Is there a Theatre of History?

Julia Findlater discusses the increasing appearances of actors and actresses at historical sites.

Is there a theatre of history? Yes, or so it seems. Readers of History Today who regularly visit museums and heritage locations will probably have observed in recent years the increasing appearance of actors and actresses at such sites. Those with longer memories may be aware of an evolution over the years. Once upon a time there was, it seemed apparently, just the Sealed Knot Society recreating the English Civil War. Their appearance, activities and esprit seemed to place them firmly in the English eccentric tradition. Then, in the 1970s, costumed demonstrators began appearing in the new wave of open air industrial museums such as Ironbridge, the Black Country Museum and the Beamish, outside Newcastle. With the opening of Wigan Pier and the Museum of the Moving Image in London the use of costumed interpreters moved into the mainstream of museum thinking.

The 'heritage' boom of the 1980s, and the clear popularity of such presentations with the general public, if not with many curators, saw such interpretation appearing at sites ranging from historic houses to English Heritage properties and an increasing range of re-enactment groups began to appear. Although, at first, the larger national sites seemed to keep their distance, or consign such activities to 'education' programmes, now this seems to be changing. Costumed interpreters play a major role in the Historic Royal Palaces Agency's new presentation of the King's Apartments at Hampton Court Palace, the Imperial War Museum has recently had an actress touring as an outreach worker and there are now specialised organisations to supply such activities. Cleopatra does not yet stalk the British Museum but who knows what will happen in the future'? What was once seen by many as a vice has now become a habit.

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