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

Get Your Historical Driver’s Licence Part I: Motorcars At Fort Edmonton

One of the skills that I acquired while a costumed historical interpreter at Fort Edmonton Park that I most like to brag about is my ability to drive historical vehicles.

Costumed interpreters learn a lot of interesting skills on the job that can also serve them well in life. Other skills I talk about a lot are basic competency in doing beadwork by hand and on the loom, the ability to light a fire with flint and steel in less than two minutes (even in the rain), and the know-how to cook delicious meals over open fires and on wood-burning stoves… which are not as simple as your childhood experiences camping and cooking hot dogs and marshmallows over the camp fire would lead you to believe. In general, I feel that employees of Fort Edmonton are better prepared to survive the coming apocalypse and accompanying breakdown in modern society than any other people I know.

But cooking over open fires only requires the requisite ingredients, tools, and fire permits; to learn to drive an artifact vehicle, you must first invent the universe have legal access to one of these cars (which must be in good working order), know someone in charge of those vehicles who is willing to allow a newbie to get behind the wheel, and, depending on your region, a historical vehicles permit. Many of these “artifact” vehicles have incredibly different controls compared to the relatively standardized models available today and therefore require specialized training and, of course, paperwork. I have two driver’s licences: my ordinary Alberta driver’s permit and a secondary one on my old City of Edmonton Employee ID card. You need to fill out paperwork and get a lot of training. (Un)fortunately, it’s not as simple as just sitting down in the driver’s seat.

As they say so often these days, “pics or it didn’t happen!” So here is a photograph of myself driving a 1928 Ford Model A. This is on my iPod touch. I show it to people when it comes up in conversation (or I work it into conversation) like some people have baby pictures in their wallets.

Taking over from the famous Ford Model T, the Ford Model A sat lower on the ground and had much improved controls.
Successor to the famous Ford Model T, the Ford Model A, like this early example from 1928, sat lower on the ground and had much improved controls in comparison with the most famous of Ford’s creations. Photograph taken on 1920s Street at Fort Edmonton Park.

Note, too, my fashionable cloche hat, cupid’s bow style lipstick, and debonair attitude.

One of the aspects about working on 1920s street at Fort Edmonton Park that I most loved was the artifact vehicles. Fort Edmonton has quite a few functioning vehicles. These models range in origin from 1906 through to the early 1930s. Some, like the one pictured in this video, are driven by maintenance staff so they can transport whatever they need to throughout the admittedly expansive park without breaking the site’s historic bubble, if you will. However, others are to be found at places such as the Motordrome on 1920s street and the Fire Hall on 1905 street, which, as you may recall, covers not just the year 1905 but encompasses the post-railroad but pre-First World War era in Edmonton. Most of the functioning ones are to be found on 1920s street, though a really neat International Harvester high wheeler from 1913 is driven on both of these streets. (Sadly, 1885 street and the Fort era (1846) generally don’t get to experience the awesomeness that can be found in motorized vehicles, for obvious reasons.)

The earlier cars, I should say, like the Ford Model T and the International Harvester model from 1913,  have very different controls. In the early decades after the invention of automobiles, there was a lot more experimentation, as this was far before cars were standardized. You can learn a lot about these kind of things at the Reynolds-Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin, Alberta – that cars would run on petrol was not an obvious or even popular choice in the early years, for instance. There were also considerations that aren’t even on the radar with car design today. For example, some people notice that the driver’s seat on the International Harvester is on the “wrong” side (the right side) and assume that it’s a car from England, which is a perfectly reasonable thing to assume considering that that has been the standard for generations. However, you would be incorrect: this is a North American model. If you drive on the left side of the road, you as a driver need to be on the right side of the vehicle to watch for oncoming traffic in the lane next to you; that is the logic of the placement of modern drivers’ seats, as far as I am aware. But in the early 1900s, drivers weren’t as concerned about oncoming traffic, of which there was generally little. They were more concerned with the ditch to one’s right, not the centre of the road, and so the driver’s seat was sometimes placed on that side instead. (Edit: I have found another example of an early automobile model in Canada with the steering column on the “wrong” side. Click here to see a postcard of a vehicle near Tofield, Alberta, postmarked 1910.)

Car design was by no means standardized in the early decades of the twentieth century. That’s one of the exciting things about studying the development of the automobile; there was so much potential for change. The oldest car at Fort Edmonton, the Orient Buckboard, from about 1906, doesn’t even have a steering wheel; it has a long straight handle instead, which kind of reminds me of a rudder. You can see a historical photograph of a similar automobile in this article.

By the late 1920s, automotive manufacturers had started to hammer down what seemed to work, and the controls became more standardized. In many ways they start to look more familiar to modern drivers, but in others they remain quite different… and can be very tricky to use if one is unused to them. They have gear shifts, but one must double-clutch, for example; to go from first to second gear, for instance, one must clutch in, shift to neutral, clutch out, clutch in again, and only then can you shift into second gear. In fact, as someone who drove automatics when not in costume, I found learning to drive them easier than some of my colleagues who normally dove standards. It was easier for me to compartmentalize vehicles from the 1920s and the 2000s as two entirely different machines because using the clutch was entirely new to me. (Now, when I had to learn to drive a standard in the twenty-first century, that was confusing.)

So how precisely does one go about driving a car from the 1920s? That’s a question for next time. Stay tuned for Get Your Historical Driver’s Licence Part II: Behind the Wheel.

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.

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):