NEW COURSE — LIVING HISTORY — NEW COURSE

Thirty some-odd years in the making. Well, maybe not thirty-some-odd, but a very long time regardless. I’m pleased to announce that Wright State War & Society will be offering another first. Our first first — the War & Society/Public History concentration, aimed at PH students who have a special interest in military history or who might be aiming for a career in a museum or historic site with a military history focus.

And now our second first (ahem!): a course on “Living History and Reenacting.”

I’m sure that a few eyes will roll at this one, but I have my reasons. I’ve been involved in living history and reenacting since I was in my mid-teens (in the late seventies). All military-related. First Civil War, then American Revolution, then seventeenth century (both English Civil War and Thirty Years’ War), and most lately the World Wars. Mostly it’s been for fun; lately it’s had a lot to do with family, as my older sons are both avid reenactors. But it’s been a big part of my life for a very long time. As a professional historian, I’ve struggled with my feelings about living history, and like many academic historians I have deep reservations about reenacting and reenactors: their concern with material culture above all other things, their sometimes minimal understanding of the larger historical context of the eras they reenact, the degree of ancestor-worship and overt sentimentality that often colors reenacting. But as a reenactor, I can state categorically that living history has taught me much that I couldn’t learn any other way; as I writer, I can say that I’ve taken away lots of intangibles that have helped my prose considerably. When you’ve actually eaten cold boiled salt pork in the pouring rain, or dragged a 150-pound (and more) water-cooled machine gun through the mud, you have an idea — just an idea, but better than nothing at all — of the challenges that soldiers have faced throughout history.

Either way, reenacting brings people to history in a way that few other things can. Living history programs at open-air museums (Colonial Williamsburg, Plimoth Plantation, Old Sturbridge Village, et al.) and a NPS battlefields reach millions of “history tourists” annually. Thousands more participate directly in living history-related activities, including battle reenactments; hundreds of thousands more watch these events every year. Living history, in other words, reaches a much broader public than can be served by academic historians, and it “brings history to life” in a way that few museums can by means of static displays alone. For those reasons alone, historians ought to take it more seriously. But there is a disconnect between the worlds of living history and academic history. And that’s unfortunate.

paul gettysburg 2003

Dr. Lockhart at the Gettysburg 140th event, 2003.

In this class, I’ll be introducing students to the history of reenacting and living history, the interesting (and sometimes, to outsiders, very very weird) subcultures of reenacting. We’ll look at what we can teach and learn through reenacting — its potential, in other words — and what we can’t teach or learn through reenacting. We’ll look at what reenactors get wrong, and what they get right. MOST IMPORTANT — we’ll be doing as well as discussing. We’ll look at the kind of research that goes into (or ought to go into) the individual personae that reenactors and “living historians” portray (that, by the way, is called an “impression”), and the kind of research and work that goes into a larger living history “program” at an historic site. And it won’t just be about uniforms and firearms and gear … or even just about soldiers. Historical reenacting might be mostly oriented around military subjects and wars, but that doesn’t mean that it’s only about military personnel. We’ll be looking at “civilian” roles, portrayal of cultural expressions and attitudes, and about “period” lifeways — food, work, language, everyday life.

What do I hope to achieve with this? Lots, actually. For those who are already involved in living history, I hope we can shed a little light on what can be done with this activity. For those who are new to living history but interested in it, I hope we can do the same that we do for the “veterans,” but also to give you a place to start and a direction to pursue. For students interested in a career in public history, I hope that we can generate some ideas as to what can be done with reenactors and practitioners of living history, to enhance the educational value of museums and historic sites. And for everybody, including myself, I hope to have fun. Actually, I intend to have fun.

Assigned texts will include Tony Horwitz’s best-selling Confederates in the Attic, Stacy Roth’s Past into Present, and Scott Magelssen’s Enacting History.

HST4850/6850-01, Fall Semester 2012. 11:15am – 12:10pm MWF, Dayton campus.

Any questions? Email Dr. Lockhart at paul.lockhart@wright.edu.

About Paul Lockhart

I'm a history professor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio...and I write books about history.
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