Living History, Open Air Museums and the Public

Posted on December 2, 2015


One of the last batches of videos from the EAA conference (if you are reading this via email or RSS videos may not appear).


Mrs.Helga Rösel-Mautendorfer, Freilichtmuseum Keltendorf Mitterkirchen. Dr.Jutta Leskovar, OÖ. Landesmuseum. Dr.Romana Scandolari, Museo delle Palafitte del Lago di Ledro. Mrs.Ida Sagnlandet Lejre, Demant
All over Europe, living history is performed in reconstructed buildings, villages and urban quarters of archaeological or historical open-air museums. Dressed in more or less authentic garments, contributors assume – consciously or unconsciously – the role of past people of a particular time. Venues range from one-day events to events lasting several days such as Celtic festivals and medieval markets.Throughout the year, these roles are also performed by employees of the museums. The reenactors welcome visitors, guide through museums, demonstrate craft techniques and are available to answer questions. In addition, long-term projects lasting several weeks take place, which aim to test authentic details of (pre)historic everyday life and communicate the gained experiences to museum visitors.The following questions arise in this context: What kind of experiences do open-air museums have with living history as a knowledge-transfer concept? How do visitors respond? Does living history generate interest? What does the feedback about living history in museum entail? Were specific evaluations carried out concerning visitor engagement? Does living history achieve the transfer of archaeolgical or historical knowledge? What strategies are applied to show facts as accurately as possible and avert a false historical understanding by the performers? The aim of the session is to gain an overview of the diverse experience of European open-air museums in relation
to public response to the transfer of archaeological or historical knowledge.

Living History and the Public in Mitterkirchen, Upper Austria

Jutta Leskovar1, Helga Rösel-Mautendorfer2
In 2011, a Living History project started in the open air museum of Mitterkirchen, Upper Austria. The museum is dedicated to the early Iron Age, having been built following 10 years of excavating a large early Hallstatt period cemetery in the 1990ies. The scenery, consisting of a group of reconstructed buildings of different purpose and a reconstructed tumulus, among other features as a small restaurant etc., is usually „inhabited“ by women who act as guides and teachers during workshops. In order to add another attraction for visitors, and for filming a documentary, a project called „Prunkwagen und Hirsebrei“ started in summer 2011. A group of 11 people (among them some archaeologists) moved into the museum village and tried to live a Hallstatt period live, as authentically as possible. As the project was considered a success by all participants, it has been repeated every summer since.
One of the most important parts of this project is the contact to visitors. People seem to be interested and glad not to have missed this rare opportunity of being able to talk to specialists and watching them try to live like people in 800 BC. But how much of what we try to transfer does reach visitors? Are they even interested in our striving for authenticity? What are visitors thinking about the past, before and after their visit? To answer those questions, two surveys have been carried out in Mitterkirchen. The results help understand visitors’ interests and needs.

Sagnlandet Lejre – the Land of Legends (Denmark): 50 years of “Past Family business” between Experimental Archaeology and Living History

Laurent Mazet

Short after the foundation of the Centre for Historical-Archaeological Research and Communication at Lejre in 1964, it became clear that the first reconstructed tools and Iron Age houses, ought to host some human actors of their own “confrontation with the past” (on record). Then the pioneering Past Family concept was born in Lejre. Since then, the humanising of the initial experimental archaeological processes and goals has evolved into nowadays’ attraction for visitors interested in almost meeting “survivors” of past living conditions. In other words, the museum’s successive managers and presenter staffs have been facing many challenges (and compromises) along these five decades, from hosting communitarian scientific actors to servicing volunteer re-enactors … of their self-realizing family projects for summer holidays. Archaeologist Laurent Mazet, current manager for the Prehistoric areas, will summarize and give some illustrative examples of concept developments, communication issues and cognitive challenges, scientific benefits and tradeoffs. He will also conclude on good perspectives of involving ordinary families from present time, as rather reliable and definitely interactive companions in the visitor’s time travel.

From Spectator to Partaker – Changes in Visitors to the Past

Ane Jepsen
Living history – past, present and future in The Land of Legends Lejre, Denmark. With enthusiasm as the driving force The Land of Legends in Lejre, Denmark, has undergone numerous changes in reason d’être and circumtances in the last 50 years. Enthusiasm in exploring everyday life in prehistory, educating visitors through living displays of the past and professionalizing experimental archeology and reconstruction has characterized the early years of the center. But new competition and new public expectations have spurred on development of the center. Substantial visitor analysis reveal that approachable and relevant education, coherent historical narratives and authentic hands-on experiences are a must in modern presentation of the past. This sees a change in the role of the visitor from Spectators on Time Travel to Individualized Partakers in the past.
Now the enthusiasm that created the center is driven to take on another form, where concepts like Showmanship, Value-formoney, Experience Design, Entertainment and the Relevance of the Past to the Present drive on the development. A new reason d’être has arisen – creating coherency between modern and past living conditions and a perspective through the ages, that sparks meaningful reflection with visitors of all ages. Early results show, that personalized narration of well-researched historical themes and presentation methods taken from the salesman’s, actor’s-, teacher’s- and craftsmen’s tool box resonate with the public. This affirms that professional, authentic reenactment, that qualifies – rather than discards – popular interest in the past, has a future.

Reenactment of Gallo-Roman religious practices through Living History

Meylan Karine
Alongside craftwork and weapons handling demonstrations usually present in living history festivals dedicated to the Gallo-Roman era, new initiatives are starting to appear: reenactment of social practices, including rites and religious ceremonies (sacrifices, processions, agrarian rituals, weddings, baptisms, and more). Considered from the perspective of sharing research results with the general public, these reconstructions are of particular interest. Not only do they convey the current knowledge about the religion of the Gallo-Romans, but they also allow to bring forth and discuss their social interactions and relationships as well as their view of the world. The exercise however has many difficulties. Beyond the incomplete aspects of the available sources, the reenactors must take into account the evolution of mindsets. While the material reconstruction of the rites is not simple, it turns out to be even more challenging to enable contemporary Western culture audiences to truly experience the centrality of religion in the deeply ritualistic ancient societies. Based on the research carried out within the framework of Ph.D. studies at the University of Lausanne, our intervention will present examples of rites and ceremonies reconstructions presented during historical festivals in Switzerland (Römerfest of Augusta Raurica, Brenodor-Fest in Bern, Fête de Petinesca at Studen) and in France (Vinalia at Saint-Romain-en-Gal and Grands Jeux Romains in Nîmes). We will present how and which aspects of the religious life of the ancients are put forward, what part the public plays in these reconstructions and overall what image of the Gallo-Roman religion is transmitted through living history.

An educational role play

Charlotte Abildgaard Paulsen
Skanderborg Museum with the department Øm Abbey Museum is offering the local community schools the possibility of participating in an educational role play in the ruins of a monastery from the 15th century. There are no orcs or fights, but time for absorption and reflection, and a great fellowship where all are equal to God. The age of the pupils are 10-13, attending grades 4 to 6 of Danish Primary School. The pupils play the roles of novices on probation. As they dress in the woolen black and white suit of the order and receive new names, they enter and experience a part of middle age life. The role play is facilitated by one of the museum staff, who is an archaeologist and skilled in museum learning. The museum department Øm Abbey Museum is in fact a very large excavation site, revealing the most complete ground plan of a Danish Cistercian monastery. We experience, that this type of museum learning, a scenario based role play, provide a useful addition to the teaching at the school. At the same time we are aware, that taking classes out of the class room and engaging with external teachers require an understanding of the roles of the educators, both the class teacher and the museums teacher in terms of the responsibility of the learning outcome for the pupils. We would like to share our experiences of this matter and to tell about our co-operation with schools in reforming the Danish school system.

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