Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Rewriting History: Historical Reenactments

          Historical sites in America are thick with historical reenactments and living histories. From famous attractions, like Colonial Williamsburg, to lesser known sites, such as Mansker’s Fort, it is far from difficult to find a historical site with people in period clothing walking about. Americans have a fascination with their own history, a fact which is made obvious by the popularity of shows like “Band of Brothers” and “Antique Roadshow,” as well as the mere existence of the History channel. This love of history is often transformed into historical reenactments, which are both fun for the actors as well as the audience. However, the ubiquity of historical reenactments does not mean that they are uncontroversial, as their accuracy tends to be suspect with historians.
 Camp Music at a Civil War Reenactment (source)

Many historical reenactments claim to be recreating a true and factual history, to be portraying history as it actually happened. In a public context, they often present themselves as a learning experience, not just an enjoyable activity. Yet, these claims are often tenuous at best. While some historical actors take great time in researching the events and characters to create more accurate portrayals-- often referred to as the “progressives,” they are undoubtedly outnumbered by the “farbs,” or those who put considerably less time and effort into their historical reenactments.
 Civil War Reenactors on Tank (source)

What is at stake here is the whitewashing of history. With half-hearted reenactments, which serve the actors’ desires to roleplay more than a desire to educate, come misrepresentations of history. Actors and audiences focus more on nostalgic material, such as day-to-day activities or technology, rather than the actual atmosphere of the time. Racial, class, gender and other important issues get submerged under conversations about gun types and food preparation. Even important aspects of battlefield experiences are left out of battle reenactments. Instead of seeing something which points to the horror and blood of Civil War battles, one might instead see an actor or two reposing on the grass, playing dead, or even just a group of people in period costume relaxing and peacefully playing music.
Civil War Battle Reenactment (source)
As one historical reenactor laments, the audience is partially to blame for the whitewashing. Chris Ketcherside writes, “Most often the public simply asks, ‘What kind of machine gun is that?’ and the discussion ends there.” Anti-semitism among Allied soldiers in WWII or racism against African Americans in the Civil War are topics most of the audience would not feel comfortable seeing ‘lived out’, if they would be interested in them at all. Yet, these aspects of history often seem to be entirely lost in reenactments, even for the interested audience.

Afternoon Tea at the Plantation (source

The historical sites on Moss Wright Park in Goodlettsville, TN are exemplary of this misrepresentation of history. Moss Wright contains two historical sites-- Mansker’s Fort and the Bowen Plantation House. Mansker’s Fort is rife with historical reenactments, having numerous events open to the public, and even more for group trips, where one can watch a blacksmith at work and receive treats from pioneer women. Despite being a replica fort, Mansker’s advertises itself as “authentic,” as a place where one can “experience the lifestyle” of a Cumberland settler. Yet, there are conspicuous absences in the history provided. For instance, the Native American community is rarely represented, and if it is, it is by white men and women portraying Natives in the one-dimensional role of the villain, emerging from the woods and chasing the runners as they jog down the park paths.
 Advertisement for Masnker's Station Event (source)

 Field Trip to Mansker's Fort (source)

Even more disappointing than this misrepresentation of Native-Settler interaction is the absence of history from the Bowen Plantation House. While the site name is the “Bowen Plantation House,” the Goodlettsville website prefers to refer to it simply as the “Bowen House,” which “is truly a Tennessee treasure.” According to their website, “Through [Captain William Bowen’s] hard work and own ambitions, [he] became prosperous in the new settlement and eventually owned over 4,000 acres.” Not only does the website suggest Bowen acquired his status through individual accomplishment, but it does not make a single reference to slavery. If it is possible to erase slavery from the narrative of a plantation, Goodlettsville surely attempts to do this.

Wedding Celebrations at the Bowen Plantation House (source)

The problem of historical reenactments is the willingness of the audience to believe what they see, and the desire of the actors to produce an idealized portrait of the past, one that does not account for disease, horrific medical practice, and the grim reality of race, gender and class relations. Historical reenactments present themselves as ‘authentic,’ and as a learning experience. Yet, while technology may or may not be adequately represented, crucial dynamics and realities are left out of the event, as they do not fit harmoniously into the narrative the actors wish, or are desired to, create.

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  1. It is indeed troubling to find the rewriting of or sometimes outright absence of certain perspectives and components of history in these reenactments, but what I wonder is why are historical reenactments viewed by the public in a different light than movies? It seems as though we realize a film can be biased and thus approach it with a skeptical eye. What is it about historical reenactments that has many in the public convinced of their accuracy?

    And even in the event of misrepresentations of the past, I think there is a valuable component to these historical reenactments as a form of keeping notions of the past alive and relevant. Instead of judging some of these groups for their shortcomings, it should be looked at as another venue for those with more experience and background knowledge in these subjects to reach out to enthusiastic historians who are in fact so passionate about these events to act them out. Perhaps rather than criticizing historical reenactments, archaeologists (and all historians) can utilize this medium to further explore and question various truths of the past.

  2. Thank you very much for the article, and the above comment. I would say specifically that it is the venues that are responsible for the what the reenactors do.
    Reenacting is a hobby with no restrictions or overarching rules or organization. Essentially, anyone can buy any outfit and go to an event. Some reenactors, the "farbs" don't put the real time or interest into doing it correctly. It is up to the venue to screen these kind of people out if they want an accurate portrayal.
    In case in point, I portray a WWII German soldier. I do so as accurately as possible, down to having not only the correct uniform and equipment, but the correct paperwork, letters from home, pictures in my wallet, and accurate food in my breadbag. Ich kann Deutsch sprechen, and I enjoy singing some of the traditional German marching songs. I am fully prepared to talk about the intricacies of my gear and weapons, as well as discuss the larger issues of the Holocaust and Nazism. But, often as not, the venue does not want that discussed. And, many times, who can blame them? If you're having an air show, or at at a plantation, you don't want the controversy of the Holocaust or slavery discussed, because no matter how you do it, someone is going to say it was done wrong. Of course, not discussing it at all is also wrong, so there is no real way to make everyone happy.
    On a slightly smaller point, it sure is inaccurate to have old white guys like me portray native Americans. I would love, LOVE to portray some of the tribes during the French and Indian conflict. But I know better, because I'm too old, white and fat. It would be great if there were some actual Native Americans doing that, but there are very few and far between. So, the question becomes, should I do it so that SOMEONE is, or should we not do it because no actual descendants are willing too? In WWII, we have this controversy with Japanese soldiers.
    Also, portraying the horror of war is difficult. Saving Private Ryan the movie does a good job of this, but you wouldn't take your 7 year old to see it. Reenactments open to the public have all ages attending, and, no matter how accurate it is, no one is going to want to see a guy screaming at the top of his lungs with his intestines spilling out. It may be accurate, but not appropriate.
    So then you might ask, should it be done at all? Maybe not. But saying it should not be done if it can't be done totally perfectly always leads to defeat, because it can never be done perfectly, given how subjective the idea of "perfect" is. Even the idea of blood and gore, whether or not it is appropriate, is expensive and difficult to do. As reenactors, at least, the good ones, we understand a lot of what we do is "watered down" so to speak, but we think this exposure, which hopefully will lead people to explore more, is better than none at all.
    In defense of reenactors sitting around a campfire, or singing songs, really, this is an example of good reenacting. This is what the soldiers did 99% of their time. It is relatively easy to go out and "blow off blanks" for a battle, but a sign of a good reenactor is being able to portray the soldier (or whatever) as a whole, not just in a few minutes of combat.
    Lastly, I think the comment above is the best one. I would love to see real historians (and no, I do not thing, at all, that being a reenactor automatically makes you a historian) come together with reenactors so we can educate people better.

  3. Chris, thanks so much for this very thoughtful and measured comment. It's great to get the perspective of someone actually involved in reenactment (and I have to say, I know a fair few archaeologists who enjoy doing it themselves for fun). Next time we discuss this in class I'll make sure to share your response with the students. Best, Zoe Crossland

  4. Here is an interesting article
    Ultimately, the problem I see in reenacting is the fact that so much is up to the individual and there are no established rules or norms. The quality or historic correctness of an impression, group, or reenactment is solely based on the standards of those individuals involved. I have seen some reenactors that are fare more knowledgable on subjects than even many academic types and are capable of sharing this information with the public. Others, should not even be allowed to be seen or speak in public as they are an abomination to history. It all depends and there is no standard.