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Living History: A Character Study

Meeting and interacting with a "person of the past" brings history to life
“The distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, even if a stubborn one.” —Albert Einstein

Living history is most broadly defined in the museum profession as costumed historical interpretation. But increasingly historical character portrayal, also known as first-person interpretation, is what comes to mind when people think of living history. This dynamic and challenging way to teach history can blur the distinction between past and present and momentarily immerse its audience in another time.

Starting at places such as Plimoth Plantation, Colonial Williamsburg, and Fortress Louisburg in the 1970s and early 1980s, character interpretation has become a regular feature not just at large historic sites, but also in diverse cultural institutions from art museums to small historic house museums. One thing is clear, whether in a museum setting or in a classroom, using character portrayal to teach history is a perfect fit. In fact, one of the most frequent reactions to character interpretation at historic sites is, “I wish they taught history that way when I was in school!”

When character portrayal is skillfully performed in an entertaining and captivating manner it provides a connection with the past that is personal and immediate. But it is not enough to be a talented performer if teaching history is your goal. The character interpreter is seen as the ‘expert,’ perhaps more so than a traditional third-person interpreter for the simple reason that saying “I did this” has a more authentic air than saying “she or he did this.” Thus if the character interpreter does not have a full understanding of the person and time period they are representing, misinformation and misrepresentation can too easily be passed as historical ‘truths.’

This thorough understanding of subject matter is just as important to a traditional, third-person interpretation, of course, but with different aims. Where a third-person interpretation should have every appearance of being objective, the aim of a first-person interpretation is to present a highly subjective picture. Not to be misunderstood, the research and development of the presentation should of course be a completely objective and dispassionate examination of the documentation. The first-person presentation itself, however, should reveal the character portrayed in all of her or his essential subjectivities; hopes, fears, prejudices and perspectives, reflecting the typical world view of that person’s class, gender, race, and general social circumstance.

First-person interpreters must possess a historian’s persistence in pursuing and evaluating data. They need an actor’s dramatic sensibility, and presentational talents. A third essential quality is a good teacher’s enthusiasm for sharing and enlightening.

So, where does a would-be first-person interpreter begin?

Primary sources are essential for historical character researchWhether developing a character portrayal for a museum setting or for the classroom, every worthwhile program or presentation must be built around a strong interpretive theme and goal. As already touched upon, the first step in that direction is solid research.

The guiding question when researching a historical figure is ‘who is this person?’ Which in itself leads to more questions; both objective and subjective, all of which must be answered in order to ‘be’ the character.

The objective information that needs to be gathered about the character refers to the facts of his or her life that are constant and not subject to question or interpretation. The correct answers to these questions will always be the same, no matter when or by whom they are answered. For example: what was the person’s name? When and where were they born? Was the person married? To whom? Did they have children? What was the person’s occupation?

The answers to subjective questions, on the other hand, are not so straight forward. In fact, the answers, while remaining truthful, may change; depending upon when they are asked and of whom. They are open to interpretation and difference of opinion. Examples of subjective questions are: What are elements of the person’s character and personality? What are their values, beliefs, opinions and attitudes, toward different people, issues, and events?                           

To begin to answer these questions and construct a character, there are three sequential steps of development to follow: investigation, inference, and invention.

The investigation phase of the research begins with uncovering as much factual information as possible from the historical record. What is known about this person’s life? This information may come from a variety of sources, including court records, family records, letters, diaries, newspapers, etc. Information found in documentation may be of both the objective and subjective types. A document may reveal a person’s birth date and identification of family members. Another may yield an opinion that the individual expressed about an issue, event or another person, or an observation made by another person about the individual being researched.

Once the primary and secondary documentation has been thoroughly investigated, it is time to infer any biographical information that is missing. This is accomplished by finding out what the historical record reveals about people like your character; people of the same gender, race, age, social class, and religion. How were they educated? How did they dress? What sorts and range of cultural attainments (music, dance, etc.,) did they have? At what age did they typically marry?

Beyond the objective criteria, what do the sources reveal about the values and beliefs of people like your character? Did they share a typical worldview? What range opinions did they hold? What can be inferred about their emotional lives? Were they stoical, or extremely expressive?

Street theater immerses the audience in the dramaWhen the record does not indicate the objective, indisputable facts necessary to complete a biography, these elements must be inferred. For example, if it is known that the character being researched is the mother of two small children, it is possible to infer her general age based on that information.

Determine the average ages of first-time mothers in her location and social class. Then look at the typical intervals between children within an average family. If the typical woman marries in her early twenties and has her first child within two years of marriage; followed by, on average, a child every two years; it is within reason to infer that this mother of two is 27 years old, or 26, or 28. The point is the inference is based on statistical probabilities not random guesswork.

But what about the mother’s birthday? Without a document that references her birth, that is something the interpreter must invent. However one should never invent objective information if factual material can be found or inferred from the historical record. And as a general rule, one should avoid inventing subjective material whenever possible. Instead any and all opinions or expressions of values and beliefs should be inferred from documentary revelations about people similar to the character. Otherwise the portrayal isn’t an interpretation of historical realities, its just stuff that’s been made up- which brings us back to research.

In order to portray a person of the past with any degree of authenticity, the interpreter, or for that matter the history student working on a class project, can never do ‘too much’ research. Of course it is impossible to incorporate everything learned into a single portrayal, but the more an interpreter knows about their character, the more real that character becomes. Not just to the interpreter but to the audiences with whom they share the character’s story. That’s when first-person interpretation truly becomes living history.

This article was written by Bill Weldon, Director, Historic Area Planning and Production, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.