For more than 50 years, the reenactment of historical events mostly was synonymous with the huge battles, the army camps and civilian life of the Civil War period. Over the last few decades, interpretations of Colonial America along with the conflicts of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 have become popular with the public. More recently, organizations have been formed to portray Buffalo Soldiers, the Rough Riders and the armies from World War II.
The popularity of living history in which people portray, with their dress, speech and manners, the times of long ago also has been employed by local historic sites and the larger tourist destinations such as Colonial Williamsburg. During many of these life-like history lessons, visitors observe and learn about the past but often fulfill a passive role. This kind of living history format is evolving and the Newport Historical Society is just one organization that has taken a revolutionary approach to costumed interpretation.
“While it is clear that the public has become less interested in visiting traditional historic sites, we never thought that folks had lost interest in history,” explained Ruth Taylor, executive director of the Newport Historical Society. “In an age where social media connects, and the public is increasingly accustomed to personalized interaction, we wanted to address current trends by bringing the past to life in a new way.”
It Started With The Stamp Act Riot
During the summer of 2014, the historical society brought history to the streets of Newport by hosting a reenactment of the city’s 1765 Stamp Act riot. Visitors became immersed in the action, interacting with the living historians and learning about the roles of citizens during this historic event. At the modern-day “riot,” participants followed the parade to hang stamp collectors in effigy, stood among the loudest protestors, conversed with the shopkeepers who found the stamps unfair to their businesses and listened to the comments of the ladies of the community as they browsed at a colonial market.
The program was held outdoors in the same surroundings as the original protest, allowing participants to imagine the center of Newport business and commerce as it was more than 200 years earlier.
“We wanted to interpret this pivotal event in Newport’s history in a way that had not been done before,” added Taylor. “We are showing that history wasn’t written just by the founding fathers, but by individuals in the street who faced major decisions that would affect their lives and shape the country’s future. We wanted to do this in the street, where the events originally took place.”
The Location Is Historic
The Newport Historical Society approach to costumed interpretation builds on the concepts developed by Old Sturbridge Village and Plimoth Plantation. Newport now is interpreting daily life and related events based on primary sources and academic research, and then translating this information, though a combination of costumed interpretation and theater, into programs that engage and educates the public.
“One aspect that’s different about our model,” explained Taylor, “is our location. We are interpreting events in the location where they originally happened, and so many historic structures remain on the streets.”
More than 300 pre-Revolutionary War era buildings survive in Newport’s Old Quarter, the largest total of such structures in the country. During the 1700s, Newport was among the five wealthiest cities in the colonies, experiencing a Golden Age of commerce. Its Revolutionary War history includes the first shots fired at British resistance. This occurred in Newport’s Narragansett Bay during 1764.
The success of the 2014 Stamp Act protest reenactment encouraged the historical society to portray a larger event for the 250th anniversary of the riots this past summer (Newport commemorates 250th anniversary of Stamp Act protest).
The Newport Historical Society continues to experiment with the presentation of high quality costumed historical interpretation programs that mostly are site-specific and based in first-person interpretation. The programs range from broader family-friendly events that coincide with trends (such as the July 2015 Illuminating the American Revolution that was related to the Newport visit of the reconstructed ship L’Hermione) to a lecture-approach that balances first-person and third-person interpretations (January’s Dressing for a Ball that The Newport Daily News reported was “presented to a standing room crowd”).
The February living history event by the historical society was Liberty or Loyalty at the historic Colony House in downtown Newport. Interpreters revealed the actual living conditions in a thriving colonial seaport on the eve of the American Revolution. Patriots and loyalists discussed the city’s tense political climate and demonstrated the ways that daily lives were determined by choosing loyalty to the crown or declaring liberty. Participants were encouraged to take a stance on liberty or loyalty.
In coming months, the historical society will share case studies and event planning details about its approach to history interpretation during a series of museum professional conferences. Additional programs in the streets of Newport are planned for the remainder of the year.