Dressing-up to do History: a story of public history

I’m delighted to host this guest post from Carmen Bonnell who graduated from Oxford Brookes University last year and is planning to do a PhD with us (and I’m hoping to be one of her supervisors!). I’ve been fascinated by Carmen’s activities in ‘living-history’ so I asked her to share her experiences…

What KinMarble Springsd of History?

Historians are damned with the desire to be taken seriously. There are any number of ways to accomplish this, but the most legitimised measures are to teach at an institution of high repute and to publish in quantity and to great acclaim. Playing dress-up and talking to Downton Abbey-crazed fans does not figure largely in this equation. Yet – I want both. I want the challenge that comes with academic research, writing and teaching; I am even deluded enough to think I might cope with the crazy demands from administration, the inter-departmental politics, and the over-entitled and irrational students. But still, I would beg leave to lace up my corsets, put on my funny clothes, and mingle with the camera-toting hoi polloi.

Living History

History, in my humble opinion at least, is made up of individual people and shaped by their mundane lives. History is most meaningful, then, when it touches the modern version of those humdrum individuals, brushing the minds of the star-bedazzled visitors who are in the process of making history for the historians of the future. When what we call “history” intertwines with the conceptions that everyday people create of themselves and how they became who they are; when these modern people catch some glimmer of the commonality shared with the people of the past, despite their odd garments and alien daily routines; when there is recognition of the vestigial traces of older imperatives in their modern patterns of living – then something greater has been accomplished than the demonstration that history, as such, is a mere repository of knowledge and basis for analysis, and that historic sites are simply pretty places to visit. Something much bigger, something much more universal and necessary, has been glimpsed.

When theP1010989 gulf of time, place, appearance, and belief patterns has been bridged – even partially – between the specimen of common mortality who wants my picture, and his brethren over the border of time (who likely would have thought him mad), then I have some hope for the people of today. The past was different, sometimes startlingly so. Yet, the people who lived in it are US. Visitors understand readily that I stand in for their own grandmothers, great-aunts, or great-great-great-great matriarchs. The sense of inheritance allows them a real pride in what those women survived and accomplished; people invest emotionally in the historic reality. When kinship with history is discovered and revelled in, then perhaps this can translate to the recognition of kinship with those who dress funny, behave differently and operate from a variant set of beliefs in today’s ruptured world. Feeling the visceral acceptance of a woman in long skirt, with her head covered, illiterate, her time devoted to the hauling of water and eking out of sustenance, finding her to be blood-of-your-blood and bone-of-your-bone, makes the leap to accepting a woman on the other side of the world who spends her life in the same manner, of welcoming HER kinship, slightly more possible. At least I like to believe so.

Of course, this is the grand vision, the idealised reality, and it is never this simple. There are days when being asked for the hundredth time if it hurts to wear corsets (not if they are fitted properly; they provide good back support when you’re hauling wood and water; Spanx hurt more); and being frustrated that some people don’t want to hear new ways of thinking about the past makes giving it all up as trivial and silly sound very sensible. It’s distracting me from real research after all, isn’t it?

Well, perhaps, but…

The Reason for ‘Doing’ History

My initial sink-or-swim efforts in public history were made at sites in eastern Tennessee, in the grand US of A. This area has two defining elements (at least for those who are sitting ducks in public places); namely, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Oak Ridge National Laboratories. These communities turn out a population of visitors who by all rights should strike fear in the historic demonstrator’s heart. They are well-informed. They are used to arguing their points logically. They are accustomed to dealing in depth, as well as in quantity and quality, of information. They ask questions, and if you blather on and fake answers, they know it. You can see the disdain in their eyes when they turn away and wander off (and that’s the BEST case scenario). I quickly discovered that you are far better off saying, “I’m not certain about that, but I’ll see what I can find out.” And, you see – they DO come back, and you had BETTER have done what you could to find out, because they WILL remember and ask.

Granted, I had read a lot of history before I set foot in those rustic cabins. I wasn’t lacking in either interest or research ability. But – it wasn’t “my” period. While I could extrapolate from the facts I did readily have to hand, there was a great deal of learning to do, and very quickly if I wanted to survive. Necessarily, what I dug into was guided by the questions I was asked, but increasingly, my research was also fuelled by my own questions, ones spurred by the realities of the setting in which I worked. Those two elements interacted in ways that would never have occurred had I simply studied on my own. No matter how many tangents you follow, no matter how many footnotes you track down – these do not act on the process in the same way as inspired questions from an outside perspective. That was a gift I was handed. It was a test of fire, in one way, but also a tempering that I would have been denied in a more gentle initiation. I am thankful for it. And it spurred me on to further research – of all kinds!

So – I will keep researching my costumes. They will be as historically accurate as I can make them. They give people permission to stare, and take pictures, and ask questions. They allow conversations to be started, and explanations given that in any other context would come off as history lectures. Wearing my bustled dresses, or my hoop skirts or my head scarfs – these give me permission to make connections. They also force me to remember that history sometimes has sore feet, coal-streaked hands and visitors who don’t play by the rules. And for those, I am thankful. I am also thankful for being distracted from the worry about whether or not my research proposal will be accepted….

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