What Is Live Costumed Interpretation?

Across this blog, all sorts of historical storytelling is discussed, but we are particularly interested in the practice of Live Costumed Interpretation (LCI).

If you’re wondering what that is, read on!

What Is It?

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Kathy Hipperson

“The simplest way to explain it is to say that I dress in the costume of a particular era and engage visitors to a heritage site by, basically, pretending to be a historical character.” (Lauren Johnson, talking on Mother’s Always Right)

LCI has three defining elements:

1) Live. LCI has to be live. Visitors are not watching an Audio-Visual presentation, or listening to an audio guide, or leafing through a guide book, or reading information boards. They are watching real people invoking the real people of long ago. If history is a human construct, then I think it is one of the best ways to portray history. When a group of interpreters know their history and know how to work a crowd, LCI is an incredible, interactive visitor experience. Visitors may laugh, even cry; they almost undoubtedly learn something and are usually thoroughly entertained. I’ve even seen visitors faint or throw up, which, whilst perhaps not the ideal reaction, demonstrates the incredibly immersive nature of LCI.

2) Costumed. Practitioners will dress in dress in period appropriate clothing. The authenticity and the quality of these costumes can vary, dependent on company and site, but the over-arching point is to create an immersive environment in which visitors can see what these historic houses and buildings may have looked like when they were lived in. And unlike a portrait, visitors can see the back of the clothes! They can see how you move in them! They can touch them and smell them (especially in the summer) and ask you if you are hot in them (yes, yes we are. It’s 29 degrees, we’re standing in direct sunlight and are covered in velvet and fur.)

3) Interpretation. Interpreters, who can be a wide variety of backgrounds – actors, educators, musicians, museum professionals, academics, re-enactors – use their skills as entertainers, researchers and historians to explain and bring to life historical buildings, eras or moments. Interacting with LCI professionals can be educational and unforgettable. A former housemate chose her degree thanks to a troupe of LCI professionals coming to her school when she was 8 to teach about the Romans. LCI isn’t just people in costume; it should interpret, explain, educate, inspire and make a site accessible for everyone. LCI sits under an umbrella with re-enactment and museum theatre, but it is this interpretation element which truly merits its worth.

Annie Gray

Why do we think it is such a good way to interact with visitors? “What is brilliant about historical interpretation [is]…it is not theatre, it is not a history lesson or a library class, it is its own thing; and when it is done well it is absolutely phenomenal.” (Research conducted for unpublished Masters, 2015). LCI is a fairly unexamined aspect of museum education and heritage interpretation, which, when done well, has extraordinary potential.

In the past, LCI has been “praised for….historical research…but damned as frivolous show-business entertainment” (Leon and Piatt 1989:64). When research, costume and performance skills all come together in a perfect LCI moment, it can be entertaining, light hearted, affecting, surprising, challenging – never frivolous.

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