Research Week Review: Mum, I met Napoleon today!!

What is authenticity? What is ‘real’? and does the past exist?
With her presentation Ceri Jones kicked off the second day of the Museum Studies Research Week with some of the most intriguing questions when dealing with, not only living history, which is her topic, but also when discussing museums and objects in general. For are history museums and their displays about the past? or are they more a testimony to how we today perceive the past? When engaging with an art object in the art museum can it tell you something about the past? (the artist’s feelings for example) or are you projecting your own perceptions of the past/the artist onto the canvas?
From a postmodern perspective authenticity and the aura of the past have long been contested, but they still seem to be concepts which continue to attract and fascinate us – the real objects are still powerful and lure us in.

Ceri’s way into this is though living history – the re-enactment (by actors) of a historic situation, event, person etc. in a museum in order to make the past become alive. But is it possible to create a real sense of the past? The goal is to immerse the audience in an experience where they feel touched by the past, where it becomes tangible and where it is not just about what happened and what it looked like, but also show museum users why people acted and understood the world as they did. The audience can have a dialogue with someone from the past – or that is what is pretended. Through case studies with younger students, older students and MA students, Ceri have started to investigate the reaction of the audiences to this type of re-enactment.

What I found the most interesting and perhaps also the most troubling was Ceri’s last comments about what living history seem to do – or not do. She described how the students engaged with the enactment in several ways, but they did not question the actual content of the play. To me that mean that the critical approach to history is being lost in this interpreting strategy as enactment history is. I think one of the most important lessons in history class is to be able to critically judge the way the past have been portrayed and to reflect on why we tell the tale of the past in a certain way. Having said that I think living history plays an important role in drawing the students in and making them interested in history – but this interpretation should not stand alone. What do you think?


Kathy said…
As an art historian, I find this is the biggest risk museum educators make when replacing educational programming with entertainment....something I painfully witness in too many art museums.

While there is certainly a place for re-enactments and the like, the goal for museum programming should be first and foremost education. This requires teaching your visitors how to view history critically. If you neglect to do this, you will always end up with a merely a play (or other such programming) for entertainment....nothing learned.

I think museum professionals have admirable and genuine goals to make learning fun, but too often it is at the cost of learning.
J said…
Yes, and that;s the problem with first-person interpretation particularly - it's a narrative that cannot be questioned or interrupted by the audience. It's essentially a lecture. Plus, there is the unspoken belief that "if the museum is putting it on, it must be true." Obviously, we museologists know that's not necessarily the case, but then how do you argue for the continued existence and importance of museums, if they don't give you the Objective Truth? In other words, what debates should interpretation engender if it is to be effective?
Ceri said…
I think it takes a lot of courage and confidence though to disagree with historical content... I think it is generally very difficult for visitors / individuals to know enough about the past to challenge what is presented to them in museums. Particularly if it is beyond their own personal experiences. I don't think either we are taught to challenge the past and how it is presented to us.... I personally think that a costumed interpreter is less difficult to interrogate than a piece of text or museum label, the trick is for the interpreter to encourage questioning, perhaps through presenting multiple perspectives or being so extreme in their views that individuals want to challenge them? I saw this used to good effect in a live interpretation done at Manchester Museum around the slave trade, which was far more educative than most costumed interpretation I have seen previously. It gave me hope that something which is dressed up as 'fun' and entertainment can be educative and thoughtful - if that is the intention though.

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