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