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First Person Interpretation


As museums continue to evolve from a “curiosity closet” of dusty artifacts into a dynamic educational experience, interpretive techniques take center stage. Gone are the days when a guide would drag people from room to room in a historic house, droning on about each piece of china on the dining room table.

Today’s museum guides are trained to engage the visitor, by telling interesting facts in a lively way, and truly bringing the past to life.

One of the ways to immerse visitors in the past is to use “first person interpretation.” This does NOT mean simply “in costume.” It means that the museum guide is “in character” for the time period of the museum or historic site.

Many open air museums, also known as historic villages, use this technique to draw you into the story. Museums like Plimoth Plantation and Old Sturbridge Village use first person interpretation to make you feel like you really have traveled back in time. Mystic Seaport’s popular Lantern Light Tours at Christmastime actually use professional actors to portray real and composite characters from the past.

When you interact with the interpreters, they often don’t understand modern words that did not exist in the time period they are portraying. For example, if you were to ask an interpreter at Plimoth about “the first Thanksgiving,” they wouldn’t have the slightest clue what you were talking about! To them, that feast was a single event to celebrate their survival. It wasn’t a regular celebration, and most assuredly was NOT a “national holiday” – we were still a British colony then!

I have seen first interpretation that has truly swept me into another time. And I have seen half-baked attempts that have failed miserably. In general, it is best to steer clear of first person interpretation unless you can do it well. Because if it’s bad, it is truly terrible!

One way that allows the visitor to interact with the historic character AND get some modern context is the “hat method.” For example, if John Smith is portraying President Lincoln, he might begin in character, speaking as if he was Lincoln. But when he removes his top hat, he becomes “John Smith,” which allows him to answer modern day questions about Lincoln.

First person interpretation can be tricky, and should only be attempted by museums with a serious commitment to quality presentations.
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Content copyright © 2014 by Kim Kenney. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Kim Kenney. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Kim Kenney for details.

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