OPINION PIECE: Experiencing History

One of the most difficult problems educators in the history field face is getting people interested in history. History, like math, is known as a boring school subject. Even in the Harry Potter books, the most boring class is History of Magic. It’s taught by a ghost and most students sleep through it. It seems a fitting metaphor. So how do we get people interested?

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INTERACTION WITH HISTORY

I know, I know. I get a horrified face when I see people touching artifacts, too. And I still can’t get over the initial hesitation in handling an artifact myself. However, I’m not saying you should pass fragile artifacts around. But history and math can feel like abstract subjects, and most people prefer to learn about something they can touch.

Here are some ways to interact with history.

Demonstrations/Shows – You can have supervised demonstrations of things. Try cooking on an old stove or trying on a historical outfit, and include the audience. Pick an audience member to wear the coat. Pick an audience member to try frying some bacon on the stove and then let everyone sample it.

Performances and reenactments can be fun to watch. No longer is history an abstract concept, but something that is happening right in front of you. And I am an advocate for live performances, not movies. For schools, I know field trips are difficult to organize. In this case, substitute movies or small skits performed by your students.

Interactive Exhibits for Adults – For museums, add something a little extra for teens and adults. Have them fill out replica ration booklets from WWII. Let them touch and feel some of those duplicate artifacts you have. You need to make these exhibits too boring or difficult for children. Otherwise, children will take over these interactive experiences. Brainstorm what sorts of ways you can make your museum touch- and visitor-friendly.

(c) BBC

RISQUE HISTORY

Have a History After Dark program for 18+. We’re most interested in the parts of history we’re not allowed to see in the museum or classroom.  One of my best memories from college was my History of American Sexuality class. The professor brought a vibrator from the 1900s to class and plugged it in – it still worked! (Though the plug started smoking…) Everyone in the class was enthralled and had a fun time. As people, like to know about the dirty, gore-y, untold parts of history. The BBC had a TV show for children called Horrible Histories. This is a fun way to entertain children with history. I used this TV show in my college classes.

 (c) Elica Sparks

(c) Elica Sparks

UNCONVENTIONAL REENACTMENTS

Ever heard of LARP? LARP stands for Live Action Roleplay. It is a hobby that is most easy to explain as acting out a Dungeons and Dragons game. Everyone plays a character and they roleplay and participate in battles with foam weapons. The majority of LARPs are history-based in some way. Many are traditional fantasy - based on the Medieval period. But there are flintlock fantasy LARPs, which may be based on any time from the Revolutionary War to the Victorian Era. In these LARPs, everyone is expected to use only items from that period and act as if they are from this time periods.

I’ve never heard of a museum or history program reaching out to LARP groups, but this is a great resource. LARPers are sticklers for accuracy in historical costuming, weaponry, and activities. Get students outside for a day – have them build characters (or take on the persona of a historical figure) and interact as if they were that character. Let them shoot each other with nerf guns or foam swords.

If you are an institution, make LARP-friendly programming through classes focused on costuming accuracy. Or, you can create partnerships with local LARPs (there is more than likely one in your region). Perhaps offer them your property for a PAD (Personal Adventure Day) and invite outsiders to try the LARP. You could host a historical fashion show, as many LARPers have time-accurate clothes they would be proud to show off.

 

Those are a few suggestions on how to make history more fun and accessible to students and the general public. Do you have any ideas?