Institute of Para-Enactment Research
Softcore Historicism and Embodied Heritage


Living History

The term "living history" is a broad concept that refers to many diverse forms of interpreting the past through its simulation in the present. Living history is an activity that incorporates historical reconstructions of every aspect of everyday life into an interactive presentation that seeks to give observers and participants a sense of stepping back in time. In his book “Time Machines: The World of Living History, Jay Anderson gave the most commonly accepted definition of the term as  “an attempt by people to simulate life in another time”. On his book, he  identified three major groups of living historians: those who interpret how people lived, those who research and test theories and explore material culture, and those who create personas for themselves based on a past person, mainly for entertainment purposes (in such case, living history is equated to histotainment).

Cited by Julianne Tomann, the director of the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., Simone Lässig, defined living history as “in equal measure a movement, a philosophy, an educational tool, and a special technique for presenting and communicating history in museum contexts”. On her definition of living history, Tomann adresses the similarities between the term and the broader filed of public history, with in contrast is already accepted in the academic context to define “every form of public representation of history that is aimed at a broad, non-specialist public with no historical training. For Tomann, even if both terms refer to historical representations in the public sphere,  public history is more broadly defined than the performative-sensory practices of appropriating the past characteristic of living history. The embodied invocation of history connects the term living history directly with the more specific field of historical reenactments, where concrete historical events are restaged brining attention to the authenticity of the location, the performance and the equipment used. Meanwhile living history is a ever-growing mediation strategy in history museums and sites, reenactments mostly take place outside the established and authoritative context of museums.

Living history in a museum setting (also named living museums) began with the formation of open air museums, an approach to collecting, exhibiting and interpreting that dates back to at least 1891 when Skansen opened in Stockholm, Sweden. For Scott Magelssen, author of “Living History Museums: Undoing History through Performance, living museums often compromise historical accuracy and authenticity for the sake of tourism and entertainment value. Magelssen frames Living history museums inside “a memory boom that has now overcome fin-de-siécle anxiety and is well entrenched within twenty-first-century Western cultural practice, where the conscious self-preservation of ‘otherness’ to the rest of the world allow[s] the tourists to encounter these sites as spaces of alterity, reinforced by the distance from their own familiar homes”
︎︎︎Anderson, Jay. 1984. Time Machines: The World of Living History. Nashville, Tenn: American Association for State and Local History.

︎︎︎Magelssen, Scott. Living History Museums: Undoing History through Performance. Scarecrow Press, 2007.

︎︎︎Simone Lässig, “Clio in Disneyland? Nordamerikanische Living History Museen als außerschulische Lernorte,” in: Zeitschrift für Geschichtsdidaktik 5 (2006), pp. 44-69, here p. 48

︎︎︎Tomann, Juliane. Living History (english version), in: Docupedia-Zeitgeschichte, 20.04.2021 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14765/zzf.dok-2181

︎︎︎ Berlin, 2022

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