Experiencing the Past: Historical Re-enactment as Academic Practice?

In reviewing Ruth Goodman’s new book, How to be a Victorian, Matthew Sweet expressed some concerns about the usefulness of historical re-enactment based research as an academically viable practice. While Sweet acknowledges Goodman’s work with objects, he highlights some potential problems with the reliability of such exploits. Personally, I see re-enactment, reproduction and practise-based research as positive contributions to scholarship, and a method which should be assimilated into historical research practise. In this post, I will briefly address the points made by Sweet, and reflect a little on the usefulness of these practical methodologies, and how they are perceived by both academics and the public.

The history of historical re-enactment offers a forceful lesson: it is a better guide to the preoccupations of the present than the reality of yesterday. – Matthew Sweet

Sweet’s observation does have some truth behind it. When placing a modern person within a fictitious and fabricated historical setting, even the most skilled of actors is still aware of their modern problems and ideas. This issue is often cited by those who question the value of re-enactment, experimental, and practise-based research. Consequently, this negative view impacts both public and academic appreciation of this work. However, is this not true of every form of academic research? Even the most traditional of historians is biased by their political and social views of the present.

The most such acts of mimicry can yield is, I suspect, a fragile and possibly illusory sense of contact with the experiential world of our ancestors. – Matthew Sweet

While I concede that not all re-enactment is ‘good’ re-enactment, and that there are limits to practise-based research (as there are with any research methodology), I think it is rather short sighted to dismiss it so readily.  Many historians have conceded that any historical interpretation is exactly that – interpretation within a contemporary society, which is inherently subjective. Though historians strive for objectivity, any academic or amateur representation of the past is formed and shaped by individual biases and source selection. Re-enactment and practise-based research simply uses alternative sources to provide an additional view, as does art history, or the history of material culture. As David Lowenthal notes in The Past is a Foreign Country, every reinterpretation of the past is another step away. Each academic work is simply another layer of possibility.

Re-enactment and practise-based research provides unique insights into how people used and experienced the world. While this can be interpreted as a subjective and sentimental approach to history, these should be seen as obstacles to be overcome as part of the research process rather than reasons not to attempt it. One clear, positive example, which is cited by Sweet as such, is the reassessment of the corset. Traditionally, corsets have been seen as part of a Victorian culture of imagining the woman as an ‘exquisite slave’, which originates from conduct literature and printed debates over the health of corset wearing. While this can be argued against using traditional resources and methods (simply that this literature presents an extreme view, and that corsets and stays had long been elements of the female, and sometimes male, wardrobe), they are unable to provide quite so strong an argument as can methods used in practise-based research. Recreating or replicating an extant corset to fit an individual’s figure, and then experiencing how it feels to wear it, quickly provides proof that these garments were not inherently uncomfortable or unreasonably restricting. As Goodman says, the wearing of corsets was simply part of “a woman dressing sensibly for a hard day of work ahead”.

This example can be extended to any interaction with a material artefact that can be replicated. The purpose is not so much to fully immerse oneself into feeling like you are in the past, but rather to pose specific questions which can be answered through interaction with objects. It is not the experience in itself which is useful academically, but the research questions that can be explored. How accurately can you aim with a Napoleonic gun, and how efficient was the penetrative impact of the bullets? Does a longbow or crossbow fire further? How long does it take to fill a bath in a country house? How long does it take to wear out a pair of early nineteenth-century dancing slippers? To explore another specific example: what caused the damage on a series of artefacts such as cooking utensils? Dr Annie Gray has discovered that the irregular cracking around the inside base of pudding bowls was caused when the pan ran out of water.

Of course, re-enactment as academic practise has an established background in experimental archaeology. Where textual sources do not exist, the replication and use of the artefacts and structures discovered on digs or in images is one of very few ways of understanding how objects and buildings worked, what they looked like, and how people interacted with them. While this is not as necessary for periods in which extant buildings and objects remain, and textual and visual sources recount how contemporaries experienced them, practise-based research is still highly useful. In some cases, it is useful on an individual basis, rather than being recordable or quantifiable, meaning that traditional academic exploration in research papers is difficult. For example, communicating how food made from historical recipes tasted, or how it feels to move through specific spaces wearing crinoline or panniers is hard on paper. However, providing both historians and the public with the opportunity to obtain these experiences significantly increases personal understanding. If this work must be recorded in academic writing, then it can be done through the examination of museum enterprises.

While I appreciate that re-enactment often has to be experienced by the individual to have impact, and that it is difficult to document some findings, I would argue that it is therefore the means of communication which needs to be considered, rather than the undertaking dismissed. Furthermore, some experiments and replications, especially those which are object-based, can be simply quantified and recorded. Re-enactment, experimental archaeology, reproduction and practise-based research should therefore be approached as another supplement, and a highly profitable one, to historical research. Finally, the experience of re-enactment and experimental archaeology not only benefits historical research, but also informs how we understand our own cultural, social, and material preconceptions of the world around us.

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This entry was published on July 22, 2013 at 7:07 pm and is filed under Reenactment, Reproductions. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

3 thoughts on “Experiencing the Past: Historical Re-enactment as Academic Practice?

  1. jbailey2013 on said:

    Great reflection and I love the photo!

  2. Ken Clayton on said:

    As a re-enactor myself, I am aware that ‘serious’ historians tend to be less than enthusiastic about re-enactors. And, like you, I agree entirely that there are limits to what a re-enactment can achieve, For example, it’s impossible for us to understand or to experience the feelings of a musketeer or a pikeman at the battle of Naseby. One reason is that there is a vast difference between the normal attitudes of the 17th century and today: who today would consider it to be an honour to be the first to go into battle and therefore, in all probability, the first to die? Yet, without re-enactors, would historians be aware of the detail of life in the past. For instance, re-enactment demonstrates some of the sounds that musketeers would have heard as they marched – the noise as the powder flasks on a bandolier hit each other and the clanking as various bits of metal make contact. They also experience the fatigue caused by marching with a musket resting on a shoulder and while all of this is, as I say, detail, surely it helps to fill out our knowledge of historical periods and events?

    As you say, whatever re-enactors discover has to be treated very carefully but surely that is true of any discoveries by historians?

  3. Pingback: Thoughts on reenactment and historical costuming | Of Ravens and Writing Desks...

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