Living History Museum

This is a sample chapter from In Times Past: An Encyclopedia for Integrating US History with Literature in Grades 3-8 by Carol Otis Hurst and Rebecca Otis (Order from SRA/McGraw-Hill, 1993. ISBN 0-7829-0155-7)

One of the most exciting things that has happened for students of history and the general public in recent years is the creation of living history museums. In these museums, people live and work the way they did in that area in the past, assuming the roles of real settlers. Visitors to a living museum often get a more real sense of the time by observing and interacting with the personnel than they would have by just viewing displays of artifacts or homes. The inhabitants of these villages learn the crafts and speech of the era and work for complete authenticity based on careful research.

It has occurred to us that students might create a living museum, on a much smaller scale of course, in which they would assume the roles of historical characters. With the living museum as motivation, the students will approach the necessary historical research on a much more personal and immediate level than they would if the assignment were to write a report, answer questions on a test, or even create a display.

Choose a Time and Place

* As a class, choose a year and an area of the country around which you would like to center your studies. All members of the class, including you, will learn as much as possible about that time and place in order to assume the role of a real person. The research should include finding out about times before and after the year you've chosen. It is important to learn where your characters came from, where they were headed, where their relatives were. It will also be important to know how events in other areas of the country and in other countries affected your characters, even if the characters, as individuals, were unaware of these events. However, the year and place will be the focal point.

Choose Characters

* Help the students choose from an assortment of characters for this extended role playing. Be sure that adults in the classroom choose a role as well. There are advantages to choosing a cast of characters who are not all famous. (Imagine trying to get a sense of what it is like to be a present-day American by interviewing only US senators.) There are also advantages to narrowing the field. For example, choosing many members of one extended family, neighbors on a street, or members of one organization can provide an intimate view of how the historical factors of the time might have affected their interactions. (See also Family Stories.)

* Look for names of real people in nonfiction books, other living history museums, local historical societies, and library archives. One of the most interesting sources is the genealogical records of class members. Many families have researched their ancestors and, although this can lead to a peculiar vanity, it can also lead to many real names and characters and locations for a variety of times in history.

* In order to get a more authentic cross-section, or to see history from various perspectives, make sure the cast includes members of many groups: Europeans, Black Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and immigrants of other cultures, if those people were or could have been present at the time. Include members from all socioeconomic classes.


* Classes can concentrate on one period for an entire year or change periods as the year progresses, starting with early United States history and continuing to the present.

* The class can break into groups, taking characters from different areas of the country during the same year.

* The class can move from one geographical area to others throughout the school year.

* Instead of real people of the time the students can take on roles of characters in a historical fiction book.

* Students can create characters based on what they know about people of the period in general. This might be especially appropriate when trying to include people who were not politically powerful and were not given much coverage in historical nonfiction.

* Students can invite other people to assume roles as characters: aides, librarians, principals, special teachers, school secretaries, volunteers, and any frequent visitors to the classroom.

* It might be possible to have students assume two roles, especially if they all want to be someone famous, or they might pair up, each partner assuming a different role. They can share what they learn so they can alternate roles. In fact, a class that's really involved in the project can rotate character roles among its many members.

Things to Keep in Mind

Keep in mind that many of the "real" living history museums train their interpreters in a few weeks and most of that training is background history of the period in general. It takes very little time to learn the roles of the characters once the research has been assembled.

What takes time is reflecting on how the events and lifestyles of the times might have influenced people's lives. What did they think, feel, fear, hope, and dream? One of the advantages of having each student choose a single character is that students have more time to "get into" their characters.

Anything and everything suggested in this book can add insight to the development of their characters. As the students research by reading fiction and nonfiction, by carefully examining photographs and picture book illustrations, they can ask themselves which facts might have influenced their characters. Are these facts reliable? Is there conflicting evidence? Sharing their information with other classmates will help the students evaluate facts and conflicting evidence.

Ways to Develop Characters

As they develop their characters, researchers might want to try to answer some of the following questions about their characters. There is a form that your students might find helpful. You may photocopy it for your students to use. This reference form will provide information to anyone playing the role.

Students might also keep a journal of what they are discovering and how they think the information may influence their character. The journals can include information from books, other students, teachers, films, and other outside sources.

The class might also compile its findings in a large computerized or written reference work.

The Character's Past

  • What was life like for the character's grandparents? What was going on then? What stories might the character have heard from grandparents about their past?
  • Were the character's parents peasants, workers, upper society, persecuted, or powerful?
  • What significant events shaped the character's life and the lives of people around the character?
  • If the character immigrated, what was his/her native land like? Where was it? How far away? Is there contact with people still living there? Why did the character leave? What other options did the character have?

The Character's Present

  • Where is the character during the time being studied? What are the geological features and how does the terrain affect the character's lifestyle and options?
  • What is the economy of the area? What are the political views of the people? Is there more than one cultural group in the area? How do the groups interact?
  • How do the people in the area dress?
  • What language(s) do they speak? Are they literate?
  • What do they eat? How do they cook? How do they get their food?
  • How are their homes made? To what inventions do they have access?
  • What is the character's job? What other jobs are part of the society?
  • What games does the society play? What music does it have? What other entertainment? How are these factors similar to and different from those of nearby cultures?
  • What are the society's religious views? How is its religion organized? What other religions have the people been exposed to? How do different religious groups interact? What are the laws about religion? What other beliefs do the groups hold about such things as science and ethics?
  • How are families organized? How are responsibilities and authority divided? How are children raised? What are the families' beliefs about marriage? What else do you know about the character's family and friends?
  • What is happening in other areas that influences the country at this time? In what ways (cultural, economic, political, and military) are these influences shown?
  • What are the areas of conflict that affect these people? How are they affected? How do they respond? How do their needs affect other groups? What form is the conflict taking?

Concurrent Activities

* Students can stay in character for a given period each day, becoming increasingly authentic as their research continues.

* Students might write diaries for their characters. What were the seasons like? What events were important?

* Develop skits about the characters or present problems for students to solve in character.

* A student might write a manual for future actors to guide them in playing the character.

* Create a time line that includes the life spans of the class's characters. Enter events that might have affected them. Post the time line for easy reference.

* Invite another class to visit. Receive them in character. The next day, visit their classroom in character, allowing the past to visit the future.

* Have the students write newsy letters in character to someone in a different locality. To get some ideas, read Jean Fritz's George Washington's Breakfast. (See page 192 of the print version of In Times Past.)

* Let the characters take a field trip to the future. (See Time Fantasies on page 36 of the print version of In Times Past.)

* Write a letter to your character and tell about interesting current events or inventions.

* For further suggestions for successful character activities, look through the books and activities for different time periods, approaches, and strands (in the print version of In Times Past).

* The final activity might be the reenactment of one day or incident in the lives of the characters. It might be a play, an interactive time during which observers and actors converse in character, or a guided tour of the living museum created by the students.

* The living museum can be the major showcase for a parents' night or a school fair.


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