A few days ago I posted on the audience perceptions of historical reenactments. Not all reenactments are first-person. Similarly, not all costumed interpretation are reenactments. And as we found in our recent study of outdoor history museum visitors, audience perceptions of all the different types of interpretations that revolve around costumes and the use of first or third-person interpretation vary.
First, we should reinforce that the majority of visitors to outdoor history museums truly enjoy, and seek out, costumed interpretation, both first-person and third-person. Overall, 76% of respondents prefer experiencing the past in this way. These individuals find the narrative of costumed-based interpretation to be a wonderful tool to not only learn about the past, but immerse themselves in it. First-person interpretation can be extraordinarily believable too, as one woman wrote in, “When I first came to the museum I had to check out the outhouse to see if these people really lived like this or not. That’s funny to me now.”
But when we looked at the responses demographically, there were shades of difference. Respondents in their thirties, forties, and fifties liked the costumed interpretation the best, while those under thirty and those sixty and older were less enthusiastic. Women prefer costumed interpretation over men by nine percentage point. All of this makes sense when we see that moms in their thirties and forties were the most enthusiastic of all – 81% seek out costumed interpretation. The group that liked costumed interpretation the least were men over the age of 60 – only 65% sought it out, though that is still 2/3 of respondents.
We did not ask specifically for visitor preferences between first and third-person interpretation, not being sure that respondents would know what those terms meant. But we found that many visitors did distinguish between those interpretation methods and used the terms “first-person” and “third-person” in their written-in comments, saying things like “their first person portrayal is incredible” or “your 1st person is frustrating.”
Although the majority does enjoy the first-person interpretation, there is a sizable minority that does not, particularly among men over the age of 60. When we looked at the written-in comments of those who do not care for costumed, first-person interpretation, however, we were troubled and, at times, distressed. For many, first-person interpretation is frustrating . . . or worse. As one person said, referring to this interpretation method, “I did feel like kind of an idiot.” No one, ever, ever, ever, should be made to feel like an idiot at a museum, so we knew this was a subject we needed to look into more carefully.
The complaints and frustrations varied, and below are a sample of them, ranging from the mild to the incensed:
- “I find it annoying – as if I’m also expected to act a part.”
- “I feel silly talking with the costumed staff”
- “I visited a museum where everyone stayed “in-period,” but I didn’t really enjoy it. It stunted any exchange with the interpreters.”
- “I always feel rude leaving an exhibit after just a minute if there is a costumed docent there, like I'm walking out of school or something. I think it can be very awkward. Plus, you can't ask anything about after 1836, etc.”
- “[I want to] be able to ask 3rd person questions of interpreters and they could answer more directly. The verbal cat and mouse can be really distracting.”
- “they treated me as though I were ignorant because I didn’t know what was being planted . . . get real and just answer the question!”
But the comment that we felt really drove to the heart of the philosophical issue of first-person interpretation was made by a man who was over sixty: “I don’t like the dress up stuff . . . that’s not authentic.”
When we compare the first-person interpretation comments of men sixty and older with their thoughts on authenticity at historic sites, it became pretty clear. Those men who do not care for first-person interpretation do not primarily because it is inauthentic to them.
What do we mean? Young children buy into the first-person interpretation because it is a narrative they can relate to. They enjoy it, and for that reason most parents enjoy it and go along with it.
But when older individuals, especially these men over sixty, are interacting with first-person interpreters, it changes. They know the interpretation is fake because that interpreter really is not from that time period. And they know the interpreter knows it is fake, but because the interpreter does not acknowledge it is all an act, it leads to disenchantment, frustration, and dislike of first-person interpretation. It is not authentic to that visitor and would actually be more authentic if the interpreter broke character by talking with adults out of character because then the faux-ness could be acknowledged.
So what is a historic site that utilizes first-person interpretation to do? While we do not have a simple answer, it does come down, yet again, to what is appropriate for the site. Sites that draw large numbers of young children can create first-person interpretations that are powerful tools of engagement. But sites that draw large numbers of adults without young children, particularly men over sixty, may wish to provide other forms of interpretation as well so that these otherwise highly engaged visitors also have positive experiences.
We would love to hear your thoughts on first-person interpretation, or simple costumed interpretation. Love these methods or hate them, we can learn from your stories as well. Simply click on “comments” below. (If you are reading this from your e-mail subscription to the blog, please go to our blog's website to add a comment.)