Visual Aids in Living History Scenarios

Visual aids are a very powerful tool to have in a battlefield setting, and they can be displayed without ruining the authenticity of the scenario. While the living historian talks to visitors at the site, a visual aid can be set up to give people an opportunity to learn about different things. In the past, when I have conducted a living history, I have set up a living history exhibit area. For past few years, this exhibit area was on the equipment of the Civil War soldier, with the contents of a haversack or knapsack with accouterments being displayed. The area is roped off so that no one can touch the items and a small 12×12 inch interpretive marker is displayed, telling the spectator what it was they were looking at.

A visual aid is always a good thing to have, and you can have them without taking away from the authentic experience of a living history. This allows you to interpret items from one person to another without getting bogged down. Visuals aids can also help guests to relate to or identify certain aspects of their lives from that of a Civil War soldier. For example, someone who enjoys camping and backpacking could relate to a Civil War soldier. Items that the soldiers used such as a knapsack or shelter half are all things that the modern camper/hiker can identify with, especially to a backpacker who hikes along the Appalachian Trail.

Stuff like this allows you to connect with your audience. I like to cover topics that consist of the average or common Civil War soldier. Topics like these are missing from a major reenactment. I like to deal with people one on one and give them the information that they came in search of. One topic of interest that comes up quite a bit is what the difference between a bivouac and an encampment is. Or what did soldiers do while they were on down time. Your living history area that is based upon a campaign style scenario will help your guests to understand that on campaign, the soldier carried little during a long forced march. However, if that soldier was going to be at that location for a few days, then a more organized camp would be drawn up.

One thing that I am going to do this year is focus more on “Fighting Boredom in Camp.” To anyone who is interested in seeing a camp life exhibit, I would reccommend the one at the GettysburgMuseum. This is actually built off their old exhibit and it is very a powerful interpretive tool. What a great way to show an authentic camp setting, which is something you do not see at most reenactments. While the living historian covers the daily fatigue duties, this living history exhibit can showcase many different things that you may not have the time to cover. You can rope it off to protect the contents, but it is enough to allow guests to see the layout of a two man tent, how their beds were laid out, and the games that they played on their down time.

During the Civil War soldiers wrote that they spent 99% of their time fighting boredom and only 1% in absolute terror. Time away from battle, fatigue duty, and long marches were spent wisely. Soldiers sat around campfires talking to their mess mates, relaxing while writing letters home to their loved ones, cooking rations, attending to their uniforms by using a house wife to make much needed repairs, or even sleeping depending on the events of the day. Games were often played. Card games of chance were very popular. Dominos was another popular game along with chess and checkers. If time permitted, maybe you would see a game of baseball. Drinking and smoking were very common as well. However, drunkenness was not tolerated, and the officers had more money and privacy to partake in such social occasions. Whittling was very common and so was religion. Another favorite aspect is music. Music was vital to a soldier’s life.

It is topics like this that are missing from major events and it is up to us, the living historian to interpret this aspect when discussing camp life. This is where an authentic visual aid exhibit can assist and enhance your living history event, allowing the spectator to contemplate what they have learned and not need to take it in all at once. This very simple tool can not only assist the living historian, but also make learning fun for all.

There are many photographs in the Library of Congress collections that show you how many soldiers spent their time. Many of these images were taken during the winter season and long term encampments. Research and study these photographs and take a closer look to see what items that you could in return display or interpret for the public’s enjoyment.

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