January 21, 2014

The Value of Costumed Interpreters: Part 1

No one can deny that costumed interpreters have become very popular at historic sites in recent years to the point that they are ubiquitously associated.  This may be a strange topic, especially for someone who spends a great deal of time teaching as a costumed interpreter but after years as one, I often question the effectiveness of it.


I almost dread when people ask me what I do. It's silly, because I love what I do. I tell them that I work at a museum. I am an educator and guide. I create educational programs and do extensive research. (I also have a B.A. in History and am certified to teach high school. But I think this is besides the point.)

This is the typical response when I tell people what I do:

"So you wear a costume and stuff?"

I can't help but think that visitors  find tour guides in polo shirts and slacks inherently more credible than guides in costumes. There are many good reasons to have costumed interpreters at historical sites. For one thing, it definitely catches the attention of children and teenagers and can draw them in. Costumed interpreters generally make the experience more interactive for visitors. Many people find the difference in what people of the past wore compared to what they wear very interesting and it is always the source of many questions from visitors. 

I understand why costumed guides have become so popular. They do a lot of good and are sometimes the only draw to a site. Take for instance, living histories that are only displays of costumed interpreters and nothing else. But I also wonder if it is hurting as well.


Reenactors and costumed guides have become something laughable in popular culture. A costumed interpreter will certainly appear less credible than a tour guide in a uniform holding a binder full of their research and notes. (Something that few costumed interpreters do for the sake of not wanting to ruin the immersion experience.) 

But the main downfall of costumed interpreters is also one of their biggest strengths. They can make everything seem more like theater or a costume party, not a source of valuable research. They can also make some people feel like they shouldn't try to interact with the "actors."

Historical sites should take note of the benefits and drawbacks of costumed interpreters. Reenactors fulfill their purpose at reenactments where entertainment value is more inherent but for sites, but it is not always perfect for historical sites trying to emphasize education.

There are many ways to minimize drawbacks and reinforce the benefits of costumed interpretation:

-Have both costumed and uniformed guides. Some sites that take this approach choose to have uniformed guides explain what costumed ones are doing but others just have a good mix of both present to appeal to more visitors.

-Let the visitors dress. This is by far an expensive option not accessible to many sites but even just letting a one or two visitors slip the clothing on over their clothes as a display is enough to draw the others in and makes them feel less alienated from the guides. 

-Have your costumed guides give a little background about themselves and specifically what areas they focus on. It's much easier for visitors to accept that your guides are credible if they talk a little about their personal research areas. It also helps visitors know what particular questions to ask to whom. Guides don't have to have extensive "historical credentials" to do this either, just let the visitors know you aren't just a random person with no interest in anything historical.

What do you think of costumed interpreters or if you are a costumed interpreter have you ever experienced issues?

4 comments:

  1. This is mostly new to me... I don't think there are many sites like this in the Czech Republic, and we have MANY historical sites... I do not think any guides wear uniforms here either. Many of them are part-time summer jobs, too, and they are not necessarily researchers.
    So, in my own experience, if someone was "costumed", I might actually believe them more if the costume was good and historically accurate, and less if it was just a zipper job. Unfortunatelly, it tends to be the latter; I think the best were usually falconers, and those invite visitor interaction easily. :-)
    Otherwise, with are usual plain clothes guides, you usually can tell from the way the person speaks. I've recently had a very good experience on a mostly forgotten site (me, my sister and my friend were the only people on the tour, and the guide knew things, and answered questions with good info), and a bad experience on a very popular site (the guide said some things that were blatantly wrong, and most of the info were things you learn at school). You could tell that the one site was trying hard, and the other just riding its popularity.
    But you must bear in mind that visiting historical sites is a fairly popular leisure activity in the Czech Republic,. I'm not sure how it compares in your neck of the woods.

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    1. I agree. I've been to sites of differing credibility. There are some sites that just bank on the tourism aspect and don't really care to inform or educate at all.

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  2. As long as the costumed guide is knowledgeable, it's a good thing. And kids certainly learn from seeing someone in a period outfit.

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    1. I do think it is great for getting kids interested. Thanks for commenting!

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