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Living Museums Bring Static History to Life

  • Ted Landphair

These women are among dozens of characters who depict the inhabitants of Colonial Williamsburg, interacting with visitors as they do so. (Carol M. Highsmith)

These women are among dozens of characters who depict the inhabitants of Colonial Williamsburg, interacting with visitors as they do so. (Carol M. Highsmith)

This is the time of year when thousands of tourists descend upon Washington, D.C., to see the capital’s great monuments and museums, including the National Gallery of Art and an array of Smithsonian museums.

These are what might be called “static” museums. You walk in, see the pioneer Wright Brothers plane hanging from the ceiling or a great Vermeer painting, or a display of American Indian artifacts.

You look at them, maybe read a placard, or perhaps wear a headset in which a narrator gives you more background about what you’re seeing.

But in today’s world of spectacular theme parks and dazzling electronic diversions, curators at smaller museums around the country found that busy travelers - especially those with kids - were not coming the way they used to.


Looking at pictures of, or by, long-dead artists or cultural pioneers just wasn’t entertaining.

They needed to make history and art come to life, to somehow transport visitors to time periods or experiences being displayed.

So a whole new kind of museum was born - the “living history” museum.

Places such as Williamsburg, Virginia, the first and perhaps most successful of these models. It’s a completely re-created village from the days when the town was the colonial capital of Virginia.
This is an example of a carefully collected, fascinating, but traditionally static museum exhibit - in this case, of old-time farm implements at the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. (Carol M. Highsmith)

This is an example of a carefully collected, fascinating, but traditionally static museum exhibit - in this case, of old-time farm implements at the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. (Carol M. Highsmith)


There, characters in 18th-Century costumes fire off cannons, parade like British soldiers, farm gardens using massive plow horses, sing drinking songs, and even serve up tankards of beer to go with them.

And visitors get to put their heads and hands in the stocks for a photograph, help the tinsmith make spoons, or feed yarn to women in costume who are weaving.

But historical purists say all this fun stretches the truth of what life was really like which, in many cases, was hard, even brutal. They fuss that tourists come away enchanted but having learned very little.

The counter argument is that if visitors can discover even a few things about, say, America’s whaling tradition or the real First Thanksgiving - and have a good time doing it - that’s more than they’d get out of looking at a bunch of boring displays.
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