Living History

There are all kinds of ways to humanize history. For all of our educated, earnest efforts to reach people of all ages and interests, nothing matches the draw of living things in capturing people’s attention.

Taking to the streets

Walking through Colonial Williamsburg is a case in point.  On any day, sheep, horses, oxen and yes, even feline interpreters are there to add another dimension to the experience.

Automatically, we connect to the animals and plants at historic sites;  they bring life to the people, places, and things of the past.  Maybe it’s because most of us instantly relate to them.  It doesn’t require a college degree to recognize a sheep or horse as just that, although the intricacies of rare breeds and animal husbandry are far more complex and valuable.

There may be another reason why animals make a living history museum inviting.

Animals, like artifacts, don’t have an interpretive agenda. They just are.

As we multi-task through that walk down the street, Animals remind us that  people can still slow down,  relax and absorb history on a different level.

Visitors are typically bombarded by sensory stimuli and multiple interpretations.  As interpreters and educators, we work hard to transmit what we know about the past and  to make it relevant. And it’s not easy.

A century or longer ago, people were prepared to listen. Consider the attention span of those listening to radio as a major form of home entertainment before television took over.

In 2007, an advertising agency created five-second spots for the Dairy Farmers of Canada, after determining that their teen-aged target audience could probably focus that long on a commercial. Who knows what the test results would be now?

I like to think we can learn something positive from real living history encounters. Maybe the key is striving for similar human connections at museums and in classrooms.  Bill Nye put it this way in History of the United States:

History is but the record of the public and official acts of human beings.  It is our object, therefore, to humanize our history and deal with people past and present; people who ate and possibly drank; people who were born, flourished and died; not grave tragedians, posing perpetually for their photographs.


(Special thanks to Jan and his companion, who parted ways amiably before this picture was taken)



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