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.[1]

As to why living history is important, my views are based on my experience as an educator. I have heard far too many students and adults say that they don’t like history or hated studying it. I believe their dislike most likely stems from the manner in which they were taught. For far too many years, memorizing places, names, and dates constituted history instruction. Instead of being taught in a way that allowed students to immerse themselves in the period being studied and that helped them feel a kinship with historical figures, students were spoon fed lists to be committed to memory. Thank goodness that form of instruction has faded into the past. History instruction, especially in middle and high schools, has come a long way. For those who missed out on the more enlightened instructional methods, or who still struggle with the subject matter despite improved methods, or who just don’t understand why studying the past is important, living history experiences can change the way they view the subject and bring unexpected pleasure, insights, and understanding. For those of us who have always loved reading, studying, and writing about the past, experiences in living history make us feel like a five-year-old in Disneyland. It is the icing on our already delicious cake.
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Governor’s Palace at Christmas

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.

col will mapAlthough it is now a major attraction, the heritage site has not always been thus. In its early years, Williamsburg was a thriving center of government, commerce, education, and culture, but when Virginia’s capital was moved to Richmond in 1780, the area went into slow decline. Williamsburg was too distant from the western counties to serve as the capital and its location nearer the coast made it far too vulnerable to attack by the British. The Revolutionary War might be seen as the source of Williamsburg’s slide from prominence to sleepy backwater. While progress eluded the once great town, it maintained much of its colonial feel because its 18th century buildings and structures remained, though they too fell into decline and disrepair. The town came to depend on the College of William and Mary, the county courthouse, and the Eastern Lunatic Asylum for jobs with little else to enrich the local economy. It was not until the late 1920’s that Williamsburg’s value and place in American history came to be appreciated. The effort, vision, and leadership of an Episcopal priest made saving and restoring Colonial Williamsburg possible.
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Dr. Goodwin with FDR on his 1934 visit to Colonial Williamsburg

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.

Travel with me to Colonial Williamsburg via the gallery below. If you have not visited the site, is it on your bucket list?



Col W-Carriage
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Demonstration of traditional folk dancing.


Col W-CHorses

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Actor explaining the Public Goal to visitors.


Actor performing a Thomas Jefferson reenactment.


For information on visiting Colonial Williamsburg:

Colonial Willamsburg website

1. Retrieved August 14, 29016.