officially affiliated with Fort Edmonton, so anything I say about the inner workings or policies of the park should in no way be taken as an official endorsement of any type of behaviour or park policy or anything at all really. But please enjoy them nonetheless!

Disclaimer #2: My friend got to try his hand at smithing at Fort Langley several years ago. Please do not travel to Fort Langley expecting/demanding the full blacksmith experience and cite me as the person that promised you this. I have no idea if they still follow this policy or perform this program. But hey, maybe they do! If you’re in the Vancouver area this summer, you should check it out. Just in case you can forge your own metal object. Because it was awesome.

What is “Historical Accuracy”?

Abstract (or TL;DR): An academic with living history experience muses on ideas of “historical accuracy”. True historical accuracy is impossible to achieve, but is an ideal to which one should aspire in living history museums, historical re-enactments, and historical dramas. “Accuracy” is not simply a matter of paying close attention details of costume or setting, and reconciling them with modern health & safety regulations, but also involves attempting to portray the more intangible aspects of the past.

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Come on, guys, don’t you know that watermelon-headed fur traders didn’t start wearing Glengarry hats with beadwork like that until the late 1850s, not the mid-1840s? Do your research! (“M. Melondeau” in the Fort Edmonton Employee Break Room, summer 2011)

This will not be the last you hear from me on the subject of historical accuracy. The nebulous ideas of “historical accuracy” or “historical authenticity” are things that are often bandied about a lot in discussions of living history museums, historical re-enactments, and historical dramas. But what does it actually mean?

It’s not just as simple as avoiding the tell-tale square bulge of an iPhone in one’s apron pocket when portraying an Edwardian maid, not having late Victorian gentlemen sporting aviator sunglasses, or eschewing the use of late twentieth century slang in a nineteenth-century fur trading fort. Let’s get this out of the way straight off: it is impossible to be entirely historically accurate. Full stop. It is an ideal to strive towards, but is never entirely attainable. We do not live in the past. We have (unfortunately) not yet acquired the ability to travel in time. Much ink has been spilled by historians in past decades, and they have generally come to the consensus that we cannot know everything about the past, let alone translate that to writing and then costumed interpretation or re-enactment. (“History is all a construct!” is one of the catchphrases among the Public History MAs at Carleton University, an exclamation which is often accompanied by us throwing our hands up in the air in despair.) However, simply because the “perfection” of complete historical accuracy is physically unattainable doesn’t mean we should just pack in our bonnets and petticoats and give up. What an interpreter can do is provide the veneer of “historical accuracy”: something that doesn’t break one’s “historic bubble” unnecessarily. That means, on a most basic level, avoiding jarring anachronisms in dress, speech, and behaviour, and doing one’s best based on the information available. (Be prepared to do a lot of reading, and get a lot of practical experience in historical skills.)

Some exceptions are made, of course, as I would always tell visitors who enjoyed pointing out, say, the fire extinguisher hidden behind the door next to the wood burning stove. (“Hey, is that supposed to be there? I’m not sure that they had these in 1920!” they would say with a wink as they waited for me to finish baking a saskatoonberry pie.) I will always flat-out tell them that safety of course trumps historical accuracy at all times. I also portrayed a nurse, a veteran of the Great War: would you rather I used my twenty-first century First Aid training, certified by the Red Cross, in a medical emergency in the park, or the historical skills I’ve learned about in the course of my research, in the name of historical accuracy? Can you actually require interpreters at your museum to wear corsetry, or to abandon their inaccurate glasses? In the example of the fire extinguisher, I like to use the (often mocking) comment made by visitors as an entry point into discussions of fire safety in the early twentieth century, and I often surprise my audience by then talking about the surprisingly long (though not so surprising, if you think about it deeply) history of fire extinguishers. As an interpreter, I always liked to make everything into some kind of learning experience for the visitor. I don’t respond to sarcasm with snark, but with interesting historical facts! So yes, while we wouldn’t have had an extinguisher like this modern one in this particular farm in the 1920s, it isn’t difficult to imagine a surprisingly similar one in its place. Though its primary function isn’t an interpretive tool, but an adhesion to modern fire safety laws, the idea of having a fire extinguisher there is “accurate” (or at least not inconceivable). However, its modern appearance means that most people would view it as “historically inaccurate”.

Often, I feel “inaccuracies” are most often jarring,and easy for a critic to identify, when they are physical, tangible objects, like those fire extinguishers. Historians and history enthusiasts revel in pointing out little inaccurate details, such as the use of what look to be late Victorian boots in the 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice, or any number of aspects of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies: most notably, cursed zombie pirates. Costume details are very visible and fascinating to analyze and debate. Is it “typical” of the time period, or even possible for them to have? Is the silk print of that dress, or the cut of that coat, “accurate” to the time period, based on the sources we have? How dirty were people, really, in the past, and so how much dirt should be on my skin to “accurately” portray a medieval peasant? And, most importantly for re-enactors and costumed interpreters: what about the smell?

It’s the less tangible things, like beliefs and inner motivations, that are more difficult to portray on screen or in person. How to you act out the deference of a servant to their employer? How do you explain the goals of early twentieth century women’s suffrage activists without colouring your interpretation with knowledge of the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s? Yes, some (but not all!) corsets may have been uncomfortable, but would they have gone on about it as much as they like to do in movies? (Having worn a corset for extended periods of time while in costume, and knowing what I do about etiquette and the strict avoidance of drawing attention to bodily functions, I’m going to hazard a guess and say that no, they didn’t whine nearly as much.)  “Inaccuracies” in the discourse of a time period are really what I now notice in films.

Take, for example, the character of the obligatory-sassy-heterosexual-love-interest in A Knight’s Tale. (Caveat: this film uses anachronisms in a very self-conscious and often effective way. Click here for a defense of the anachronisms in the film.) This character grated on me for several reasons. Many of this character’s scenes involved mocking 1970s-style critiques of women’s gender roles in medieval French society. Would an historical figure even conceive of mocking them in this way? We don’t know! But it “sounds” very wrong to me, and overall rings “untrue” in a way that many other anachronisms in the film didn’t. This was also coupled with the really, really odd modernist costume choices for that particular character. This type of costuming makes me shake my fist at the sky, considering how many other gorgeous and more “accurate” choices they could have made for the time period! (See: so many good examples from art history.) Though I am admittedly no expert in medieval French fashion, in none but the broadest strokes do they even vaguely resemble the fabric, cut or style as laid out in books like Le Costume français. These aspects of the film do double-duty to annoy my historian’s sensibilities. Anyway, in summary: good film in terms of plot and most of the characters, though full of deliberate inaccuracies (many of which are successful in achieving a specific cinematic purpose, and that I found quite entertaining). However, I couldn’t get over that one character, her attitude, and her costume, which rang so “false” to me. Much of my vehemently negative response to that one character was an emotional one which came out of my reaction to the perceived historical “inaccuracies” of her character. She was embodying a modernist mocking tone I hear too often – everything about the character was designed in my eyes to show how “backward” and “stupid” they were in the past, which is a dangerous path to take. I am fully aware that many may disagree with me on this point. The film may have been satirizing historical dramas, but I seriously couldn’t get over this character.

(Edit, because I feel it needs clarification: in particular, what bothers me about characters like this one in other “historical” films is that many audience members would consider female characters whining about corsetry and other restrictions on women in general as “historically accurate.” I do use the word “whining” very consciously to describe how these characters are written. Post-1970s-style critical impressions of how women should dress and act are often applied to earlier time periods in these historical dramas but are not considered jarringly anachronistic, though they are. Women had other forms of resistance and critiques of their places in the world in earlier time periods; they had different priorities than the feminist goals of the 1970s, and the former should not be forgotten. So many historical dramas seem to just pay lip service to restrictions women lived under, summarizing them with characters expressing brief annoyance at not being able to do something “because you’re a girl” or complaining about how tight corsets are or how annoying their petticoats can get if they’re trying to do their “action girl” thing. There are far more interesting historical gender issues that could be employed by writers and limiting their “feminist critique” of the time period in these characters to shallow pronouncements about how uncomfortable historical clothing styles are is shallow and, I believe, lazy writing. So unless your character is forced for some reason to tight lace (and most women didn’t), please stop complaining about corsets – these women had bigger fish to fry!)

In complete contrast, I am going to profess my love for Downton Abbey in at least trying to get some of the attitudes “historically accurate” to the time period… in addition to their glorious costuming achievements. Some reviewers have derided the story line in Series One in which Gwen, a housemaid, has ambitions to become a secretary. This is a very modest goal by modern standards, but to her, in that specific time and place, it was almost insurmountable. It was also entirely believable for the time period they were portraying. You can’t have everyone bucking the patriarchy in historical dramas; by dismissing the modest goals of characters like Gwen the Aspiring Secretary and insisting that they should be worrying about, say, the right of women to vote or not wear a corset, you also dismiss the experiences of all of the awesome ladies who have had to live, historically, under what we today consider oppressive conditions. Do you have to espouse post-1970s feminist rhetoric to be considered a strong woman, particularly in historical interpretation? No. (I will likely expand on this in a later blog post.)

Downton Abbey’s actors also pay close attention to etiquette, posture, and behaviour which is still relatively rare in costume dramas and even many costumed re-enactments. The series isn’t perfect, and it isn’t “history”. Of course the plot requires some stretching of historical events, and the series does like to “name drop” historical events and people quite often; I’m looking at you, Lord Grantham, with your casual mention of Ponzie schemes! Nevertheless, overall, in my opinion, the series does an excellent job at striving towards “historical authenticity”, especially in comparison with many others.

I have so many more thoughts – and feelings – on “historical accuracy.” In fact, I probably should be more careful with my terms and distinguish between “authenticity” (which is a real buzzword in the field of public history) and “accuracy”. I have a feeling that “accuracy” can be applied in a much more scientifically “objective” way, and that “authenticity” has more to do with discourse and subjective interpretation, but there must be more to it than that… Does anybody have any thoughts or reading lists on the subject? Regardless, this post is not the final word on the subject (though I would of course be flattered were it considered to be so). Consider it my first foray into musing on the subject.

(Apologies, as well, to those who would draw a sharp distinction between what people in costume do in living history museums, historical dramas, and historical re-enactments. There was some slippage in terminology. However, I defend this take because they are all concerned with notions of “historical accuracy”.)

Now I’d best get back to my knitting. By which I of course mean the research and writing of term papers.

Big Long Disclaimer: the authority I perceive myself to have on this subject comes from several different places. I write as someone who worked for the past four years at Fort Edmonton Park, a living history museum in, you guessed it, Edmonton, Alberta, which portrays four different time periods. I worked on 1920s street and in the 1846 fur trade fort. I am not currently employed there, due to internship requirements in my current course of study, but I hope to go back in the future. In addition to this practical experience in costumed historical interpretation, I am currently pursuing a Master’s in Public History at Carleton University in Ottawa, which is where I have been learning a lot of my theory. I am also a fan of historical dramas and have done extensive reading online on the subject of historical interpretation (as you are likely doing, dear reader). In short: I have worked as a paid employee of a living history museum and have done a lot of deep thinking, research, and writing on the subject in a specialized program at the Master’s level. I have not been involved historical re-enactments, though I would love to be someday, and I am not involved in any historical costumed dramas (yet). My ideas come from a very specific set of experiences and academic background. Feel free to engage in friendly debate, particularly if you have a different set of background experiences in the field! Verbal fisticuffs only, please.

Terminology used:

  • Interpreter: (often accompanied by the words “costumed historical”): my former job title at Fort Edmonton, the living history museum. We were/are people who “interpret” history to the public. We are not re-enactors, who of course have their own definitions of what they are and what they do – I do not profess to speak for them. Our main goal as costumed interpreters is to interpret/teach aspects of the past to visitors in the present. By using this term, we acknowledge that what we are saying and doing is only one possible idea of the past, and not objective historical “Truth” with a capital T (which, as many attest, is impossible to achieve or nonexistent).
  • Public History: roughly, interpreting/presenting history to the public, as seen in museums, archives, documentaries, and many other mediums. There are only a handful of Public History programs in North America and beyond (there’s a conference here in Ottawa in a few weeks which I am very excited to attend!), and everyone defines it slightly differently. The Carleton Centre For Public History will soon be coming out with a series of podcasts on the subject (I performed one of the interviews), which will likely be linked here on the blog when they do come out.

Related Posts on Costumed Historical Interpretation – Coming Soon (or soon-ish):

Making Public History

Or, How to Teach Six Year Old Girls About the Suffrage Movement

Making Public History

People  often underestimate children. They underestimate their capacity to understand things about the past. Yes, 1990 was ages ago. (“I wasn’t even born yet!” One said. “It was a GOOGLEPLEX ago,” said another who liked big words.) 1970 was even longer ago. 1913? That was when the dinosaurs lived. 

But there are plenty of things that they can understand, and quite well at that. This evening, I  volunteered to come in to speak with a group of Sparks. (Incidentally, this photo contains a fraction of those who were there – imagine twenty-five little girls in pink and blue running around – no wonder I look a little bit frazzled.) I was initially invited to come in on International Women’s Day (the invitation came from “Rainbow Spark”, whose alter ego is a serious business history professor at Carleton University, and one of my teachers.), but it happened to fall on the week before the Underhill Colloquium, where I was already beholden to present my research, finish off my research, move furniture, and so on, we arranged for me to come in this week instead. Regardless. How do you explain the infinitely complex women’s suffrage movement to twenty-five six year olds? Do you begin with Seneca Falls, 1848? With the rabble-rousing suffragettes throwing bricks in Britain? Hunger strikers against President Wilson? When?

First off, forget dates. It is interesting to get them to speculate on when they think that women got the right to vote. Through consensus, they decided that it must have been 1970. But really, dates aren’t what you want them to get out of this.

Step One: get a costume. Or some sort of visual aid, like photographs. Personally, I prefer the costume route, not because of the inherent associations with childhood (which I question), but because it’s so much easier to interpret the past to them when you can use your own body and clothing as a prop. It promotes interest – who is this strange person? After being introduced (as “Hazel”, a special guest), one of the girls asked me about what I was wearing. I led in with the “in the time of your grandmother’s grandmother”, which is an easier thing for them to grasp than a date or a number of years. I had them compare what I was wearing to what they were wearing. A lot of them fixated on the small detail of my hatpin. They were mightily impressed that I couldn’t shake off my hat with it in. I also asked them about why they thought I was wearing something like this, and it wasn’t just because I was “oldey-timey”. I had seen them doing cartwheels and playing tag earlier, and I asked them – do you think that I can do things like that in this dress? There was a unanimous “no”.

Step Two: ask them questions. Lots of questions. Don’t lecture. Give them information in small pieces, leading them along. Why do you think I wear this? What do you think I learned in school? (Rainbow Spark pointed out that a lot of them went to a school in an older building that still had signs for the girls and boys sections – why did they separate everyone?) And then of course – what does my sash say? What does “votes” mean? I actually got a very coherent answer from the hive mind. (Rinse and repeat Step Two throughout the session. Never forget Step Two.)

Step Three: Put the girls in another person’s shoes. Get them to think about what you’re trying to say, and get them to relate to it, emotionally. After having “voting” explained, we had a mock vote, on what kind of ice cream we would theoretically have for dinner. The initial vote was split pretty well, about 16-11, chocolate:vanilla. Then, I said that only the people wearing blue could vote in the next round. We got a very different result. Then, only those wearing pink had the vote. I could have also done leaders-only, what color socks/hair, if they wore glasses, etc. I asked them how it felt, not to be able to vote, to choose. Then I dropped the bombshell – a hundred years ago, in 1913, women were not allowed to vote.

Step Four: Discuss, always asking questions. Let them talk. I asked them why they thought people didn’t want women voting (and they all commented on how strange the notion was). Earlier, before I was introduced, they had been discussing cookie-selling safety, which included never crossing the street unless you were with an adult. One girl had piped up “unless you are an adult”. I told them that a hundred years ago, sometimes even women who were adults were not allowed to cross the street or go for walks without an adult – a man. (A bit of an oversimplification, but it was common for women to be escorted everywhere). We had them, again, speculate on when women did get the right to vote. It was difficult when I was asked by the Spark leader – well, when did women get the right to vote? Not an easy question to answer. My response? “It’s complicated.” First women in Manitoba in provincial elections in 1916, then, Saskatchewan and Alberta, then eventually BC and Ontario, federally after the war… and finally Quebec in 1940. I didn’t bombard them with dates. I listed a few provinces, but they understood that it didn’t happen all at once. At that age (at many ages), they don’t care about dates. History isn’t about dates. It’s about experiences, about the sequence, not the exact dates or the politicians who made it happen. I think of history as, well, a story, with many different subplots. I just gave them a hint at one of them.

Step Five: reinforce. They played games later on, but they got to vote on which game to choose. They chose Simon Says, and Rainbow Owl made it “Oldey-Timey Simon Says” – “Simon Says put on your long skirt,” “Simon Says put your hair in a bun,” “Simon Says put in your hatpin,” etc., and they acted it out. They got to draw pictures – of me in my dress, hat and sash, and then on the reverse, they got to draw a modern day women. A few gave the latter blue or purple hair. We duly inspected them, and pronounced them masterpieces.

Yes, I don’t know how much sank in. Yes, I was honest with them at the very end, when they asked me about my age. I said that I had two answers: 23 and 123. How could this be? I am a student who likes to talk about the “olden days”. And then I impressed upon them how much fun learning history was. Hey, you get to dress up and teach people about it. How much fun is that? (And read books. Lots and lots of books.)