For generations, visitors to historic sites watched battle reenactments and viewed spinning wheel demonstrations. Visitors were asked to observe and take a passive role while history was brought to life. However, the Newport Historical Society, working with colleagues, has developed a rather revolutionary approach to presenting costumed interpretation.
In 2014, the NHS took history to the streets by hosting a reenactment of the 1765 Stamp Act Riot. Visitors were immersed in the action and could both interact and join the fun, including following the effigy parade, standing amongst interpreters during the protest, sitting alongside ladies at the tea or browsing for goods at a "pop-up" colonial market. This program took place entirely outside and was free, making it accessible to all.
"We wanted to interpret this pivotal event in Newport's history in a way that had not been done before," explains Executive Director Ruth 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 there events originally took place."
The NHS approach to costumed interpretation builds on work of institutions such as Old Sturbridge Village and Plimoth Plantation: interpreting daily life and related events based on primary sources and academic research, and then translating this information through a combination of costumed interpretation and theater into programs which engage and educate the public.
"One aspect thats different about our model", Taylor explains, "is our location. We are interpreting events in the location where they originally happened, and so many historic structures remain on the streets."
Newport's Old Quarter is the perfect venue for such programming. Over 300 pre-Revolutionary War era buildings survive, more than any site in the country. Newport was among the five wealthiest cities in the colonies, experiencing a Golden Age of commerce in the decades leading up to the Revolution. And its history is equally as rich: the first shots to British resistance were not fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775 or at the Boston Massacre in 1770. They were fired in 1764 in Narragansett Bay - in Newport.
Given the success of the Society's Stamp Act Protest reenactment in 2014, NHS hosted a larger event for the 250th Anniversary of the Stamp Act Riots the following year and have been experimenting with presenting high quality costumed interpretation since. Programs are largely site-specific and based in first person interpretation, ranging from broader family-friendly events coinciding with trends, such as Illuminating the American Revolution which related to the Hermione Voyages Newport visit in July 2015, to using a lecture-approach balancing first and third person interpretation during Dressing for a Ball in January 2016, which The Newport Daily News reported was "presented to a standing room crowd".
Liberty or Loyalty, the Society's next living history event, continues experimenting with a unique approach to costumed interpretation. On Saturday February 20, 2016 from 10am-2pm at the Colony House in downtown Newport, a group of interpreters will show what it was like to live in a once thriving colonial seaport on the eve of the American Revolution. During this interactive program patriots and loyalists will discuss the city's tense political climate and how remaining loyal to the crown or declaring liberty affects their daily lives. After interacting with interpreters, visitors will be encouraged to take a stance and decide if they choose liberty or loyalty.
For those that cannot travel to Newport to experience these programs first hand, the NHS launched its YouTube page with support from Tree of Life Productions by sharing a series of videos featuring the Stamp Act Protest reenactment.
In the coming months NHS representatives will share case studies and event planning details at a series of museum professional conferences, like History Camp Boston on Saturday March 26th which is open to the public.
"Bringing history to life is such an effective way to get people to understand the very real decisions that individuals faced," Lee Wright Founder of The History List explains, "and the Newport Historical Society has done an exemplary job with their Stamp Act Protest this summer and other events. I know other organizations will be eager to learn insights from and be inspired by their creativity and hard work."