Is that fire real?
“Living history can be defined as an attempt by people to simulate life in another time. Generally, the other time is in the past, and a specific reason is given for making the attempt to live as other people once did. The reasons vary, but the three most common ones are: to interpret material culture more effectively, usually at a living museum; to test an archaeological thesis or generate data for historical ethnographies; and to participate in an enjoyable recreational activity that is also a learning experience.” Jay Anderson, ‘Simulating everyday life in living museums’, 1992
Standing the test of time, Jay Anderson’s definition of living history provides a solid yet simple introduction into what can be a fascinating and enjoyable hobby. As a living history group depicting aspects of nineteenth century Queensland’s past, we usually assume the role of both entertainer and educator. We can shock the unwitting with simple historical truths or activities, or converse with the knowledgeable without feeling foolish. Sometimes we are regarded as the adults in ‘dress-ups’, but we console ourselves that those who see us that way haven’t had the chance to interact with us.
Public living history is about serious interaction. It’s not only about conducting research, analysing data, or writing about a subject; it’s about creatively interpreting that data to produce some display or activity that others will interact with. And usually it’s not about doing that alone. Its working with a team to produce an outcome we can be satisfied with, and specifically it’s about finding a mutually satisfying interaction with the public who come to see us or are unsuspecting witnesses to our actions.
At our bigger events at Fort Lytton National Park we combine civilian activities with a military encampment. Imperial flags flap in the breeze in the centre of a 19th century fort. Imposing concrete structures provide a unique backdrop for our sea of canvas tents, and the smell of wood-smoke from our kitchen is ever-present. We move around the fort, sometimes quietly like ghosts on a mission, sometimes loudly to shout, or laugh or even sing; always in our colourful outfits of historically authenticated materials. We dine in our kitchen on meals prepared by our cook from nineteenth century recipes, using open fires, camp ovens and a gnarly Soyer stove, eating from cutlery and plates of the era, and we enjoy it. It’s such a normal activity for us that we are still surprised to hear small voices (and some not so small) ask “Is that fire real?”
Often answering that question positively is one of the better things that we do. We provide someone, child or adult, with some reference to reality. Although they can hardly understand the strangeness of their surroundings, we can give them some place to start. Yes, the fire is real. The food is real. And we are eating because we are hungry. We’re real too, even though we are dressed differently. We’re here to show how different some things were in another time. And how some things were very much the same. Sharing that experience can be very fulfilling, and that in itself can be a good reason to practice living history.