Wednesday’s Book Review: “Enacting History”

Enacting HistoryEnacting History. Edited by Scott Magelssen and Rhona Justice-Malloy. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2011.

The challenge of presenting the past has long been a topic of discussion among museum professionals, historians both academic and other, as well as a broad cross-section of those interested in heritage and the heritage industry. One of the means in which they do seek to present this past is through historical reenactments of all types. Sometimes these are formalized processes of costumed interpreters at such historic sites as Colonial Williamsburg and Fort Snelling. Sometimes these are recreations of events such as the highly effective Greensboro Lunch Counter program at the National Museum of American History. Sometimes these are completely grassroots activities such as the many battle reenactments of Civil War aficionados.

Regardless of the manner in which these are developed, nurtured, and practiced, the question of authenticity is central to its unfolding. In the case of many such activities the authenticity is mostly about the costumes and perhaps the accoutrements of the activity. In the case of Colonial Williamsburg that authenticity reflects not only those concerns but also the personification of individuals and their backgrounds.

This collection of essays seeks to get to the question of authenticity in a variety of settings from historic sites to pageants to reenactments. In each case the objectives and the approaches are somewhat different. This is an uneven collection of case studies written; it seems that the editors provided much in the way of editorial direction to the various essayists. It could have been an important set of cases had the editors imposed some rigor on the essayists and sought to extract broader ideas that could inform the field. As it is, the essays may be read on their own merits but as a work; the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Accordingly, if it is not already understood, I must to admit to a bit of disappointment with this book. I had expected that Enacting History would be a set of related analyses of the manner in which historic sites, Civil War reenactors, etc., approached their efforts to depict the past. Some of that is present, but there is no broader overview that helps to unpack the reenactment of the past. Some of the essays are little more than “this is what we did in costume” accounts and some fail to make any point beyond the specific. Some of them are participant-observer ethnographic discussions; others are more about how to stage an historical play than anything else.

One was even about the Maryland Renaissance Festival; an interesting event but also something so far removed from any real effort to depict the past that even its participants—be they dressed as Henry VIII or a Hobbit or a character from Star Wars (I have seen all of these at the RenFest)—view it as little more than an opportunity to have costume party without believing that it has much of anything to do with history.

The varieties of historical reenactment still awaits its analysis. I would like to see a work like Henry Jenkins’s Textual Poachers on Civil War reenactments of the renaissance festivals. Perhaps there is such a book, if so please let me know about it. Tony Horwitz comes as close as I know this type of study in Confederates in the Attic but it is still not quite at the level of analysis offered by Jenkins. The place of reenactment in historic sites is a topic screaming for serious attention.

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2 Responses to Wednesday’s Book Review: “Enacting History”

  1. I’m sorry that this wasn’t more fruitful. I think you are right: there is a lot more unpacking that needs to be done with historical reenactments, particularly expeditionary reenactments. I wrote an op-ed about this during the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) fiasco last year.


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