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.

The Annual Battle of Gettysburg Reenactment Gives Way to Glenn Beck

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According to this article at Penn Live, the 2020 reenactment at the Battle of Gettysburg has been canceled because Glenn Beck is hosting an event called “Restoring the Covenant on the Sacred Land of Gettysburg.”

Beck’s event will “reflect on our spiritual foundations and renew our covenant as one nation, under God.  Over three days, you’ll enjoy keynote addresses, break-out sessions with headliners, special dinners, fireworks, and a Sunday service.”  For a $5 donation you can “keep your place in line.”  Speakers have not yet been announced.  I think it’s safe to say David Barton, the GOP operative who used the past to advance his political agenda, will be there.  He has a long relationship with Beck.

Gettysburg tourism officials seemed thrilled that 20,000 to 30,000 Beck followers will converge on the town over the July 4th holiday to celebrate Christian nationalism.

Here is a taste of Steve Marroni’s piece at Penn Live:

Beck’s organization is hosting the event in Gettysburg from July 3 to 5, the same weekend as most of the major battle-commemoration events in town.

Calls and emails to the organization were not returnedbut its website says, “This special occasion promises to be a chance to join with like-minded people to reflect on the spiritual foundations of the United States of America and renew our covenant as one nation, under God.”

It will feature keynote addresses, breakout sessions, dinners, fireworks and talks by headliners, including Beck. It will be held at a variety of locations in and around Gettysburg.

When the event was announced, potential attendees could make a $5 donation to reserve their spot for when tickets became available.

It was unclear on the website what the cost of the tickets will be, or if the $5 donation covers admission. But the site advertised packages that include lodging and range from $7,500 per person to $200. Some discount passes with no listed pricing options appear to be available, as well. The premier package starts with several days in Boston, taking in some historic sites there before traveling to Gettysburg.

Although the reenactment won’t happen, Beck’s organization is expected to bring plenty of visitors. Estimates range from 20,000 to 30,000 people, and that’s OK by Destination Gettysburg.

“Our core mission is to attract visitors to Adams County each year,” said spokeswoman Natalie Buyny. “We work with many corporations and national groups that want to come to Gettysburg.”

While attendees will be busy with a whole slate of activities -– many of which have not yet been revealed — she said there will be downtime for Beck’s visitors. That’s time when they can stop by Gettysburg’s restaurants, its shops and, of course, the historic sites in town and on the hallowed grounds of the battlefield.

Gettysburg is prepared to handle such an influx of visitors. Restoring the Covenant is expected to be big, but not as big as the 150th anniversary of the battle in 2013, when Buyny said they saw an estimated 150,000 visitors over a 10-day period with no major issues.

She added Restoring the Covenant organizers have been working with the municipalities to alleviate some of the traffic concerns.

While the reenactment may be missed this year, she acknowledged reenactments are not the draw they used to be.

The average, non-anniversary year would see about 15,000 people attending the reenactments, a number that dropped to an estimated 9,000 in 2019, she said. On anniversary years — such as the 150th in 2013 – it’s not unusual to see between 40,000 and 60,000 attendees over three days.

Read the entire piece here.

It appears that a reenactment will take place on a nearby farm.

Reenacting the 1811 German Coast Slave Uprising in Louisiana

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Check out Rick Rojas’s recent piece at The New York Times: “A Slave Rebellion Rises Again.”  Rojas covers the reenactment of an 1811 Louisiana slave rebellion know as the German Coast Uprising.

Rojas writes:

The 26-mile march, a re-enactment of the 1811 German Coast Uprising in southeast Louisiana, began Friday morning and will conclude Saturday. It was timed to the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in Virginia, a moment that has ignited considerable reflection about the specter of slavery still hanging over the United States and the depths of its influence…

The performance was conceived, in part, to demonstrate how the ghosts of slavery have endured; the institution itself is gone, but the animosity and oppression have evolved and lingered. Staging a provocative revival of a violent rebellion, recounted in unsparing detail, stirred fears that the performance might turn into a very real confrontation.

Read the entire piece here.

Over at The New Republic, writer Nick Martin writes about the difficult work of diversifying historical reenactments.  Here is a taste:

Diversifying all forms of historical reenactment, whether an amateur showing, a school activity, or a professionally produced motion picture, is clearly a step in the right direction. That’s why communities of color have been focusing on this for decades: It’s a chance to render erased histories visible in a particularly physical way, taking up space the people in these histories have long been denied, and becoming a source of pride for communities of color. It’s hard to imagine any rational, good-faith objection to that: After all, white reenactors have been claiming for decades that education and pride in history is the whole point.

I am not a big fan of reenactments.  I don’t go to them. Reenactors think that history is all about authenticity–wearing the right number of buttons on a uniform or marching in a way that reflects the time period.  )Check out the late Tony Horwitz’s book Confederates in the Attic on this front). This approach to the past fails to let the past speak to the present and vice-versa.  Reenactments are antiquarianism, not history.  The doing of history requires an exploration of context, change over time, causation, contingency (which I guess could be captured in an reenactment as fans watch actors make choices), and complexity.

Yet reenactments, like historical movies or Broadway shows, do get people engaged with the past.  They have the potential to get observers to learn more about the past through reading or a visit to a historical museum that properly curates the past.

But the reenactment of the German Coast Uprising seems to be more of an example of reenactment as activism rather than reenactment as antiquarianism.  In other words, this seems to be something quite different from the traditional Civil War reenactment.  The goal is both understanding and social change.

Race, Slavery, and Historical Interpreters

Slave Interpreters

Historical interpreters at Booker T. Washington Monument (via Donnie Nunley @ Flickr)

Over at The Outline, Zoe Beery writes about Cheyney McKnight, an African American historical interpreter at Historic Richmond Town on Staten Island.

Here is a taste:

Over the last ten years, McKnight has built a career as a living historian who embodies black lives, rather than just black trauma, in her interpretations of slavery. She does not portray specific people (“I’m not an actor,” she said), preferring to inhabit a generalized role while speaking from a contemporary viewpoint. “I want to change the way people see the story of slavery,” she said, “so that when people think of slavery and women, they think of me, not Aunt Jemima or Mammy.”

McKnight grew up in Atlanta and was fascinated since early childhood with the stories her parents and family told her about the Civil Rights movement. She devoured books about black history, from the 1960s to the Great Migration to enslavement. When she learned that she could spend time reliving what she had been spending so much time studying, re-enacting became her end-goal. Her parents were always on board. “They knew I was never going to have a specific life plan and had resigned themselves to having an oddball daughter,” she said.

For her first event, she traveled to the site of the Battle of Gettysburg for a 150th-anniversary re-enactment. In a borrowed blue and white dress, she portrayed a 22-year-old freewoman alongside four other black re-enactors. The re-enactment was, as Civil War historian Melvin Ely termed such eventslast year, a white fantasy: McKnight’s group was the largest bloc of black civilians anyone had ever seen at an event whose historical basis was full of black civilians. “At the time, that just wasn’t done,” McKnight said. Astonished spectators stopped them constantly, usually assuming they were portraying enslaved people. “I had old white men come up to me and tell me I reminded them of their maids,” she said. “People seemed to feel this need to put me in my place as an enslaved person.”

Read the entire piece here.

What About Confederate Reenactors?

Confederate Reenactors

Over at Civil War Memory, Kevin Levin reflects on Confederate Civil War reenactors in a post-New Orleans, post-Charlottesville world.

Here is a taste:

It should come as no surprise that reenactors who don Confederate gray and display the Confederate battle flag are meeting more and more resistance from people who question their motivation. A group of Maine men, who reenact the 15th Alabama, have experienced this firsthand in the form of heckling during parades and from those who question their racial motivation.

Read the entire post here.