Re-enactments, Encampments and Interpretation

Last week I received a flurry of press releases about re-enactments and such at various Historic Scotland properties.  Fort George will soon host the ‘Colossal Celebration of the Centuries‘ with displays and presentations that range from Roman times to the 20th century, including a medieval encampment. At Dundonald Castle [1] a medieval day will see ‘The Arrest of Robert Stewart’ re-enacted and there will be weaponry displays and ‘Army Recruitment’.  And as I write this, there is ‘Medieval Mayhem‘ at Stirling Castle, to be repeated later in the month at Caerlaverock Castle, with junior jousting and the opportunity to do some archery.

The person quoted in these press releases is the events manager.  I say this to highlight the fact that re-enactors are still predominantly hired by events managers.  And events managers are NOT interpreters.  Quite naturally, therefore, their requirements are utterly different from those of the interpretation manager.

I am really dubious about re-enactments in particular used as interpretation.  Let me tell you why.

First of all, let us be clear that in general, when we speak of re-enactments we mean battle re-enactments.  And quite frankly, I am at a loss to see under what circumstances the re-enactment of slaughter and death will serve understanding.  Many sites have recognised this, and they do not allow re-enactments under any circumstances whatsoever (for example at Culloden Battlefield).

Of course, it is virtually impossible to ‘re-enact’ a battle anyway.  For one thing, the necessary numbers are hardly ever available (nor would they allow visitors to get a handle on what they see), and ‘realistic’ re-enactment would require elaborate tricks and stunts, not to mention years and years of training and expertise.  Therefore, what you normally get is a handful of people on either side pretending to use their weapons and to die on the field.  Not only does this not address one of the primary requirements of interpretation – to be historically accurate – but it also ridicules death.  No surprise then that at these events one sees hordes of young boys enthusiastically swinging their swords at each other.  The re-enactment has taught them nothing about war and death.

But war and death don’t seem to be the content of many re-enactments anyway.  As the press release called it, this is ‘historical entertainment’, and so the commentary that is necessary to explain to visitors what they see is more often than not light-hearted banter.  And this may even include the bending of historical facts to appease the audience – after all, even battles of centuries past can still arouse passion, at least in Scotland.  Consequently it was not surprising albeit no less disappointing when, two years ago, at a Scottish castle whose name now escapes me, the historically victorious English were swiftly turned into the losers after a crowd-pleasing survey.

Entertainment?  Yes, maybe, although certainly not ‘historical’.  But as an interpreter, I cannot but find fault with such ‘re-enactments’.  In my opinion, whatever you do at a heritage site should be clearly related to that particular site and, if nothing else, be as historically accurate as possible while serving to achieve SMART objectives [2].  Of course one of those objectives will be that visitors will enjoy themselves – that is one of the primary principles of any informal learning activity, including interpretation – but accuracy and meaningful activities do not exclude entertainment.

I believe the source of the issue lies in two areas: first, event managers are often not linked in with the interpretation department, and thus their briefs to re-enactors – if there is a brief at all – will mostly not include interpretive considerations.  Second, re-enactors themselves are by and large not interpreters as I’ve learnt both as a re-enactor myself (once upon a time) and as a manager working with re-enactors [3].  What needs to happen on the part of the organisations is that events and interpretation managers work more closely together.  On the other side, re-enactors who wish to continue working at heritage sites (if, alas, we must have re-enactments at all) need to develop an understanding of interpretation, and they need to learn how to follow briefs.

As for encampments I have sketched my opinion elsewhere already.  And as far as ‘The Arrest of Robert Stewart’ goes – well, I’ve noted on my blog to-do-list to write down my views on ‘museum theatre’ soon.  Watch this space.


[1] Dundonald Castle is not an HS property, however the event is staged by HS on behalf of the Friends of Dundonald Castle.

[2] Yes, depending on the nature of the site there are event opportunities that may not link in with the site’s history, like the antique car shows we hosted (and which are still hosted) at Montgomery Place, a mansion in upstate New York linked loosely with the American revolution.  But no visitor would engage with that event as interpretation, and that is one of the key points.

[3] Practically 99% of re-enactors that I have ever encountered are actually lay people who participate in re-enactments as a hobby in their spare time.  Both their knowledge and their ability to perform and interact with an audience vary from person to person with little to no quality management in place.

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