What Makes It So....And Other Thoughts

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Living history should not stand alone as it cannot show a complete story but merely bits and pieces of the history. At the same time this is the new approach academics can use to communicate knowledge to others and a way to reach outside the academic world. This does not mean that every museum has to be a circus. Not every museum needs to be a museum that incorporates living history, but it needs to be taken into consideration, and it needs to be discussed what kind of knowledge guests obtain during such a visit.

Do guests leave knowing more about the past or do they leave after just being entertained? How do we make sure that the guest, knowingly or unknowingly, leaves with more knowledge? How do we make visitors ask the relevant questions and how do we spark their interest in the period shown? Houses cannot tell their own stories themselves, and an old, cold, dark house at the Open-Air Museum is nothing like it used to be years ago.

This is where living history can bring buildings to life and communicate some of the stories hidden in their walls. The buildings come alive when they are used, and this makes them relevant to the guest, it makes the buildings understandable and gives the visitors tools that they can use to make relations between their own reality and the prehistoric reality they witness at the museum.

The guest has to be able to tie a knot between their own story and the story told, otherwise it will not be understood or remembered as something important. We are mediators or translators between the guest and the history Tilden , xiii. This is where living history has its main strength. It makes history come alive and make the persons of a distant past approachable. It takes history to a level that is understandable and at everyday level that every visitor can relate to.

Through the character of the maid Ane from Fjellerup at the Open-air Museum, it was possible to tell stories from a life that took place not so long ago, and it was possible to, without saying much, draw a line between and the present. Mrs Justesen had knowledge of the bacteria from the magazines she read and her talks with high society people.

She made her maids clean everything thoroughly. The girls in the kitchen thought it was very strange and did not really believe their lady. To them, with their limited education, it seemed very strange that something that it was not possible to see could be dangerous. The only thing they could not see that was present in their lives was God.

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They therefore thought it was silly, but they did what their lady said. Through this little story the story of the discovery of bacteria was told and thereby part of the story of modern medical science. The visitors learned that in there was a difference in education between the classes and that the lower classes only knew what they had learned in the short time they went to school and learned in church every Sunday.

It might not have been completely new knowledge for the visitors, but it was entertaining and something they could remember because they could use their own knowledge of the present and compare it to the knowledge of the past See Figure 3. At the Medieval Centre it is more a general way of life that is shown, because it is so different from the present.

Small stories are told and if people walk by wearing sandals or flip-flops the shoemaker might make a comment about the odd look of their shoes. A great way to communicate history is through food and cooking, something which is very much applied at the Medieval Centre because the volunteers actually live in the houses and need to eat. Again the ingredients and recipes are based on knowledge of what was available for common people during this period.

It is easy to get in touch with visitors when cooking. Everyone needs to eat, so the common ground is found right away and there are basis for giving a lot of information about life in the Middle Ages through cooking. People often make a comment about one of the ingredients that they think did not exist in that period — often if almonds or cinnamon is used.

Or the visitor asks where the almonds comes from, then the volunteer can answer, that she does not know from where it comes, but that the merchant brings it home on his ship when he has been out sailing. And that almonds are only used on special occasions. This small talk gives a lot of information, for example that almonds were available, but expensive and that they were imported.

It also shows that it was possible to get exotic products in the middle ages and that the import was from a wide range of places. It is not world history or the story of world changing events that are shown and shared, but it is the life on a farm in , where the people were aware of the changing politics and interested in the news of the day. And it shows the life of the average peoples living in the Middle Ages. At some museums it has become very popular to show historic battles that affected the history of the world, but what does the guest learn from this kind of show?

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Does their knowledge about the winning army and the loosing army improve? Do they understand what effect the battle had and how it changed the world?

Or were they just entertained with sword fights, dying men and heroes? I believe that in order to understand world-changing events a basic knowledge of everyday life is needed. Therefore I believe that what these two museums are doing is very important and makes the gaps between the present and the past a little smaller. If it is believed that the mission for interpreters is to make our visitors able to understand why the world is the way it is today, we need to start off with teaching them small things that they can relate to — create a little spark of interest in their mind Tilden ,xiii.

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That is why I find that the living history at the Open-Air Museum is important and relevant. Everyone can relate to cooking, cleaning, family, love and death. They gain an insight into a story that could be their own, and this way we might create a spark of interest. This of course is a bit more difficult at the Medieval Centre as the period shown is years old. Still people had to cook, give birth and make a living and via these activities it is possible to connect with the guest.

If the volunteer cannot step out of the role and explain to the guest how and to what they can compare their new knowledge, they will just take it as a kind of play and not relate it to history. This way it loses some of its integrity.

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The idea of stepping back in time and experiencing a small town as it might have looked years ago is great, but not realistic. To a certain point it is possible via character to guide the guest and give them the needed information, and the Centre does have some great employees that master this way of communication but it is something that takes years to learn and requires some sort of acting ability, which not everyone has. Also I find that sometimes you need to step out of the role. I find it fairly difficult to keep my character.


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I am too influenced by my education to do so, and therefore I often step out of role and explain as the archaeologist I am. It is easier for me to make the guest feels like their needs are being met and that their question is taken seriously! And I feel like I can communicate my knowledge and am being heard, understood and accepted, which is highly important. At the same time, as written above, I know of people who master the communication while being in character and I highly respect this as it is a fun way to learn about history.

But the main point is that there are different ways of doing so and that the main difference lies between using hired personal or volunteers. The main difference between implementing these two groups is that hired personal is educated in the subject, have a general knowledge of the period in question and know where to get more information. At the same time the hired personal is paid and expected to deliver a certain job, therefore it is possible to ask for certain tasks and a certain level of work.

A volunteer might have an interest in the period and does have some knowledge, but it is not expected. Therefore education of the volunteer is very important. One of the main concerns of employing volunteers is that they are there on their own terms - they are there of their own free will, many are often on vacation, and therefore it can be difficult to get them to interact with the guests. I have experienced people who thought they were on vacation and did not want to be part of the daily program or interact with the guest.

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Of course this can be managed by setting some rules and demanding that people participate, but it is difficult to check up on, and it is difficult to obtain the same level of standard during the entire season as the volunteers mainly come during weekends and holidays. It is not possible to make a work schedule and sometimes the place can be almost empty — as if the plague just hit. This is in no way profitable. The Medieval Centre, or other institutions implementing this form of living history, need to keep a certain standard. The visitors during the first part of the season should have just as lovely an experience as the visitors during summer.

Therefore places like the Medieval Centre have to have some employees to keep up a certain standard. On the other hand, volunteers love what they do and only do it if they want to and they cannot be spared.

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I am not saying that volunteers should not be used — they are an important part of many museums both in living history and elsewhere. But it is of the utmost importance that they are educated properly and that there are opportunities for them to get more knowledge if they wish. It is also very important that the volunteers feel welcome and that they feel their work is being taken seriously.

After all they spend a lot of their own time doing living history and many even spend the winter period getting to know more or make their own clothes. Therefore they should be thanked and know that they are appreciated. As I, myself, am a volunteer, it might seem strange that I critique the use of volunteers. It is not that I want the volunteers to disappear, they are, as said before, very important.

However, I think that it is possible to provide them with a better education and help them develop into proper translators and ambassadors of the history. It is very important to remember that the museums are for the visitors and not for the people working there. We are there to give an experience and hopefully light a spark in some of the visitors, not to have fun ourselves.

If we do have fun at the same time, and that is very possible, it is a bonus. That is a difficult concept to convey to volunteers.


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I think it is important to keep a balance between hired staff and volunteers. Both groups bring an element to the field that make a great mix.