Doing Experiential History

chopping

Tyler Rudd Putnam is the Gallery Interpretation Manager at the Museum of the American Revolution and a Ph.D candidate in the History of American Civilization Program in the Department of History at the University of Delaware.  In his recent piece at the blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas, he makes a case for the practice of experiential history.

Here is a taste:

But when you practice a historical skill, you still move in much the same way as someone three centuries ago. You learn how to relax your grip on the needle to prevent hand- and wrist-aches. You feel how your back muscles tire and your posture changes after a day sitting “tailor fashion” with crossed legs. And you start to notice things. Lint floating in the air. The miniscule sensation in your fingers communicated by a needle that has a small barb growing at its tip. How it’s possible to daydream and almost even fall asleep amid the rhythmic motions of sewing long seams. We will always need words to create history. But it’s in these moments of experiencing elements of what is was like in the past that you connect with people long gone. This makes you a better historian because you can describe the past better.

I think historians are getting more comfortable with this sort of experiential history as we look beyond traditional practices and decolonize the academy, opening up the field of history to more nontraditional practitioners and approaches. More academics are receptive to forms of evidence once considered beyond the pale of historical work. Scholars are considering how to recapture the past in new ways less bound to old means, and they are rediscovering old family stories, legends, objects, and rituals, and seeking to imagine how food tasted and what the past might have felt like.

Read the entire piece here.

As I read Putman’s piece I was reminded of a scholar who I met while I was a fellow at a major research library located on a prominent early American historical site. After we got to know each other, he asked me if I would be willing to go into the woods and help him chop down a particular type of tree used for building eighteenth-century houses.  He wanted to get a feel for what it was like for servants or slaves to build the estate on this site.  I don’t know if he ever got permission to do this, but I thought it was a great idea.