What is the Future of Historical Reenacting in Public History?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks ago The Bitter Southerner published a nice essay on Civil War reenacting. The author asserts that reenacting is in a period of transition as some enthusiasts push for a more holistic understanding of Civil War history, one that strives for “deeper, truer purposes” by explaining why this war was fought in the first place. Moreover, the author argues that “Civil War reenactments are as popular now as they have ever been,” so therefore historical reenactors–and the entire public history field–can and should find ways to use reenacting to disseminate a better understanding of the Civil War to the public.

I don’t buy the argument that Civil War reenacting–or any sort of reenacting save for maybe World War II–is as popular as ever. While it’s my understanding that the Civil War Sesquicentennial did bring out a large number of reenactors to commemorate the 150th anniversary of various battles like Shiloh and Gettysburg and General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, what’s notable about the Sesquicentennial is how many reenactors who grew up during the Centennial years of the 1960s chose to wear their outfits for the last time with the end of the 150th this year. I highly doubt that the so-called “millennial” generation is going to maintain the popularity of Civil War or any historical reenacting in the future. Another article in the Peoria Journal Star seems to confirm my skepticism.

The Journal Star article focuses on Fort Crevecoeur in Illinois, which was first established in the late seventeenth century. The fort doesn’t have the popularity of a Civil War site, but during the 1980s the fort held reenactments based on events when the fort functioned as a trading post that drew crowds of more than 3,000 visitors. Today the number of reenactors still participating in events at the fort dwindles around 15 or 20. The site has expanded its offerings and now hosts a French and Indian War reenactment, but concerns remain about the future of these events and even the site itself.

Three reasons are offered in the Journal Star for explaining why historical reenactments aren’t popular with younger people today:

  1. Kids are more interested in technology “and air conditioning” than spending the day outside at a reenactment.
  2. Kids don’t have the money to invest in reenacting.
  3. Older reenactors don’t want to be around young people and look upon them “with disdain.”

I think explanation two–that kids [i.e. their parents] don’t have the money–is the most plausible. Time is an important factor as well, however. Organized sports, to take one example, play a much larger role in many children’s lives than they did in the 1960s or 70s. Kids also have more homework than ever before. And while older folks can definitely be grumpy sometimes, I think those sentiments are reflective of a basic fact of human nature: young people like hanging out with other young people during their free time. Ditto to older people. And both groups can unfortunately look at each other with too much skepticism.

The bit about kids being more interested in technology than being outside is a red herring that distracts us from questioning why this site’s current programming is not attracting visitors. Sure, kids are inside more often and some teens are spending as much as seven and a half hours a day consuming media, but who’s to blame for that? The kids are being raised by parents who attended those reeanctments as children in the 1980s and are choosing not to return. Adults are spending more time inside consuming media on computers, phones, and televisions too. Kids who spend all day online are doing so because their parents allow them to, and because parents often indulge in the same types of behavior.

Is the future of public history doomed because of digital technology, or is there an opportunity for public historians to thoughtfully incorporate at least some semblance of digital technology to enhance their programming? If you agree with me that the latter course is a better one, then you’ll see that throwing our hands up and doing nothing but moaning about kids and their phones will most certainly hasten this field’s demise. Let’s stop making excuses. Michael Twitty, a historical reenactor who often portrays himself as an enslaved cook at events and is quoted in the aforementioned Bitter Southerner piece, is right when he says that “my job is to bring to life what the life of an enslaved person looked like so that you can take a picture of it with your iPhone and share this knowledge.”

Historical reenacting is suffering in part, I think, because the way we teach history to students in the classroom is changing, both in content and method. What I call the “dates, dead people, and dust” approach to history education is slowly going away and being replaced with teaching methods that embrace nuance and context and incorporate primary sources alongside select readings from academic historians. Memorizing a bunch of facts for a forty-question multiple choice test is not an effective way of teaching history, and it seems like more teachers are beginning to challenge their students to interpret the past using primary and secondary evidence and to then make compelling arguments in written and oral form. Moreover, the discussion topics in history classrooms, for better or worse, are moving away from heroic narratives of great white men, dramatic battles, and military tactics towards questions of politics, economics, social practices, group identities, and history as a process of connected events with implications for the present instead of a series of unconnected events on a timeline from a bygone, irrelevant era.

Given these changes in the classroom, we should be unsurprised when historical reenactments that privilege dry lectures, minute facts about obscure historical artifacts, and narratives that literally whitewash the past don’t attract the attention of young or diverse audiences.

Do I think historical reenacting is ineffective or a waste of time? Absolutely not! I’ve done historical reenacting myself (poorly). When I lived in Indiana I participated in Connor Prarie’s “Follow the North Star” program and was profoundly moved by the entire experience. But the reenacting alone wasn’t what impressed me. The program gave me a chance to actively participate in the event itself and contribute my own voice through a post-event facilitated dialogue run by a professional. The dialogue challenged all participants to reflect on their own experiences during the event and then comment on the role of history in shaping our society today. Plus they gave us resources to learn more about slavery, the underground railroad, and Indiana history at the very end. It was reenacting with emotion, passion, intelligence, active participation, and respect for the past. We need more of that in public history if we want reenacting to play an important educational role in the future.

Cheers