If only historians had access to time machines…. it would make our work so much easier!
Unfortunately, we don’t. Instead we have to help the visitor to feel like they have a better understanding of how people lived in the past through as many different formats as we possibly can. One of the most popular and well loved (from a visitor point of view!) of these experiences is to have first-person interpreters roaming the site.
I find it interesting that over the course of the week, very few people we have talked to have discussed this niche of storytelling and, the two times we did hear about it, very different views were expressed. Angie Dodson, of Hillwood Estate, admitted that she originally had very negative views of costumed interpretation– partially because it seemed like it was “making fun of the past” or “fake.” She has slowly changed her mind about the process because of a shift in how the interpreters are presented– they are no longer “entertainment” but more of an educational tool to help guests start conversations.
This is very similar to what Jonathan Wood of Mount Vernon was saying as well. He has a much more difficult role to play– that of an enslaved man– but many of his comments focused on the conversational element that his portrayal allowed. Both Jonathan and the Mount Vernon organization seems to have a much more positive view of costumed interpreters then Angie did… they currently have 6 characters in addition to Mr. and Mrs. Washington, and the program has been in place for at least 5-10 years.
Having done first-person and third-person costumed interpretation personally, I can appreciate both sides of the issue– it all depends on whether the portrayal is being used primarily for entertainment or education. If it is for entertainment, oftentimes it can have that hallow ring of being a false facade but if facts and true stories are used as the base of the performance, then it can have an immersive effect that transports the visitor and helps them to connect on a human level.