Read Part 1 or Part 2.
My Own Criterion
In all of my living History presentations, I try to make a good presentation, whether that is an entire encampment, a personal presentation, or a small part of a larger whole. But what makes up a good presentation? I think a good presentation must include Accuracy, Empathy, and Education. And if you have high levels of all three, only then can you call your presentation an authentic representation of Living History.
I think accuracy is the biggest contention of the Living History world. To some people accuracy is everything, and to those folks if you do not have accuracy then you do not have anything. I think history is a puzzle composed of a thousand pieces, but for which we only have 1/3 of the pieces! I do think that striving for accuracy is important, but that sometimes certain details might be sacrificed for the whole picture.
At a museum where I was working in the gardens, there was a long term debate about the well in the back yard. There were records indicating a well, but the spot archaeological work had not found its location, so when the back yard was restored, a well was not included. In my opinion, a more accurate picture might have been achieved if a well had been included somewhere in the yard, even if it was not the original spot, as opposed to leaving it out altogether.
For me it is important to get the feel of a time and not just the look. You might have the best looking outfit, but for reenactors often the best part is putting that outfit on, moving around in it, and recreating tasks that a person wearing that outfit might have done. I recently attended a Living History Presentation where the person presenting was wearing a horrible version of a nineteenth century outfit. It was so modern it was really jarring. But her presentation really captured something of the person she was presenting, so that by the end I had forgiven her for the outfit. She definitely had the feel in her word choice, her tone of voice, her physicality which made it a fair presentation. It would have been really good presentation if she had had a more accurate outfit, but was decent without it.
If nothing is gained by your presentation then it looses its meaning for me. However, that does not mean the educational gains have to be huge. If I am learning something, then the presentation is a success, if I can teach something to other people, then the presentation is a success. If I have read something then I put that into practice or if I interact with someone else who teaches me something, then it is all good! But if I just get dressed up and wander around and no one’s knowledge is increased, then I’ve got to question the validity of that presentation.
In order to produce an authentic living history presentation, I think you must combine accuracy, education, and empathy. If you are accurate but there is no life behind your presentation then I am not convinced; if there are things that are obviously out of time and place I have trouble buying in; if neither you nor others gain anything from the presentation, again, I might question your motives. But a really great presentation can transport me, teach me, and make me feel, at least a little, like what it must have been like in a different time and place.
All that is what I believe makes a good presentation, but I don’t yet think I’ve answered the question about why I do it. I gain so many things beyond the search for the perfect Living History presentation. I make connections with other people who are kooky like me. I have friends all over the US because of reenacting and living history. I have fun doing it, dressing up and presenting life in times long past. And very occasionally I make money at it, though at this point that is a minor note in the overall experience.