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  • The Use and Abuse of Historical Reenactment:Thoughts on Recent Trends in Public History
  • Alexander Cook

For several years broadcasting agencies interested in the public dissemination of history have shown a growing predilection for staging reenactments as a means of broadening the appeal of traditional documentary film. In a genre pioneered by programs such as 1900 House, Frontier House, and The Trench, viewers have been presented with a form of historical pedagogy in which modern volunteers are placed in a simulated historical situation with the goal of enlightening both the public and participants as to conditions of life in the past. In the summer of 2001 I participated in one of these projects, a BBC series called The Ship, in which a crew of fifty "experts" and volunteers sailed a replica of Captain James Cook's ship Endeavour from Australia to Indonesia along the path it sailed in 1770. This article is a discussion of some of the issues raised by that experience and a consideration of ways in which the format might be improved.

Historical programs of this kind habitually derive their rationale from two propositions. The first relates to presentation—there is a belief that placing modern individuals in a simulation of past situations is a useful way of making history "come alive" for secular audiences. There can be no doubt that this belief has recently gained ground from the astonishing ratings success of the phenomenon mislabeled "reality TV." The second premise is that participants (even professional historian participants) can learn something about history from the experience that would be less accessible using conventional methods for studying the past. Because of this second objective, these projects differ from more traditional forms of historical reenactment as practiced in the circuses of the ancient Mediterranean, on the Elizabethan stage, among tribal societies of the Pacific, and in countless other locales over the centuries. These televised reenactments set out not to dramatize a past that is already known, but to learn something new [End Page 487] about the past through the activity of reenactment itself and to communicate those findings to a wider audience. In short, these are projects in investigative reenactment. The activity is conceived simultaneously as a narrative strategy and a research tool. These two elements are at least formally distinct, although I will come to consider the relationship between them.

A large number of exercises in investigative reenactment have been produced for television over the past few years. Some of these projects have focused primarily on the history of science and technology. These include myriad attempts to manufacture miniature pyramids using ancient Egyptian methods and materials, or Stonehenge, or medieval siege engines, or almost any contraption you care to name. While these projects have usually offered some consideration of the social conditions supporting and supported by the objects in question, their priority has been more explicitly an understanding of the manufacture and use of the objects themselves. Other projects in investigative reenactment have focused directly on social and cultural history, and on the "experience" of daily life as it is imagined to have been at particular moments in the past. Of these two types of investigative reenactment, the first is by some margin the more straightforward in its operating assumptions and its methods. Although the quality of individual exercises of this kind has varied substantially, few would dispute the potential lessons to be learned by historians from the attempt to reconstruct historical technology using original materials. For the history of engineering, for example, or perhaps of music, these reconstructions can highlight all sorts of errors in modern assumptions about the development, operation, and application of technology in the past. The second category is more epistemologically ambitious and hence more problematic. It is this category that I principally wish to discuss.

What are the consequences of sending modern subjects into an imitation historical setting and using their responses as the basis for historical narration? Is the result purely a pastiche of history? Is it inevitably "docu-soap" disguised as scholarship? Does it, to quote Australian historian Greg Dening, present the past as "merely the present in funny dress"?1 Or does it offer genuine opportunities for an enhanced perspective...


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