The History Re-enactment Workshop, Tudor and Stuart Specialists, is a registered educational charity, which aims to promote historical knowledge by means of re-enactment of daily life and particular occurences in suitable settings, to the highest possible standards of contemporary accuracy.

hrw, h.r.w., h r w, history reenactment workshop, history re-enactment workshop, history, domestic life, period, england, britain, 16c, 17c, 16th century, 17th century, historic homes, historic houses, museum, museums, living history, costume, clothes, sixteenth, seventeenth, 1535, 1536, 1537, 1538,1539,1545, 1560, 1561, 1562, 1563, 1564, 1565, 1566, 1567, 1568, 1569, 1570, 1571, 1572, 1573, 1574, 1575, 1576, 1577, 1578, 1579, 1580, 1581, 1582, 1583, 1584, 1585, 1586, 1587, 1588, 1589, 1590, 1591, 1592, 1593, 1594, 1595, 1596, 1597, 1598, 1599, 1600, 1601, 1602, 1603, 1660, 1661, 1662, 1663, 1664, 1665, 1666, 1667, 1668, 1669, 1670, 1671, 1672, 1673, 1674, 1675, 1676, 1677, 1678, 1679, 1680, 1681, 1682, 1683, 1684, 1685, 1686, 1687, 1688, 1689, 1690, 1691, 1692, 1693, 1694, 1695, 1696, 1697, 1698, 1699, 1700, 1701, 1702, 1703, 1704, 1705, 1706, oakwell hall, blakesley hall, weald and downland, weald & downland, muchelney abbey, bolsover castle, tilbury fort, gainsborough old hall, queens house, queen's house, mary rose, plymouth, clarke hall, wimbourne minster, elizabethan, tudor, james i, james ii, charles i, charles ii, william and mary, william & mary, william of orange, henry viii, stuart, stewart

New Photo Booth to create a scene similar to a Vermeer genre painting. Take your own photograph. Now called The Scene.

From houses into homes is an article that first appeared in a "Social History in Museums", The Journal of the Social history Curators Group. Volume 19 (1992), giving an insight into the Workshop's outlook, written by one of the founding members. The version here is a later "rewrite."

This article is referenced as part of the Workshop's constitution, and was included in the application to the Charity Commission.

We are a group of enthusiasts and professionals who provide historical interpretations for museums. We specialise in two periods, the late-sixteenth and late-seventeenth centuries. Formed well over ten years ago by a group of people with a background of battle re-enactments, we were all far more attracted by civilian re-enactments. Since then the membership background has become far more divergent so we now have members with purely 'civilian' experience.

The main thrust of our re-enactments (apart from them nearly always being in a period house or building rather than a field) is that we do first-person interpretation. The people we represent talk and act as much like people of the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries as we can (with a few provisos). We also strive to represent ordinary working days in these households rather than a sequence of high dramas, although there may well be a theme we've been asked to deal with such as trade, or marriages. In these circumstances we will seek to explore how the theme affects different levels of society.

We have a wide variety of items in style appropriate to both the late-sixteenth and late-seventeenth centuries. Depending on the size and number of rooms, we can equip a kitchen, pantry, bedroom, and parlour, as well as providing a large number of tools for outdoors work such as wheelbarrows, rakes, billhooks etc. In addition we have a great deal of personal items; books, combs, shaving gear, letters, toys, etc. all of which help to provide extra atmosphere.

These items are all modern reproductions, many being specially commissioned. As we continue research over the years it has sometimes been necessary to replace items with those that are more accurate, and we constantly strive to maintain as high a standard as possible.

New Event at Harrow Museum. Celebrating their 500th year of the tithe barn and the restoration of the oldest part of the house.


"Clothing not costume" - we wear copies of period clothing, done as accurately as possible. This means that because of cost and availability we have little in the way of hand-woven cloth, but we do have home-spun knitted garments (garters etc.), and the materials used in the rest of our clothes are wool, linen, leather, and for those rich enough to justify it, silk. Clothes are hand-stitched using techniques copied from originals.


There is a good reason for including the word "workshop" in our title. Every year we have a series of learning sessions where we have visiting teachers/lecturers so that we can find out more about the technology and methods of the past, e.g. ploughing, tailoring, hurdle making, but also how we can better get this information across to the public with acting, language and trust workshops.


I did mention that there are some provisos in how we perform as people from the past. The main compromise is in the use of language. We did experiment in use of proper pronunciation and sentence structure, but found several drawbacks. Apart from being difficult and therefore open to lapses which can detract from the performance, we found this tended to create too much of a barrier between ourselves and the visiting public. If the visitors cannot understand what we say it negates the whole point of presenting a re-enactment. We therefore use modern pronunciation, and a 'watered-down' sentence structure - trying to keep enough of the period style to make it recognisably different without making it impenetrable.

The History Re-enactment Workshop (HRW) is a registered charity (number 1040799).

Live Interpretation is becoming increasingly familiar to the museum profession and visitor alike. In the past five years the technique has ceased to be solely identified with the so-called 'Living History' of jousting and civil war battle re-enactors who seek to entertain themselves and occasionally the public and has become the province of certain social historians and museum educationalists whose aim is to make history more accessible. In the United States and Canada sites using Live Interpretation have a long and successful history of co-existence with formal museums, whilst many in Britain still regard the approach as questionable. Consequently when members of the profession have sought to use the technique they have met with at best suspicion and at worst hostility. I would therefore make the point that although there may appear to be superficial similarity between the battle re-enactor and the museum or gallery interpreter in period clothing, this is illusory. Their respective approaches, aims and objectives are totally different. Live interpretation is a technique which aims to place the historical objects in their functional context against the background of the human environment.

Among the earliest examples of the use of this technique in Britain was Wigan Pier where Peter Lewis employed a small team of actors who used a mixture of scripts and improvisation to role play a variety of characters in settings appropriate to the year 1900. Here "heritage with a difference" as it was called offered performers who were "trained to record authentically the sight, sense, smell and feel of the past'.(1) This idea was also taken up by the Museum of the Moving Image where actors functioning as costumed guides were stationed in appropriate galleries and adopted an historical persona. Here the plan was to use performers "to look at the social and political background to the moving images".(2)

The approach at the Blist Hill site of Ironbridge museum was rather different as the decision was made not to employ actors, but to train a team of full-time and volunteer demonstrators in a variety of craft and performance skills and allow them to deal with visitors without the use of role play. An approach sometimes called third person interpretation. There are of course many other sites currently experimenting with Live Interpretation as a seasonal or, more rarely, full time method. Most of these experiments rely upon the use of actors as an extension of Theatre-in-Education or, like Ironbridge, are based on craft demonstrations.

Because of their approach these projects do not make use of the full potential of Live Interpretation and have been limited to specific aspects of the method rather than the full recreation of a past environment. Sadly we do not yet have a site such as Plimoth Plantation in the United States where the goal "is to recreate a true and complete portrait of life in the Plimoth Colony in the year 1628. The staff has painstakingly researched every detail of clothing, speech, work habits, house construction, furnishings, diet, livestock, family life, and any other manifestations of life that the visitors to the plantation may encounter. Interpreters bring these details to life and give them a physical and social context by acting out roles of actual Plimoth settlers". (3)

One British group which has however made use of the North American model of first person interpretation in a domestic environment, whilst also attempting to deal with many of the criticisms levelled at live interpretation is History Re-enactment Workshop (HRW). Established five years ago by a mixture of museum professionals, teachers and enthusiastic amateurs who shared a common interest in the use of live interpretation, the group specialises in domestic recreations from the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The group does not work full-time or at a single location, but instead stages events at a variety of suitable sites in England and Wales. To date these have included Tretower Court in Wales for Cadw, Gainsborough Old Hall, Blakesley Hall for Birmingham Museum Service and Oakwell Hall for Kirklees Museums.

Encouraged by enthusiastic curatorial staff, many of whom had been to sites in North America, the group took the decision to adopt the approach taken at Plimoth and to adapt it to existing British sites. At each of these sites therefore the group aims to interpret the site not to interpret in the site. " In this context, the Village [site] is viewed as a material assemblage which must be used dynamically, not passively, to convey to the visitor, first, a sense of the physical world of [the period], and then, of the culture which existed in that environment. This method in no way denies nor de-emphasises such abstract institutions as government, religion, or family life, yet such concepts must be developed interpretively within the context of the physical environment". (4) More simply the aim is to turn a house which could be lived in into a home which is being lived in. The focus of interest is always day to day activities not major national events which. to ordinary men and women are of secondary importance to their lives, conditions and relationships. For this reason the group took the decision never to portray famous people or to stage battles, both because such attempts tend to be unconvincing and battles do not reflect ordinary life experiences.

Because of the peripatetic nature of the group's work a great deal of liaison is required between the curatorial staff at the site and HRW. The purpose of this is to agree how the site is to be used and the emphasis of the event, having of course established that the form of interpretation is appropriate. Following this comes a period of research, often months, using the resources of the site, local history libraries and institutions like the Public Record Office and British Library. This culminates in the production of a pack of information for each of the participants which includes details of recent national and local events, the local economy and agriculture and for each interpreter a biography based on wherever possible an original person. The aim is to provide a complete mental map, which includes detailed local historical and geographical information and gives each individual the idea of how they fit into the hierarchy of the community only part of which will be represented physically. Much of this information will in the end never be called upon, but contributes to the body of knowledge necessary to function in a given role. Frequently it will be necessary for the role player to pretend ignorance of detailed historical information and of the economic developments and social forces shaping society. The group also holds practical, dramatic and theoretical workshops, to ensure that the members of the group can develop the trust they need to work together as a team and to reinforce skills and knowledge required to be a convincing and natural character.

Although many of the sites used by the group are equipped with, tables, beds and seating the house will need to be furnished with a wide variety of replica domestic artefacts, tools and other items to ensure that it can function as a home which can be lived in. The number of items needed is daunting and demands a good deal of careful research, because they need to be functional and to stand up to the most careful of inspection by visitors with specific knowledge. In the kitchen, for example, a full range of domestic appliances is required, many of which are not normally needed for display unless they can actually be used for demonstration cooking, as at Oakwell Hall. Inventories are the single most valuable resource for the process of deciding what is necessary, although there are still certain items which are not made as replicas. We are fortunate that thus far the group has been limited to furnishing arelatively humble property. Price, storage and transportation could otherwise prove impossible barriers. Even so thousands of pounds worth of pottery, glass and other vessels have been commissioned by the group. Each of these items must be a replica of museum quality and the group must be prepared to dispose of it if subsequent research proves that it is not historically accurate.

In addition to the artefacts he or she will use each interpreter needs to be provided with clothes which are functional and historically accurate for period and social position. In order to carry out a full daily routine they should be able to dress, shave or make up, to comb their hair and prepare for bed. For travelling or outdoor work, coats, scarves and gloves will be required. Purses and pockets need to have letters, combs, money and trinkets. Many of these will rarely be seen, but if the clothes are to avoid becoming costume they must function like the real thing. Finally time needs to be spent teaching the interpreter to wear the clothes correctly and not to compromise them with modern mannerisms and gestures. Hats are worn indoors, aprons to protect hard wearing but difficult to clean woollen fabrics from dirt and gloves and sword to convey status and rank which must be correctly understood.

The basis for every event is the actual range of activities that would have been carried out in a house of the period. The timetable is largely governed by food preparation, meals and the activities required to ensure that the property functions as a 'home', such as washing, dairying or brewing. Outdoor activities depend upon the farming activities appropriate to the time of year, no 'artificial' programme is required. However to ensure that the visitor does not miss what are among the most interesting aspects of the day, the historical clock is set two or three hours behind the real one. This means that the early visitor will be able to see labourers working at seven in the morning, servants preparing the house for the day and even the family in process of getting up washing and dressing. Initially we were reluctant to show such apparently mundane activities as these and felt that what was required was more formal or even 'staged' events. Experience has proved that for the bulk of visitors what they find interesting is the 'ordinary" or familiar. How does the process of getting washed, dressed and made-up for a seventeenth century gentlewoman compare with today? What personal and potentially embarrassing duties did a man-servant do? How was water for washing heated and even where do people go to the toilet in the middle of the night? Discussions between younger visitors and their older relatives about common experiences are some of the most valuable results of these questions. Many young people are not aware of the implications of living in a property without central heating. "Why do men wear hats indoors?" Or that every drop of water comes from a well or stream. In this way the very simplicity of the form of interpretation acts as a starting point to other questions and speculation which otherwise would never be voiced. By finding answers to these questions a visitor will achieve a sophisticated understanding of historical change. Another result of the fascination in these activities is that the visitor spends longer in the site than during days on which conventional interpretation is employed. Some visitors to the recent event at Oakwell Hall stayed all day resulting in serious crowd control problems, especially at meal times, which tend to be the most popular activity. During this time of frequently hours rather than minutes, no attempt is made to fill the site with unrealistic amounts of activity to meet the needs of visitor flow. For that reason household activities only take place if they are correct for the time of year or day of the week, we do not seek to cram the site with spinning, weaving, corn dolly making or dyeing if there is no historical basis for the process. Activities such as baking, brewing or laundering could never take place on the same day in a modest household, while dairying cannot be done at a time of year when the cows are not producing milk! Following the same rule the group does not 'station' interpreters in rooms just to ensure they are occupied for the visitor. Bedrooms are empty for much of the day and the dining room cannot be used at the same time as the parlour in a seventeenth century house. It has however proved accurate and convenient to employ the rule that the correct day of the week is used for the date, because in the 1690s what is today Saturday and Sunday was Monday and Tuesday.

On some occasions it has also been useful to emphasise a particular theme or aspect of the past such as family, work patterns or community. The success of these largely depends upon the ability of the visitor to compare his or her own experience with a similar, but subtly different, experience three or four hundred years ago. The re-enactment of a funeral of 1684 at Blakesley Hall which culminated in the reading of the original will provided a focus for a great deal of discussion about the modern attitude to death and that of the seventeenth century. The event also focused the public's attention on the way in which historical evidence, the inventory drawn up on the death of the owner in 1684, had been used to restore and furnished property.

The role of and conditions for women in the past has proved to be an aspect which is frequently returned to. This goes beyond the obvious aspects of restrictive clothing and dangerous make-up to such aspects as labour and pay, contraception, child birth and menstruation. This has done much to disprove the fallacy that topics such as these, sickness, death or domestic violence can never be tackled in live interpretation. We would never seek to show violence towards women or the effects of plague, but someone in role can discuss such aspects in their work situation or bedchamber and this can be developed through interaction with visitors who will have their own ideas and questions. Certainly the male visitor who asked a sixteenth century day labourer "Why is your wife not at home rather than working in the fields?" received a brief but telling homily on the role of the working wife in the domestic economy, relative wages, potential jobs and the effect of child birth on a family close to the bread line. At the same time such questioning shows a second strength of live interpretation over other forms of visual or oral communication. The interaction between the visitor and interpreter allows for subtle modifications of the type of information that can be given in answer to a question and the conversation that develops subsequently will be suited to the specific needs of an individual.

One potential problem of live interpretation is that a visitor who is unprepared for meeting role-playing 'performers', who are unable to speak about events after the period they are portraying, may feel confused or even intimidated. For this reason all the North American sites have an orientation centre through which the visitor must pass before entering the site proper. Here, using a slide-tape presentation and preliminary introduction by staff, the visitor is told what to expect and how to make the most of the experience.

This has not been done at most British sites with the result that at the Museum of the Moving Image the decision was taken in early 1990 to add "a display panel to its ticketing area, introducing the visitor to the actor\guides they will encounter inside".(5) This is obviously only a partial answer to the problem and does not surmount the problem of the interpreter being unable to answer questions which post-date his or her 'supposed' period. This criticism has indeed been made of Plimoth Plantation. "Because the ‘time travel’ approach allows for no anachronistic questioning about life after 1628, the past is severed from the present. The visitor is discouraged from questioning how social and material conditions in the Plimoth colony contributed to the social and material conditions we face in the present"(6) For these reasons HRW has pioneered a technique of what we call 'Red T-Shirting'. At each event between one quarter and a fifth of the group will not be performing, but instead will be wearing modern clothes with a distinctive 'T' or sweat shirt. Their role is to meet every visitor as they arrive, explain how the interpretation works and offer them a variety of ways of approaching it, perhaps following a particular role or character or stationing themselves in a specific room. Many visitors like the idea of being a modern 'ghost' following and observing without having to become drawn into the activities. To prevent the experience becoming completely passive, the Red T Shirters can also act as a catalyst for interaction between interpreters and visitors, provide a running commentary in certain situations, drawing parallels between historical and modern processes. The variations are endless and of course can be tailored to suit a particular age group or subject of interest.

One additional potential barrier to an understanding of the event is the language used. At Plimoth Plantation Dr Martyn Wakelin of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College prepared carefully researched language profiles for each person in the village. These profiles were based on early seventeenth century speech patterns and vocabulary and were varied to suit the regional origins of each of the colonists in addition to reflecting education and social class. Although we met Dr Wakelin and discussed the possibility of developing similar profiles, the peripatetic nature of the group and resistance by visitors to radically different speech patterns meant that we decided to employ a simplified system based on contemporary vocabulary. This was sufficient to evoke the period without becoming overly complex or developing into poor Shakespearian English. It is not impossible that the group may change the approach we take especially in the light of work at Clarke Hall where Tony Stevens and his staff use period language as an important part of the learning experience.

Although important, the spoken word is not the only way in which live interpretation communicates, uniquely it uses all the senses "visitors can learn about the past from, touch, smell, sounds and taste. If an exhibit exercises more than one sense the participant will have a greater chance of remembering what he or she learned" (6). A visitor walking into a site using live interpretation will have an initial experience of smell, not the polish and age of a conventional display, but wood smoke, bread, herbs underfoot, perhaps even sweat. These are not the artificial products of a scientist's test tube, but real smells the product ofcooking and hard work. The possibilities are endless, but oddly the fact that a house has a fire burning and food being cooked frequently brings the comment from the visitor that "this house is alive" not what Artur Hazelius the pioneer of Open Air Museums and LI termed "a dry shell of the past".

Following this experience the visitors find themselves in a property very different from the normal 'stately home'. Barriers have been removed and routes regulating flow abandoned, just like a real house. They find that the combination of real and replica objects means that they can handle many of the objects which would normally only be seen in a case or room setting. The opportunity is offered to pick up drinking vessels, to play with games or look under beds. Obviously distinction must be drawn between what is 'real' and what is replica. Here the role of the Red T Shirter is vital because an interpreter would have to support the view that an object was what it appeared to be. One interesting result of this is the revelation for many visitors that objects which they are used to seeing in museums as tarnished or dull were shining or bright when new and that the "room settings" they are familiar with do not represent the way in which the original user saw them.

Among the most common criticism of the whole approach is the idea that somehow live interpretation promises a return to the past. Indeed Jay Anderson, author of Time Machines, one of the most well known exponents of "living history" has said "that the past is just around the corner". No form of interpretation can promise a return to the past, what it can do is offer an interpretation of a period in time. The point is always clearly made in leaflets or press releases given out by the group and by the Red T Shirters that what is portrayed is what it might have been like, not what it was like. That does not mean that projects should not depend upon historical research or that it excuses giving a false impression of the past. Life in the past was not a comfortable romp in Merry England for the bulk of the population; it was frequently tedious and fraught with dangers we are no longer familiar with. Over the past five years HRW has demonstrated that with the right approach these aspects of the past can be can be tackled. The past does not have to be 'sanitised' and, despite some doubts about showing the mundane, the low key approach actually encourages visitors to question interpreters about other aspects of life rather than being seduced by the simple appeal of crafts. In this way the experience has proved to be akin to reading a book rather than the passive experience of watching a play or television. It is a first rather than a second hand experience which can involve those involved allowing "visitor participation, either psychological or actual" (7), allowing them to become involved in the process and to chose what they learn. Despite the view of at least one American curator that "Few visitors are equipped or disposed to question what they see and any unusual custom or activity is apt to interest them"(8) the visitors to our events have proved that they are perfectly able to tell the phoney from the real and to "focus on human behaviour....And even though museum professionals may savour the well-crafted exhibit labels "most Americans [and Britons] prefer to watch and talk with historical interpreters than read labels" making the study of history into "an active rather than passive pursuit".(9)

Of course to be of any value the three dimensional view of the past must be based on research and sound judgement, in exactly the same way as any other form of interpretation. It can never offer a view which is one hundred per cent accurate but it does not have to end up "idealizing the past and misinterpreting the present" if the project has "a solid scholarly base and strong leadership"(10). Finally what we have proved is that live interpretation can "bring exhibits to life, is an effective, often powerful, teaching technique, and any museum is wise to consider its purpose and exhibits from this point of view". (11)

(1) Leaflet, The Way We Were, Wigan Pier ,(1988)

(2) Neil Potter, quoted in Jane Malcolm-Davies, Keeping it Alive, Museums Journal (March 1990)

(3) Jo Blatti, Ed, Past Meets Present, p73

(4) James Deetz, quoted in Jay Anderson, Time Machines, p49.

(5) Jane Malcolm-Davies, News in Brief, Museums Journal (May 1990)

(6) Past Meets Present, p73

(7) Edward P Alexander, Museums in Motion, AASLA,(1980) p.200

(8) David Peterson, There is no Living History, There are no Time Machines, History News (Sept-Oct 1988),p 29

(9)Warren Leon and Margaret Piat. 'Living History Museums' in Leon and Rosenzweig, History Museums in the United States p 92

(10) ibid .p83

(11)Museums in Motion,.p.201

With thanks to Jay Anderson

An approach in which the interpreter pretends that they are living in the past and adopt the appropriate point of view. This includes wearing appropriate clothing, using period language and remaining in-role even when visitors are no longer present.

Some sites allow staff members, or selected groups to stay at a site throughout a day and follow a historically accurate routine.

Using people to simulate life in another time for the purpose of interpretation, education or research.

A term used to describe historically accurate reproductions of original artefacts. To avoid them becoming "fakes' they should be indelibly marked to distinguish them from real objects even if this compromises accuracy.

Historically accurate reproduction clothing - quite distinct from costume.

Given station in a hierarchy or social structure

The assignment of an interpreter to a particular post or location - such as a work place or area linked to their role.

An approach in which the interpreters dress and act as if they were living in the past, but do not adopt historical roles. They speak to visitors as one twentieth century person to another.


The History Re-enactment Workshop have been busy and have been filling in with The Scene, allowing visitors to dress up in Tudor and Stuart clothes and have pictures or photos taken. We have taken the Scene to many placees including the Weald and Downland open air museum, the Chiltern Open Air Museum, Salisbury museum, Kelmarsh, Stoneleigh, Kirby Hall

the History reenactment workshop have also been carrying living history in the first person at many museums including the Weald and Downland open air museum, Chiltern open air museum, Killingholme, Exeter, St Nicholas Priory, Cliveden, Sheffield, Chesterfield, Revolution house, Oakwell Hall,