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The Real in Living History Presentation

June 24, 2012

Over at the Engaging Places blog this past week, Max A. van Balgooy posted about the initial plans in a “Slave for a Day” program at Hampton, a Maryland plantation dating to the 1700s.  In response to immediate public reaction, the Hampton staff modified the program pretty dramatically.  Max’s post caused me to reflect on living history presentations a bit more.  A couple of years ago in my Museum Practices graduate seminar at the University of Memphis, students discussed the Conner Prairie Follow the North Star activity where visitors take part in a living history program based on enslaved peoples experiences as fugitives seeking their freedom in pre-Civil War United States.

The website of the Organization of American Historians provides a thoughtful review of the North Star program.  A paper by Scott Magelssen published by Project Muse contextualizes the North Star and similar programs within museum studies literature.

According to the Conner Prairie website, participants can:

Become a fugitive slave on the Underground Railroad, fleeing from captivity, risking everything for freedom. What will you experience on your quest for a new life?  Come face-to-face with slave hunters, see fear and hope in the eyes of a fellow runaway and be encouraged by a Quaker family. Truly experience life as a fugitive slave during your journey through one of the most compelling periods in Indiana’s history.


My seminar students reacted to the “become” and “Truly experience” promotion of the 90-minute Follow the North Star program arguing that the statements trivialize slavery. The trivializing noted by my students is reflected by one blogger who wrote:
I wonder if visitors can be whipped, branded, physically disfigured, manacled, or raped and defiled to complete the “historical” experience? Question: who would react more strongly to this live action role playing experience? Young “post-racial” black people or their white peers of the same generational cohort?

The visitor response to the North Star program is varied.  On the Conner Prairie website two student testimonials in the form of written assignments seem to exemplify the desired program goals.  In his paper, Magelssen notes examples of less than desirable visitor behavior to such living history events with examples from both Colonial Williamsburg and Conner Prairie noting:

A group of middle-aged, affluent white men and women on our “Follow the North Star” program were so disrespectful (giggling the whole way through, sassing back to the costumed characters) that the staff recognized our entire experience was compromised, and we were offered the opportunity to go through again.

Conner Prairie has certainly hit on a popular program concept.  Since 1998, 60,000 people have participated in Follow the North Star.  But the “Truly experience life as a fugitive slave” promotion is even countered by an 8th grader’s written testimonial on the Conner Prairie web page in noting “We know at the end of the night we’ll be okay and that no one will actually hurt us.”  Of course, that was not the true experience of fugitive slaves.

To be clear, my point is not about the North Star program content but how Conner Prairie markets or represents that content.  The revised program at Hampton seems to address this issue – that is, no you can’t really be or truly experience that specific “peculiar institution” today – but let me tell you about it.  The revised Hampton program seems a considerably more accurate/educational depiction of the lives of enslaved peoples than my experience of plantation tours along the West Bank between New Orleans and Baton Rouge where the visitors were told how the pre-Civil War master at that particular plantation was exceptional in his care for the enslaved people.

The photo at the top of this page was taken in Mound Louisiana, near a farm road’s intersection with Highway 80.  When I lived over that way, I used to stand at this intersection and in the distance I could see an old mule barn, the dilapidated Mound Plantation Company Store, and the railroad tracks and depot to the south (all now gone – except the tracks). I tried to envision what it was like to be a sharecropper there in the late 1800s.  For myself, what I always came back to was not the labor but being tied to the land, the lack of freedom to move about.  I tried to imagine what those sharecroppers must have thought when the train came by and stopped at the depot to take folks somewhere they would never go.  I suspect at best, sharecroppers on the Mound Plantation rarely, if ever, even got as far as Vicksburg Mississippi, 15 miles and a wide Mississippi River away.  I have never been afraid of hard work.  But I could not imagine the loss of freedom of movement.  To stand out in a field and chop cotton and have someone yell at me to work harder would trivialize knowing the sharecropper experience.  I suspect the same is true for many today, young and old alike who visit our cultural heritage venues.

Living history can trivialize or truly engage with the past.  The outcome may often be determined in how cultural heritage venue the presents or represents the experience.

What are your thoughts on effective living history programs?

P.S. about two minutes after posting this initially, Adele Barbato’s Cabinet of Curiosity blog comes in with a related theme.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 25, 2012 3:46 pm

    I think the point of such programs is not to “re-produce” the experience of the oppressed, but to offer the opportunity of the participant a chance to experience real empathy for the people who really experienced the oppression and thus create a new perspective. Such experiences can be extremely valuable for some people. However, in order for someone to truly change his or her perspective, he or she also has to be willing to make such a change and also needs to be motivated to do so by the same paradigm (i.e. “guilt” or “empathy”) and that is not always the case. Those who create such programs are coming from a place of sincere empathy and care. However, those who participate in such activities may experience the program from a different paradigm in which the desired outcome is missed because the same motivations don’t work on them. In other words, We can’t assume that everyone is affected by experiences the same way. Perhaps such experiences could combine a variety of different approaches and motivations with creating an empathetic response as the intended goal. A focus group could help in determining what different motivations produce such a response.

  2. June 25, 2012 5:03 pm

    Marsha, Thanks for your comments. This was a difficult post to write because I did not want to come off as being critical of the Conner Prairie folks intent. In fact, I must admit when I first raised this with my students a couple of years ago, I meant it as a positive example. I was taken back by the adamant position of several students, as I note, less on the content of the program, and more on the presentation of being able to “truly experience” of both the Conner Prairie and the initial Hampton “Slave for a Day” concepts.

  3. dover1952 permalink
    June 30, 2012 4:25 pm

    Hi Robert. I know the antebellum south has been researched to death over the past 150 years. We claim to know a lot about it, but I wonder if we really do. Sure. We have diaries. We have books people have written. We have letters from the time. We have all sorts of historical things. We also have archaeological evidence. However, every book contains the perspective of the writer, whether it was a writer in the 1840s or a writer in the 1940s. Documents like diaries and letters are “snapshots” in one time and one place. In a very real way, they are all anecdotal. Even the archaeology is a snapshot—just with a longer exposure time and with film that is beyond its shelf life.

    I work in the environmental protection field, and we drill monitoring wells to determine whether hazardous contamination is in the groundwater, what the subsurface hydrogeological characteristics of the land are, whether the contamination is moving, and the 3-dimensional shape of the groundwater plume. In a 1-square-mile area, we might drill 50 monitoring wells (often because that is all the project budget will allow). That is not a lot of wells for an area so large. When all of our data come back, we get the gist of what the groundwater is like and what it is doing—but we do not get the complete story in detail. Many tiny chapters and interesting diversions exist between our monitoring points, and we never really get to read those in detail.

    A living history requires a person (I would hope) to immerse themselves in research about the character they plan to play, if they wish to do their job well. I suspect that some do and some do not. Some probably think the period clothing and a light reading of history are enough. However, even if that were not the case and the person studied really hard and long, they could still read only a limited number of books and only a small percentage of what is read would be retained. So, you end up wth my monitoring well situation. You know a few things for sure from the wells you drilled, but you have to fill in the “between space” with your own imagination, your own ethnocentrism, and your own displacement in time. You also have hard choices. It is unlikely that every slave owner would have treated their slaves as badly as Simon Legree. In reality, slave abuse (and lack of it) would have existed on a spectrum in life, putting the current day historical actor in the position of having to say, “Well, am I going to be a bad slave owner today, just a “so-so” one, or one where the slaves are treated as family members rather than as property. Be careful here. I am not denying that the condition of slavery itself (however family-like) was a persistent state of oppression. I am simply saying that variety undoubtedly existed, and the actor today must choose where he taps that variety before he acts on the stage grounds down at the plantation. In the early morning, one set of tourists will walk away with the bad slave owner memory. With a change of mood and the mellowing of a ham sandwich at lunch, the same actor may send a differemt set of tourists home with the “so-so” slave owner in the afternoon.

    I guess my overall point is that we know a lot about the old south, but I would bet my bottom dollar that we do not know nearly as much (in reality) as we think we know. We have histories of the old south and documents for sure—and a lot of opinions. The thing we do not have is a carefully designed and executed ethnography of every slaveholding farmstead and plantation in the antebellum south. Yet, we like to pretend that the documents we have somehow give us that, when in reality, they do not, and they never will. We have a great deal of empty space between our monitoring wells, and that space has been filled in by intrepretation, opinion, imagination, and who knows what else. And even if we have a really sharp period actor, that actor must have a certain level of knowledge and make choices in his use of it. The level of knowledge and the choices made may be on the mark—and they may very well not be. In fact, a real relativity factor exists there.

    However, I will agree that that histoircal “acting” is probably fun, and I do think it adds some otherwise missing and loose sense of authenticity and integrity that period props alone would not convey to the public. In other words, I have nothing against it at all, but i also know, and would hope the general public knows, that I am not seeing a re-enactment of a long lost documentary that was filmed in 1851, many years before the existence of celluloid film.

    I know that last sentnce sounds utterly stupid to the educated mind, but the fact is that the average American is “dumber than a bag of hammers,” as Everett so eloquently put it in the movie. Just look at our state’s new “Monkey Law.” I would be hard-pressed to deny that its existence is “the will of the common man.”

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