Full Chisel Blog

July 26, 2008

Interpreting the Past – First Person

Filed under: Historical Material,Of Interest,Techniques,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 9:26 am

I have worked for living history museums on and off since 1976 and during virtually all of that time I have done first person interpretation.  For those of you that don’t know what that is, it is role-playing, in other words when you walk into my 1857 Cabinet Shop, you walk into the mid nineteenth century, everything is correct to the period and the discussion is done as if it were 1857.


Now there are those who don’t like this kind of interpretation and prefer third person where the interpreter says “this is a …’ and ‘that is a…’, and ‘this is how the pioneers did that task…”, which is nice if there is a lot to see in a museum, but it doesn’t get the people involved.  It seems to me to be a dull and not very informative method of passing on history.


People don’t like first person interpretation because they feel ‘silly’ or ‘awkward’ role playing and are not comfortable enough with the history or not knowledgeable enough to pull it off correctly.  When done properly first person interpretation is a great experience for both the interpreter and more importantly for the guests and visitors.


I choose first person because it immediately gets the people into the historic mindset.  All I have to do is ask the people ‘are you from around these parts or just on your way to California?’  (Interpreting Utah in the 1850’s after Gold was discovered).  They usually then understand they are in the context of the daily historical life going on around them.


Then there are those visitors that take it upon themselves to bring you out of ‘character’ by asking modern questions.  These are easily dismissed by saying ‘I have no idea what you are talking about’ or ‘I believe you are talking in tongues’ or just saying ‘I don’t know’.  I actually relish the times when I get someone who keeps it up and I never come out of character (unless of course there is an emergency or the people have a legitimate modern question.  I answer these questions quietly to the person asking, and then it is back to first person.


Then you get visitors that are fascinated about being in the past, ask questions and get involved in what is going on.  They become immersed in the history and the context of a pioneer village and the interaction between interpreters reinforces the ‘image’ or ‘feeling’ of what is happening all around.


On rare occasion and I really love this part of my job, some one, usually with a history background will come into the shop, see what is going on and start asking questions that can be a challenge.  Who was the Secretary of War?  What is the value of Gold?  How do you feel about the Kansas issue?  These are the easy ones; I have got into lengthy discussions about the Second Coinage Act, the United States Army marching against the Mormons in 1857 or the state of agricultural production of the period.


So when doing first person interpretation it does require a familiarity with the history up to the time period being portrayed, but there is always the perfect out, merely by saying ‘I don’t know’.  First person requires an ability to act and play the necessary role.  I have seen this turn shy people into extroverts and their new persona frees them from their fears and allows them to interact with people.  And when you have this historic interaction, the guests and visitors get involved in what is going on, history.


This also lends itself to a ‘hands on’ experience.  I love to have kids straddle the shaving horse, hand them a big sharp drawknife and tell them to pull it toward themselves.  Then I look at the parents whom are wide-eyed and concerned for their child’s safety.  I reassure them that they run out of pull when the blade gets close to them and unless they touch the blade (which I encourage them not to do) they can not get hurt with this dangerous looking tool.


To have a child shave off the edges of a split of pine with a spokeshave or plane a board with a coffin smoother, they frequently keep the shavings as a memento of their visit.  I am intrigued by the fascination people have, adults and children alike with a brace and bit.  When I am drilling a hole through a board with a twist auger, I will ask one of the visitors to put there hand under the board and let me know when the bit comes through.  Well no one wants to do that because of their modern thinking about power tools.  I eventually get someone to put their finger under and they let me know the second the pilot screw just barely breaks the underside.  Then I say “see I told you it would be alright’, and they get a good laugh.  I also say ‘don’t try this at home’.


Interpreting in the first person seems natural to me and I have no problem staying in ‘character’.  I can get my work done at the same time getting the visitor involved ‘hands-on’ to touch and feel the tools and furniture.  I also tell them ‘that my tools are all very sharp, so when you cut yourself don’t bleed on the tools or furniture, it rusts the tools up something awful and it makes the furniture hard to sell’.  They get the idea, but more importantly it means they are in a working cabinet and chair shop.  Some are actually surprised that it is a working shop and not just a static museum exhibit or just a staged demonstration.


People want to know about the past and as far as I am concerned the best method of teaching about our heritage is to be in the ‘first person’ and give them a total immersion into our history.








  1. I agree with you Stephen. I love to visit living history museums much more so than a static museum. You can be much more involved and immersed in the history and feel of the time you are visiting. Whether they be first or third person interpreters, to me it is much more interesting to see how it was done rather than try to imagine. I love Colonial Williamsburg, which is actually a combination of both first and third person interpreters. You can immerse yourself in the period in first person, but also talk to the third person interpreters when you need a 21st century explanation. I applaud what you do and hope that someday I might perhaps be able to do something similar as the history of our country and it’s people is a fascinating story.

    Comment by Bob Rozaieski — July 26, 2008 @ 12:28 pm

  2. I love living history museums, like Colonial Williamsburg, where the people are in character. It really does help to transport you back in time. Like you, I’ve also found that non-woodworkers are intrigued with plane shavings and love to watch someone use a handplane. My mom walked through my shop one day after I had spent a good deal of time planing. She asked me to bag up all the shavings for her to use as decoration in her planters.

    Comment by The Village Carpenter — July 26, 2008 @ 2:08 pm

  3. Bob & VC,

    Thank you for your comments, at the park where I work, we just finished 3 days of celebration of the 161st anniversary of the Pioneers coming to the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847, so I am exhausted. The official day is the 24th of July, had over 5,000 visitors that day and a couple of thousand Friday and a little less on Saturday. And the weather was hot, got over 100 degrees all three days. My shop only got up to 96 degrees, I did manage to get some work done, a few drops of sweat on my saw handle raised the grain before I normally raise the grain.

    What is great fun is when a woodworker comes into my shop, you can tell they have a look on their face like they have died and gone to heaven. I keep a coffin on hand for such occasions. And for some reason there were a number of woodworkers that visited over the last three days. One offered to pay me to come work in the shop, I told them they could volunteer and work in my shop for free, two signed up.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — July 27, 2008 @ 8:03 am

  4. Stephen,
    I am afraid that I disagree with you. I have always found the “in character” docents to be a hindrance to understanding.
    Most are far more concerned over the “acting” job, than the history I have come to learn.

    I much prefer to have an audio tour, where I can control the pace, and can take my time looking over things that interest me. Second best is the docent with a “canned” speech that at least (presumably) has been vetted by an historian for accuracy.

    Not everyone learns the same way. And if you are not learning from your visit, then the facility is failing in its prime purpose (unless, of course, it is trying to be Disney World).


    Comment by mike holden — July 28, 2008 @ 10:04 am

  5. Mike,

    You are exactly right about giving the visitor a good tour as that is our primary duty. It is important that all docents and interpreters know what they are talking about and the ‘actor’ thing can be a problem. However I think a good first person interpreter can give the visitor a unique experience at the same time imparting history.

    Historic Plimoth Plantation, Sturbridge Village and Conner Prairie Pioneer Settlement have well trained interpreters that can pull off First Person. Where I work we do first person but it is loose enough that it is possible to come out of character to answer a modern question.

    I find in most cases I can remain in character and still answer most questions. By going about my work in my shop, people come in and see it is an actual working shop not a static demonstration. I greet them but then it is up to them to express an interest in something or ask a question. Some people will just look around for 30 seconds ask no questions and leave, if that is all the history they want then fine. Then some come in and spend an hour asking endless questions (these are usually woodworkers in my shop, but the other trades have their droolers).

    Come out for a visit and I will show you how first person can be informative and fun.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — July 29, 2008 @ 8:33 am

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