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Acting it Out: Engaging with History Through Performance

Posted by Caitlin Tracey-...
10 January 2013 - 2:37pm

As an elementary school student who loved history, I was often asked by less enthusiastic classmates why I liked such a "boring" subject. History educators in schools and museums are consistently confronting this conception of history as being dull. One of the primary complaints I would hear was that history felt distant and disconnected from students' lives, and that it was little more than a series of dates, places, and names.

One possibility for increasing student or visitor engagement is to take history off paper, and bring it to life. Costumed interpreters do this daily, as do actors in historically themed movies and plays, but it can also be done by visitors or students themselves.

During my high school World History class, students were encouraged to take on roles in a variety of role plays about the ancient world. Playing out important events in a classroom setting was often cause for laughing and eye-rolling, but also for memorable engagement with content. These situations provided opportunities to ask questions like “what would it be like?” or “What would I have done?”

I believe these sort of play-acting situations can over-simplify history. It can be difficult to accurately know what historical figures would have sounded or acted like, and worldviews shift in ways that may make it difficult to see why some decisions or events happened.  At the same time, these differences and unknowns can provide rich conversation. Thinking about the people in history and stepping into their roles can make the past more accessible.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to intern at the Cincinnati History Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio. In addition to artifacts and text panels, the museum features a range of recreated historical scenes, such as a flatboat and an eighteenth century cabin. These sets provide spaces for first-person historic interpretation and hands-on programming. Walking through the museum I would sometimes see children  and visitors "acting out history" in these spaces. They might be encouraging their friends or siblings to join them for a riverboat journey or help them build a cabin. By using their imaginations and engaging in a performance they were understanding the past in new ways, and did not seem bored at all.

What are some ways to use performance to teach history?

Photo: Cincinnati History Museum, author's photo