Historical interpreters serve as time travelers in a tech-crazed modern world
By JENNIFER BARGER | Special To The Washington Post | Published: February 1, 2019
MOUNT VERNON, Va. — Elizabeth Keaney's work dress code might be stricter than yours: Her gig portraying a young Martha Washington at Mount Vernon means she spends 30 minutes a day lacing herself into corset-like linen stays with a fat needle called a bodkin and strapping on hip-exaggerating "pocket hoops." The hoops, plus petticoats full enough to make Marie Antoinette jealous, support her floor-length, full-skirted cotton gowns.
"You definitely take up more room in these clothes, but I've gotten used to it," says the history interpreter. "The first time I tested them out in my apartment, I knocked over a wine glass!"
For a little over a year, Keaney, 38, has been slipping into buckled shoes and teeny lace caps for several days a week to conjure the first U.S. first lady. She channels Martha in 1769, before the American Revolution, when the colonies — and her husband — were struggling with British taxes and pondering their freedom. On a typical day, she might give tours of the mansion grounds, conduct a chat explaining the (somewhat) meet-cute she had with George and stroll the property in a wide straw hat while fielding questions from tourists. ("Aren't you dead?" is a common one from kids who have just seen the Washingtons' on-site tomb.)
But show up at Mount Vernon a day or two later and you'll probably suffer Ye Olde Whiplash. There's another Martha Washington, this one seemingly zapped in from the National Portrait Gallery. She's got frizzy white hair, a silk gown in a wallpaper stripe, and, well, several decades on Keaney. That's Mount Vernon's other, senior-level Martha, 73-year-old Mary Wiseman, who has been on the job here since 2002. She holds court with tourists in the Interpretive Center on a stage set of sorts — a high-backed chair, a portrait of a young George and a candle flickering on a small table. Oh, and that hair? It's a wig she affixes with spirit gum.
With the hindsight of 1798 (the year her character inhabits) and in a Virginia genteel accent, Wiseman recounts memories such as joining her husband in the Valley Forge camps and playing hostess to Mount Vernon's rotating cast of houseguests — the Marquis de Lafayette, for one. A flurry of questions, often from children, follows her chat. "Did George Washington tell any lies?" asks one. "Did you have a pet?" asks another. "Yes, my father brought me a bear cub as a child, but we had to let Blackie go eventually," she replies.
Requests for photos with Wiseman come faster than musket fire. (One family brings their dog into the shot.) She obliges, joking, "Mr. Peale [Rembrandt Peale, the famed early American portrait artist] taught me all about posing!" And no, Wiseman and Keaney don't appear together in character; that'd be the stuff of science fiction. But the older woman serves as a mentor to the younger one, and they constantly trade notes and ideas.
Like other history interpreters at attractions around the country (and world), Keaney and Wiseman function as educational time travelers in a tech-crazed modern world. Some re-create famous figures in first person (such as the Marthas and Wild West gunslinger Calamity Jane in South Dakota's "Deadwood Alive"). Others suit up in throwback garb to play composite characters or types, generally hopping into third person to explain who they are and what they're up to. Depending on where you've landed, you might find deerskin-clad Wampanoag Indians at Massachusetts' Plimoth Plantation, 1920s townspeople at Den Gamle By (the Old Town) in Arhaus, Denmark, or ancient Egyptian royals at Cairo's tourist-trappy Pharaonic Village.
Some interpreters are full-time staff, others are volunteers, and a few — like the younger and older George Washingtons brought in by Mount Vernon for holiday celebrations, Presidents' Day and other functions — freelance for special events. (Yes, there several Alexander Hamilton clones who drop in at sites and events along the East Coast; no, they don't look like Lin-Manuel Miranda.)
All interpreters have similar missions: To bring dry or distant eras to crackling life. Most are history buffs or have degrees in museum education. And ideally, they've immersed themselves so deeply in their time, person or site that coming upon one seems unscripted and downright transporting. Wiseman (who played "Lady Washington" at Colonial Williamsburg before Mount Vernon), has been getting in touch with her inner Martha for so long that she can riff on everything from plantation management to 18th-century fashion. "You have to live the topic or person in your head, so when you talk about things, there's a ring of truth," she says. To get this knowledge, Wiseman reads biographies, parses George Washington's diaries and studies paintings of Martha for inspiration.
"Most of the visitors to Hearst Castle don't know much about the 1930s, and it's my secret agenda to help them learn," says Christine Heinrichs, a volunteer interpreter who suits up in feathered hats and swanky floor-length gowns to impersonate a well-heeled party guest at California's Hearst Castle. "They've usually heard of Charles Lindbergh, so I'll talk about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping or the coronation of King George VI, since people know him as Queen Elizabeth's father."
Of course, the costumes and comportment of interpreters play a big role in whether travelers buy into the whole living-history experience. "What our people wear is important, because visitors want to be transported," says Anna Altschwager, assistant director of guest experience at Old World Wisconsin, a historical park where costumed characters emulate 19th-century immigrant life amid restored antique barns and cabins. "Clothes are a gateway that get people to engage, and it's not the same if a staffer is in a polo shirt."
For the most part, especially at attractions reviving the preindustrial world, garments are stitched by hand and developed based on old house-sale inventories, existing artifacts or portraits and photographs. And putting them on, even though they aren't always yoga-pants comfortable, helps the interpreters immerse themselves in their roles. "You get into the mind space of that past time, and you step out of modern life," says Gina Palmisano, who portrays an 18th-century blacksmith at New Jersey's Allaire Village. "The costume helps you talk about things you're passionate about."
The easiest way to interact with someone in a tricorn hat or pharaoh headdress? Ask questions and indicate what you're interested in, whether that's centuries-old Egyptian farming methods or 18th-century footwear. (The Marthas have lots to say about Mrs. Washington's purple wedding shoes.) And don't be bashful. Remember, you're not the one in a powdered wig. "Some people don't know how to play the game when they see someone dressed strangely," says Garland Wood, who has been pit-sawing and hand hewing wood for 37 years as a carpenter at Colonial Williamsburg. "As an interpreter, I try to start the conversation and put them at ease, to tell them what's the same and what's different about how we operate."
Some sites invite you to join the throwback party in a tactile way, either by suiting up in historic garb or trying your hand at antediluvian crafts or trades. Near Petersburg, Virginia, at Pamplin Historical Park, guests can put on blue (Union) or gray (Confederate) uniforms, skirmish with wooden muskets and try 1860s camp "delicacies" such as hardtack (a dry cracker) and jerky at all-day or overnight Civil War Adventure Camps. Living History Farms in Urbandale, Iowa, offers sewing classes with costumed teachers.
In the end, "I don't think the living history field should be some anachronistic 'let's preserve this in amber' thing," Altschwager says. "If you can interact with someone from the past, or even join them doing something — we let guests card wool, cook or help on our farm — it doesn't feel like a lecture. It's more like playing Oregon Trail in real life."
If you go:
1. Colonial Williamsburg
101 Visitor Center Dr., Williamsburg, Va.
The restored capital of colonial Virginia boasts 88 original or reconstructed 18th-century buildings, including a 1660 church, taverns, homes and trade shops. You'll encounter historic interpreters and craftspeople throughout the 300-plus-acre living history museum, and there are "Visits with a National Builder" several days a week, when you can chat with someone playing the Marquis de Lafayette or Thomas Jefferson. Single-day tickets $20.49 to $40.99; winter single-day tickets $13 to $25.99; multiday tickets $25.49 to $50.99; winter multiday tickets $16.50 to $32.99.
2. "Deadwood Alive"
715 Main St., Deadwood, S.D.
Living history troupe in boots, hats and 19th-century dress performs faux shootouts on Main Street and a re-created trial (admission: $3 to $6) of gunslinger "Wild Bill" Hickok.
3. Den Gamle By (the Old Town)
Viborgvej 2, 8000 Aarhaus C, Denmark
Seventy-five historical structures from all over Denmark emulate life in the 19th century, the 1920s and the 1970s. Costumed interpreters interact with tourists throughout the park.
4. George Washington's Mount Vernon
3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Hwy., Mount Vernon, Virginia
The 18th-century family home of the first president offers tours of the furnished house, a museum about the first president's life and times, a working farm, grist mill and distillery. History interpreters include family members, slaves and farm hands.
5. Hearst Castle
750 Hearst Castle Rd., San Simeon, California
Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst's art-stuffed and grandiose Spanish-style, 20th-century estate just off the California coast boasts 165 rooms, 123 acres of gardens and opulent pools. Evening and holiday tours of the estate often star glamorously decked out interpreters recreating a 1930s party.
6. Historic Village at Allaire
4263 Atlantic Ave., Farmingdale, New Jersey
In buildings and grounds that once supported a 19th-century ironworks, costumed interpreters practice blacksmithing, leather crafting and other trades. Also hosts hands-on workshops in tinsmithing, hearth cooking and more.
7. Living History Farms
11121 Hickman Rd., Urbandale, Iowa
A 500-acre open-air museum summons 300 years of Iowa history via recreations of a Native American farm, a pioneer homestead and other sites.
8. Old World Wisconsin
W372 S9727 Hwy. 67, Eagle, Wis.
This almost 600-acre, open-air museum explores the lives of immigrant populations in Wisconsin from the 1840s to the 1910s. Relocated farm structures and town buildings plus outdoor areas are home to multiple third-person interpreters, and visitors can do hands-on activities, such as gathering eggs on a farm and trying on hoop skirts and wooden shoes.
9. Pharaonic Village
3 Al El Bahr Al Aazam, Giza Governorate, Cairo
Cheesy-but-enjoyable Cairo park where motorized barges chug past staffers dressed as ancient mummy-makers, farmers and more. There's even a section where tourists can don imitation headdresses and snap photos.
10. Plimoth Plantation
137 Warren Ave., Plymouth, Mass.
Interpreters dressed as 17th-century English colonists and traditionally garbed Wampanoag tribe members populate a zone of wooden cabins, traditional Native dwellings and a grist mill.