Living History: What Is It & Why Is It Important?
Today, I am introducing a new series on History Imagined that surely gets to the heart of this blog and historical fiction in general, the desire to make the past come alive. While we authors create visions of the past with our words, other art forms offer representations to great effect as well. The ones on which I will focus fall under the general heading of living history.
So what is living history exactly? The topic is broader than one may have imagined.
[Living history is] an activity that incorporates historical tools, activities and dress into an interactive presentation that seeks to give observers and participants a sense of stepping back in time. Although it does not necessarily seek to reenact a specific event in history, living history is similar to, and sometimes incorporates, historical reenactment. Living history is an educational medium used by living history museums, historic sites, heritage interpreters, schools and historical reenactment groups to educate the public or their own members in particular areas of history, such as clothing styles, pastimes and handicrafts, or to simply convey a sense of the everyday life of a certain period in history.
There are excellent living history museums in many parts of the world. One of the best, in my opinion, is located in Oslo, Norway, the subject of a previous post here. In the US, the quintessential living history museum is located in Williamsburg, Virginia, the keystone of the Colonial Triangle that includes Jamestown and Yorktown. Colonial Williamsburg is somewhat unique in that it was created from an actual town from which the residents and non-Colonial Era buildings were removed. Once one has passed through the entrance into the village of Colonial Williamsburg, one is transported back in time to the early 18th century when Williamsburg was the capital of Colonial Virginia. The actors are dressed in authentic period costumes and often speak in the style and manner of the era while making their presentations. Visiting Colonial Williamsburg is as close to time travel as we will get until the space/time continuum problem is solved.
Virginia native, The Reverend Dr. W. A. R. Goodwin served Williamsburg’s Bruton Parish Church twice during his pastoral career with an intervening sojourn at the wealthy St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Rochester, N.Y. His time in Williamsburg as a seminarian and pastor generated his interest in the colonial portions of the city, but it was during his time as a religious studies professor at William and Mary that he took the first steps in making his restoration dream a reality. As with many such projects, Goodwin began small with one structure, the octagonal building originally known as the Powder Horn and now called the Magazine. From there, he persuaded other faculty members to become involved and together they saved the John Blair House from demolition to make way for an intended gas station. Through Dr. Goodwin’s efforts, Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and the Rockefeller family ultimately endowed the nonprofit Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which later received considerable financial support from others, most notably Reader’s Digest founders Lila and DeWitt Wallace, and Philadelphia publisher Walter Annenberg.