Living history is an activity that incorporates historical tools, activities and dress into an interactive presentation that seeks to give observers and participants a sense of stepping back in time. Although it does not necessarily seek to reenact a specific event in history, living history is similar to, and sometimes incorporates, historical reenactment. Living history is an educational medium used by living history museums, historic sites, heritage interpreters, schools and historical reenactment groups to educate the public or their own members in particular areas of history, such as clothing styles, pastimes and handicrafts, or to simply convey a sense of the everyday life of a certain period in history. – Wikipedia
Museum Village is a living history museum preserving a vast collection of eclectic, 19th century artifacts for educational purposes. Using these artifacts and reproductions, we provide hands-on experiences and exhibits illustrating the transition from a rural to an industrial culture and economy in America, provoking thought and discussion about history. – Museum Village’s Mission Statement
After reading the above two paragraphs, it should leave no doubt as to what our museum is about and what our mission is. These are lofty goals that bring about great rewards when visitors have an opportunity to witness living history. When experienced firsthand, living history events and demonstrations can have a profound effect on some. Many of the school children who visit the museum are having first time experiences – from making candles to watching the black smith to seeing a chicken up close and personal. Some of the young who attend our annual Civil War Re-enactment may be leaving with loftier ambitions to make the military a career. Watch the faces of visitors when they encounter Harry, our estimated 14,000 year old Mastodon Skeleton. They may plan on becoming an archaeologist.
These are all good things and certainly worthy of our efforts. However, Living History Museums are facing enormous obstacles to remain true to their convictions and missions. The ability to serve the public and maintain long-term sustainability have become a challenge and a test.
There are several issues that can be identified as targets for Living History groups to understand and attack. I will mention a few.
Attendance – Museum Village has relied heavily on school class trips for many years. These numbers have declined considerably over the years. Tightening school budgets, the high cost of gas, and educational mandates that have pushed history off to the sidelines are some possible reasons for the school numbers decline. Competition from technology such as the smart phones, game apps and TV have also brought about a decline in interest.
Seasonal Revenue/Year-Long Expenses – Here at Museum Village, our season is basically from April – November. However, our expenses are from January – December. Eight months of income opportunity and twelve months of expenses. How then do we deal with this situation? Being an open air museum makes it very difficult to remain open during the winter months. Heating bills and snow removal being a couple of significant reasons.
Hands-on Impact – We are a Living History Museum. One of the responsibilities of the museum is to preserve the artifacts in our collection. However, the Living History portion of the museum is to allow hands-on. We need to balance that hands-on/hands-off in a very delicate way. Everyone wants to touch but not everything can be touched.
There are more issues that can be identified and more challenges to accept. With that in mind, Museum Village, in partnership with the Greater Hudson Heritage Network and 22 other Living History Museums & Heritage Organizations throughout New York State will be looking to create a model for a comprehensive statewide study to better understand all of these crucial challenges. Wish us luck as we applied for a federal Museums for America grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
Identifying and recognizing these issues will hopefully allow all of the Living History institutions to rise once again to the head of the class!