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“You could see it [the past] in your mind”: What impact might living history performance have on the historical consciousness of young people?

Ceri Jones (UK)
2012 OpenArch meeting at Foteviken (SE)
Living history is used as part of a range of interpretive techniques to help young people experience and learn about the past at museums and historic sites (Samuel 1994). Although the benefits of bringing the past to life have been enthusiastically supported by costumed interpreters, museum and history educators (Fairley 1977; Turner-Bisset 2005) it was not until 2008 that a significant research project was completed into the learning potential of performance and live interpretation (Jackson and Kidd 2008). Since then, the volume of research into this topic has increased (Kostarigka 2009; Tzibazi 2012) but there are still many questions to ask, not least, how does the way in which a performance is structured or framed (Schechner 2006) affect the learning potential of living history?

Combining theoretical perspectives with two case studies carried out in 2008 with British students aged from 10-17 years old, this paper will explore how living history might contribute to the development of young people’s historical consciousness and help them to cope with the social and cultural differences which confront them when learning about the past. In particular, it will focus on the effectiveness of first- and third-person interpretation. Exploring how young people think about and respond to the past, this paper draws on developments in history pedagogy which focus on “how ordinary people beyond the history profession understand the past” (Seixas 2004, 8).1

Theories of historical consciousness: how ‘we’ in the present understand the past

Theories of historical consciousness have sought to reconcile the differences between everyday or common-sense ways of thinking about the past and the historical thinking necessary for learning history in the classroom (Laville 2004). Evidence suggests that some young people find learning history challenging because the ability to think historically is affected by inherent tensions in the way in which the past is understood outside the classroomand the expectations of history education (Wineburg 2001; Lee 2004b). In short, the relationship between the past and everyday life is formed through cognitive and bodily practices (Radstone 2000) and shared ideas formed in the social context (Misztal 2003) which exist in a state of continual negotiation as individuals experience the world (Huyssen 1995). Young people enter the classroom with ideas about the past already in place (Siegler 1998) and draw on a range of information to make sense of history, which can include myth, assumption and stereotype (Dickinson and Lee 1978; Lee and Howson 2009; Shemilt 2009). In particular, the ‘deficit view’ of the past has implications for how students make sense of history. Where children are introduced to the past by adults making comparisons with the present (as in ‘we didn’t have those’) they can come to see the past as lacking the social and technological advances of the present and (logically) perceive the past in a negative light (Lee 2004a).

Models of historical consciousness have helped history educators reflect on how these ‘everyday ideas’ about the past might be modified. Of particular interest is the model developed by historian Jörn Rüsen (2004; 2005). Essentially, Rüsen suggests that history is a narrative construction of the human mind, a cognitive means for making sense out of the experiences of the past and imposing order on an uncertain world. As a way of making sense of the world, history ultimately reflects moral values and forms of reasoning because it “evokes the past as a mirror of experience within which life in the present is reflected” (Rüsen 2005, 24). Rüsen has identified four distinct types of reasoning about the past. Briefly, the traditional type gives the past precedent over the present, with communities working towards “the conservation of sameness over time” (Seixas 2005, 145). The second exemplary type is imbued with ideas of progress where historical events serve as an “abstract idea of temporal change and human conduct” (Rüsen 2004, 73). The critical (third)type rejects both these types and works towards the development of counter-narratives which rupture the apparent continuity and stability between past and present to create new ways of thinking. Finally, the genetic type sees the relationship between past, present and future as one of continual change, which gives history its meaning and opens up the possibilities for multiple perspectives (Rüsen 2004). The value of Rüsen’s model lies in the recognition that historical consciousness is not a fixed and stable means of thinking about the past, which is helpful for thinking about the diverse ways in which students encounter and access ideas about the past (Lee 2004b). There remain, however, many questions to be asked about how these four types can be developed in the classroom (Wineburg 2005), how historical consciousness is connected to variables such as age, gender, ethnicity and class (Merriman 1991; Rosenzweig and Thelan 1998) and there are concerns that by equating genetic ways of thinking with academic history the model contributes to the assumption that history practised by historians is more ‘advanced’ than that of the everyday (Jensen 2009). Despite these concerns, Rüsen’s model has been used effectively to understand how young people make sense of the past and how this changes as they progress through their education and beyond (Seixas 1993). Other research suggests that young people benefit most from an active, hands-on relationship with the past (Clark 2008) which enables “imaginative and creative engagement” (Jackson and Rees Leahy 2005, 304). The past, then, is not merely content to learn or information to be absorbed but a part of living memory and has practical use in developing ideas that can be put to use in the present. What implications does this have for learning about the past from living history performances?

Can living history and museum theatre enhance the learning of history?

Whilst many terms are used to describe the practices of bringing the past to life (Jackson and Kidd 2011) living history has been used here to define broadly any bodily interpretation of the past (de Groot 2009). Until relatively recently, the discourse around living history has focused on its concern with representing the past authentically (Handler and Saxton 1998), however the learning and performative dimensions of living history have become equally significant (Jackson 2007; Jackson and Kidd 2011). As a form of interpretation, living history can be used flexibly to make the past more accessible for audiences (Hughes 1998; Gidlow and Souden 2008), to convey the intangible elements of the past and to address gaps in historical narratives or present alternatives to conventional views, thereby enabling the “recovery of distant, hidden or marginalised voices” (Jackson 2011, 21). The physical nature of living history is assumed to make the past more immediate and tangible (Samuel 1994), creating a “kind of imaginative contact with the period represented” (Fairley 1977, 128). As a form of play and exploration for children, it is reminiscent of their “natural way of learning” (Turner-Bisset 2005, 102). Unlike other forms of interpretation, living history is an embodied, performative and experiential way of understanding the past (Gregory and Witcomb 2007); however it is also contingent and ephemeral (Jackson and Kidd 2011) and there may be differences depending on whether first, second or third person interpretation is used. Whilst the use of ‘first-person’ interpretation (where the performer takes on the role of a historical character and speaks from the past) is considered to be more effective at bridging “the gap between historical reconstruction and the life of the past” (Handler and Sexton 1988, 244), it is also perceived to create limitations for audience interaction in that performers are potentially restricted by the world-view of their character. Third-person interpretation, where the performer adopts the physical appearance of a historical character but speaks from the present, is more useful for information-giving to visitors but is not as effective in evoking the past (Hughes 1998).Living history’s “inherently fictionalising medium of interpretation” (Jackson and Leahy 2005, 305) also appears to conflict with the need for authenticity in history. It is argued that the pursuit of knowledge and desire for contact with the ‘real thing’ has been replaced with the need for highly individual, personal and subjective experiences (Hein 2000) which invites visitors to feel rather than to think (Bagnall 2003). It is argued that this approach is damaging to historical consciousness because audiences are not encouraged to think critically about the interpretation of the past they encounter (Sommer 1999) which “deadens the historical sensibility of the public” (Handler and Gable 1997, 224). However, audiences do not come to performances as ‘blank slates’ but “have their own personal, social, and psychological histories, and they come invariably with expectations of what is going to happen” (Jackson 2005, 113).Audiences, whether children or adults, actively interpret or ‘make meaning’ of the performance, selectively constructing or reinforcing what they know in light of their own experiences (Bagnall 2003) and explanatory frameworks (Tzibazi 2012).Furthermore, the performance itself cannot be isolated from the wider context of the visitor experience of a museum or historic site (Falk and Dierking 1992; Bagnall 2003). As Jackson and Rees Leahy suggest, “What is at stake here is the very nature and purpose of learning in museums: namely, what theories of knowledge and learning underpin contemporary practice?” (Jackson and Rees Leahy 2005, 305).

These issues mean that the learning impact of a performance is difficult to predict and there is according to Jackson “a quality of experience that is to do with the “liveness” of the event, the emotional resonances it can offer, the dialogues that can be generated, and the complexity of texture that defies easy closure” (Jackson 2005,117). The extent to which audiences ‘buy into’ the content presented to them seems to depend on how far the audience is encouraged to immerse themselves in the ‘reality’ of the past. The concept of aesthetic distance is helpful here; during a performance the audience willingly suspend their disbelief in what is happening on stage but remain aware that it is not real, it is a performance. They “keep their distance, literally and metaphorically” to ensure that “there is no real confusion between “life” and “stage”” (Jackson 2007, 139). Jackson is clear, however, that when used as an educative tool the aesthetic elements of living history are as important as the content to be learned; “theatre that aims to educate or influence can only truly do so if it values entertainment, the artistry and craftsmanship that are associated with resonant, powerful theatre, and the aesthetic qualities that - by definition - will appeal to our senses” (Jackson 2005, 106). I now turn to evidence from two case studies to examine these issues in more detail and explore how living history might contribute to the development of students’ historical consciousness.

Researching the impact of living history on historical consciousness

To explore the impact of living history on historical consciousness, two case studies were carried out in 2007-2008 at the Museum of London and Tower of London. Qualitative research methods (case studies, interviews and meaning mapping2) were used to generate in-depth evidence; the goal was not to give a definite answer on the research ‘puzzle’ but raise issues for discussion (following Scott 2007). A total of six schools took part in the research study (See Table 1) mainly atypical single-sex state, grammar and private schools whose students were able, conscientious and exposed to a range of historical and cultural opportunities both at home and at school. The findings need to be interpreted carefully in the light of those characteristics.

School Type Location Age Gender Number of students Site visited
School 1 Private Greater London 16-17 years Female 20 observed, 4 interviewed Museum of London
School 2 Voluntary aided, selective London 11-12 years Female 2 classes observed, 7 interviewed, 10 concept maps Museum of London
School 3 Grammar East of England 11-12 years Male 2 classes observed, 6 interviewed Tower of London
School 4 Private London 9-10 years Mixed 2 classes observed, 4 interviewed Tower of London
School 5 Voluntary aided, comprehensive Greater London 11-14 years Male 40 observed (school declined to participate) Tower of London
School 6 Private Channel Islands 15 years Female 10 observed, 3 interviewed Tower of London
Table 1. Characteristics of the six schools involved in the research.

Both sites used living history as part of their education programme for schools and visitors and were chosen because they both offered living history sessions to students aged 11-18 on the topic of the Middle Ages. This period of British history was chosen because it is often reduced to an overly simplified narrative for consumption by students (Nelson 1990; Planel 1994), what Shanks describes as the “familiar stories of Norman conquest and feudal barons, lords and peasants” (Shanks 1992,150). The education sessions at the two case study sites sought to represent a more complex perspective on the medieval past and challenge popular conceptions of the period as a dark age,inscribed with notions of “violence and disorder” (Arnold 1998, 40).

Established in 1976, the Museum of London’s (See Figure 1) extensive collections tell the story of London from prehistoric times to the present day. In 2001-2005, the Medieval London gallery was subject to an extensive re-development to give audiences a more meaningful sense of the period’s role in the development of London, improve access to the gallery and reflect the results of twenty-five years of historical and archaeological research. Living history was used at the time of the fieldwork to bring the past to life for schools and visitors, usually in the form of programmed talks and performances (Jones 2011). Schools 1 and 2 took part in a whole day session around two themes - Chaucer in Context and Medieval Study Day. Both sessions included a handling workshop (where students encountered real medieval objects), living history performance and independent research time in the museum. Chaucer in Context (School 1) was designed to introduce English Literature students aged 16-18 years to The Canterbury Tales and set the author, Geoffrey Chaucer, in his historical context. In A Host’s Tale students came face to face with ‘Harry Baille’, the owner of the Tabard Inn in Southwark who proceeded to introduce the students to Chaucer’s London and the language of his poetry. The Medieval Study Day (School 2) was designed for younger students aged 11-14 years and introduced students to medieval life and the devastating impact that the Black Death had on society. In A Survivor’s Tale students met ‘Harry Baille’, a survivor of the Black Death who told them extensively about his experiences. Both performances took place in the Medieval London gallery.

Fig 1. The Museum of London

The Tower of London (See Figure 2) is in the care of Historic Royal Palaces (HRP), an independent charity. A working building, it has been put to a number of uses throughout its long history (Thurley, Impey and Hammond 1996). Living history has been used by HRP as a means of interpreting the site since the early 1990s; a form of story-telling, it is seen as having universal appeal to audiences of all ages and backgrounds (Gidlow and Souden 2008). The sessions Medieval Chest and Medieval Monarchy observed during the fieldwork period were guided tours of the site led by costumed educators using third-person interpretation. The content of the tours straddled 200 years of history from the Tower as a Norman stronghold in the reign of William I (1066-1087) to the Medieval Palace of Edward I (1272-1307). The performers engaged directly with the students throughout and encouraged them to look critically at the evidence presented to them by the material remains of the past. There were several versions of these tours available (some included interaction with replica objects) but all were standalone sessions.

Fig 2. The Tower of London

Although both sites took a different approach to living history, staff had similar concerns that older students (aged 12 and upwards) would not readily engage with first-person interpretation. This was generally considered to be most effective with younger children, who were regarded as more receptive and willing to suspend their disbelief, essential to creating a relationship with the performer as a historical character. Older students were regarded as more scepticaland too self-conscious in front of their peers to engage with the performer (interview with Education officer, Tower of London, 23/06/2008). To overcome this assumed reticence, performances at the Museum of London were only one aspect of a day-long session, combined with other activities to give depth and context. At the Tower of London, the sessions were carefully managed to create an educative experience for older students and costumed educators were well used to adapting their sessions to the perceived needs of the group.

Discussion: Living history and the impact on historical consciousness

In considering the effectiveness of the living history performances that the six schools encountered, the focus is not on whether there is a right or wrong way to learn about the past but how living history can enhance or develop young people’s understanding of (in this case) the medieval past. At the same time, living history cannot be isolated from broader aspects of the visit to the two case study sites and these will be considered briefly here.

As part of a wider experience at the Museum of London, the performance acted as a vehicle to convey ideas about the medieval past which were reflected and reinforced through encounters with the Medieval London gallery and object-handling workshops. More specifically, the use of first person interpretation created a dramatic performance which engaged students in the life of an historical character. With performances taking place in the open gallery space, and with few props, the performer had to concentrate on the creation of tone and atmosphere to encourage the students to engage with his narrative (interview with Harry Baille 28/01/2008). He frequently used ‘shock tactics’ to engage students’ attention. For instance, for School 1 there was no formal introduction to the performance and Harry Baille entered the space quoting from The Canterbury Tales at length in its original language and prose. The intention of his sudden entrance was to get the students to sit up and listen. The effectiveness of the performer was in the creation of a plausible historical character whose personification of wider issues into a focused drama helped to consolidate more abstract ideas that the young people held about the medieval past. The students described the performance as making the medieval past seem more ‘real’ because, by immersing them in that past, it helped to create visual images of the period in their minds. Abby (School 1) described how the performance “made it [the medieval past] more approachable, the tale, you could see it in your mind” (interview 13/02/2008). Similarly for students from School 2, whose Head of History explained that they “sometimes [find it] hard […] to visualise different aspects of life in that period” (interview 04/03/2008), the museum experience provided them with the means to imagine the medieval past. The more they could imagine it, the “more believable” that past seemed to them (interview 04/03/2008). Students pointed to the importance of seeing the performer in costume and the insights that the performance gave them into the medieval mind-set to developing their historical imagination. Whilst the students had extensive knowledge of the Black Death from the perspective of modern scientific knowledge the performance enabled them to understand the great pestilence from the perspective of medieval society. However, not all students were able to immerse themselves in the performance; one student was intimidated by the performer and wanted to laugh, which she recognised was the “wrong” emotion for the tone of the performance (Jenny, interview 04/03/2008).

The way in which the performance was framed, with an emphasis on individual narrative, and placed within a wider context seemed to be linked to the students’ development of historical consciousness. The two groups at the Museum of London explicitly reflected changes in their ideas and understanding of the Middle Ages, a subtle, but significant, change of emphasis from viewing the medieval period through the perspective of the present to attempting to view it from the medieval mind-set and to see difference as integral to historical change (the genetic type). Prior to the visit the period had been an abstract concept to the students; time and cultural distance, as well as the way in which they had been taught history, made it difficult for them to conceive of medieval people in anything but alien terms. Elements of the performance, however, helped them to “think that they were really people” (interview with School 2 04/03/2008). For example the use of humour for Emily (School 1), typified by Harry Baille’s disrespectful attitude to his wife as someone who “keeps [him] tied down”, gave her a more human perspective on people of the time. Yet students still struggled to understand why medieval society was so different from the present, and at times they still referred to the medieval people as stupid and weird because they were different. The need to compare the past and to understand it through the eyes of the present (the exemplary type) continued to be a strong inclination (Collingwood 1946, 1993). The students from School 2 similarly grappled with questions of difference but they were clear about how the performance had helped them to learn about the medieval past: as Natalie described, in lessons they learnt about what happened but at the museum they learnt about “how people felt”, drawing attention to how Harry Baille “was really scared” (interview 04/03/2008). Evidence from meaning maps completed by these students also showed a change in their ideas about the Middle Ages; rather than a list of dates and events, after the visit they were thinking much more in terms of medieval society and culture (Jones 2011). However, the differences between the medieval and modern perspectives remained confusing for some students because they did not realise that Harry Baille would not understand their perspectives on the Black Death and as a first-person interpreter, Harry could not address this confusion in the performance.

In contrast to the focused drama at the Museum of London, the performances at the Tower of London were less effective at supporting the young people to think from the perspective of the ‘medieval mind-set.’3 It was the Tower itself, the aura of the real thing, which drew most of their attention and created vivid images of the medieval past in their imagination; as Jessica (School 6) commented, “I feel like if you went into the Tower of London for a day and you completely shut it off from the world and if everyone dressed up you could be in the medieval times” (interview 26/09/2008). One reason for this difference was the purpose of the visits to the Tower. Only one performance was directly linked to the curriculum (School 4), the other three visits were part of a week of leisure activities (Schools 3, 5, 6). This established very different expectations for the performance and the emphasis for these schools was on enjoyment rather than learning. There was felt to be some conflict between the expectations of the school and the purpose of the costumed educators, who sought to find a balance between education and entertainment (interview with Harold, live interpreter, 09/07/2008). Educators engaged in dialogue continually with the students, encouraging them to interpret the evidence around them, to ask questions about the site and to apply their own understanding of medieval history within a new context. Humour was used frequently and one popular anecdote was a knight who was obliged to perform to the King ‘a leap, a whistle and a fart’ in exchange for his lands. As one of the educators (Isabella) commented such anecdotes could suggest “the lighter side of life” in the Middle Ages (personal communication 6/07/2008). During the sessions the students appeared to be engaged by the performance, answering questions and eager to demonstrate their knowledge of the period. Teachers were keen to point out that most of their students had enjoyed themselves at the Tower of London and had vivid memories of the day.

However, upon reflection both teachers and students agreed that they would have preferred a more interactive experience at the Tower. At almost an hour long the question and answer format was very intensive for students and the historical period covered was too broad to be manageable. Whilst the session challenged some of the student’s perceptions about the medieval past, without a purpose for learning the content, many of the students felt overwhelmed by the information given to them. As Michael (School 3) explained, “it was a lot to take in [...] it went on for ages and we couldn’t remember it all” (interview 11/07/2008). Students who had not studied the medieval period for several years were anxious about getting questions wrong. Furthermore, there was an element of ‘cognitive dissonance’ (Jackson 2007) between meeting a costumed educator and the use of third person interpretation. Teachers and students expected a historical figure to use first-person interpretation and, when this did not occur, it was difficult for them to know how to engage with the educator. Should they react to them as a serious teacher-like figure or a light-hearted medieval character? At times they appeared to be both. Although students found the costumes interesting, in their opinion there was no real benefit to the performers being in costume if they were not taking on a specifically medieval persona. Previous experiences of living history also influenced how the students would have preferred a more interactive, immersive experience at the Tower which would have made them feel more involved and give them greater control over their own learning; Alex (School 3) explained “You want hands-on stuff to make history fun” (interview 11/07/2008). Expecting to engage with the performer as a historical character, the didactic approach and information-dense content was toodistancing for the students. The format worked against the effectiveness of having a costumed interpreter in an authentic historical space: young people wanted to be more involved in the history, to be enthused and entertained, and were disappointed when this did not happen.The performances therefore had very little impact on their historical consciousness or understanding of the medieval past, and the students tended to fall back on their prior notions of the medieval past as a violent and dangerous time, precisely the perspective which the Tower of London wished to challenge.


This paper hopes to raise questions for further debate on the role that living history can play in the development of young people’s historical consciousness. Whilst young people are assumed to be reluctant to engage in an immersive first-person performance, the third-person interpretation at the Tower of London was toodistancing for the students observed in the case studies. From their discussions, it seems that some form of participation was necessary to spark their interest, whether that was through a hands-on experience or emotional response to a performance. Significantly, the students did not want to be told what happenedin the past, they wanted to find out for themselves. Finding an effective balance between the two positions of engagement and distance continues, therefore, to be an appropriate goal for living history performers; as Jackson (2007) suggests aesthetic engagement and critical reasoning do not have to be mutually exclusive but can be compatible (see also Gregory and Witcomb 2007). From the evidence presented here, this seems to work best when there is a balance between drama (aesthetics) and historical content (learning) which enables students to have their interest and curiosity provoked by an historical character who draws them into a narrative of (their) medieval life. Following the learning theories of Claxton (2001), the performance at the Museum of London provided a spotlight on an individual’s experience of the past, which could then be contextualised by the wider context of the museum and the prior learning experiences of the students.This experience enabled students from School 1 to start to see the medieval past from the perspective of the Middle Ages rather than the present, to reflect the genetic type of historical consciousness rather than the exemplary, and to begin to understand the notion of historical change. The work of Gregory and Witcomb (2007) around interpretive schemes that harness the emotional and affective domains in tandem with the cognitive and the rational, combined with Jackson and Kidd’s (2011) focus on living history as performance appeared to support the view that these ‘higher’ levels of historical thinking can be encouraged through critical engagement with the past. However, this objective must be built into education programmes at museums and historic sites to be most effective. Furthermore, there are many potential variables which affect student responses to a living history performance (for example type of school, age, gender and experience of cultural organisations) which have only been touched on briefly here and further study is needed to explore these variables and how they interact, in particular the interaction between student’s ideas of the past, the way in which the performance is framed, and the subsequent types ofhistorical consciousness demonstrated by students in their responses.

About Author
Dr. Ceri Jones, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester
  • 1. This paper was originally presented at the OpenArch / IMTAL Conference in Sweden 23-26 September 2012, entitled ‘“You could see it in your mind”: Which is more effective, first or third person interpretation, for engaging young people in the past?’
  • 2. Meaning or concept maps are used to understand how young people organise and represent knowledge or relationships between ideas, and can be used flexibly in response to a variety of research questions. This exercise was carried out with students before and after their living history experience. Students were asked to write the words ‘Middle Ages’ in the centre of a piece of paper and given a maximum of ten minutes to write down or draw the words and images that came into their minds in association with it.
  • 3. This form of living history performance was being phased out towards the end of the fieldwork period because of changes to the school History curriculum. New History Detectives sessions for 2008-2009 were designed to focus more upon specific historical events and themes and incorporate first-person interpretation in a structured workshop focused on historical enquiry.
In considering the effectiveness of the living history performances that the six schools encountered, the focus is not on whether there is a right or wrong way to learn about the past but how living history can enhance or develop young people’s understanding of (in this case) the medieval past.


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Fig 1. The Museum of London
Fig 2. The Tower of London
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