Active History: An Immersive Historical Experience

54th Mass infantryman imprisoned in the Old City Jail after being captured at Fort Wagner, July 18, 1863.

Today Tony Cohen and I took a trip to the Mariners Museum in Newport News, VA. We arrived a little past 1 p.m. only to find out that the museum was closed due to the snow and ice from the previous two days. Rather than go back to Williamsburg defeated we found a restaurant to eat lunch and talk history. Earlier in the week we went to dinner and discussed many topics including, his training of Oprah for her role in Beloved. During our conversation Tony asked me to think of a name of that particular kind of interpretation. I jokingly said “Awesomeness” to which he replied “That’s not good enough.” Honestly, I forgot about the conversation until we were sitting in Newport News eating. In the midst of our conversation the name of the type of interpretation came to me, Active History.

Active History is an unscripted, immersive experience, where the participants are guided by action and reaction.  There are no monologues given by interpreters or facilitators. It does not involve long dialog between the participant and the facilitator nor does it involve the facilitator telling the participant “back then you would be doing…”

The objective of active history is to immerse the participant in the time period by using all of their senses. All vestiges of the 21st Century are removed. The objective is for individuals participating to be actively immersed in the subject matter rather than passive on observers. This allows for inner self reflection and also demands that the participant uses all of their senses to digest history rather than simply hearing or seeing it. The aim of active history is not to be fun but rather be educational, build emapthy and citizenship. Active history is physical, physiological, and emotional.

After the experience active history requires a dialog session with all participants. This allows the participants to unpack what they experienced and creates a free exchange of ideas in a safe and judgment free zone.

I have used active history in programs at museums and summer camps and found it to be a useful tool in helping individuals of all ages understand and be active participants in history.

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