Each year, History Alive (June 12-13, 2010) gathers re-enactor groups from around Brisbane to one place at one time to show off. The groups involved span pretty close to the entire timeline of human history from the Near East of about 2000 BC to the very recent past. As well as being loud, colourful and a great day out, it gives a very clear snapshot of the state of living history groups in Queensland.
The first people I encountered on the day was Contact Front, the Vietnam re-enactment group, walking through around the site in skirmish line in silence and communicating only by hand signals. This was actually quite confronting and I know there’s some debate over whether it’s too soon after the event for such a group.
Members of the Ludi Gladiatorii Romani were practicing knife fighting, under instructions and with dummy weapons, in their camp enclosure. This was interesting and I would have liked to have chatted with these guys to find out more about them but there was no one available who was not fighting.
In the main arena, any number of supposedly medieval groups in period costume flailed away at each other with swords in a thoroughly pointless display of stupidity. These guys know nothing of period fencing and many cannot even hold their weapons effectively. They are nothing more than drinking clubs who wear funny clothes.
Once this dross was cleared away, the Australian Napoleonic Association and similar groups gave a demonstration of fire and movement early nineteenth century style. The were using black powder muskets and, even though there was less than a dozen soldiers per side, the field was soon obscured by smoke as they by turns advanced or retreated in line and good order. Surprisingly, the French lost.
They were followed by Prima Spada School of Fence performing a skit about dueling in the Renaissance, starting with a insult given (almost) unintentionally in the street and proceeding to naked blades at dawn. Then they got silly and it dissolved into an all-out brawl.
The question I kept asking myself as I toured the site, the groups and watched the various events is what do these people want visitors to get out of their display. For the most part, I had trouble understanding or discovering what the lesson each group or display intended to me to learn.
There seems to be no value proposition presented to the audience other than “oh, look at the pretty costumes and the people acting silly.” There is nothing to draw people in and get them interested in history. The whole event is entire passive and a spectator sport. It’s just too easy to change channels and do something else. In short, everyone seemed happy just to say “we’re re-enactors and we’re here to stay” – like a pride march for history nerds.
And there’s the rub. From the apparent age of the re-enactors, they’re not here to stay for very long. Unless something is done to introduce new people into the fold, the entire re-enactment movement is liable to die a slow, withering death.
In order to avoid this fate, something needs to be done to, for instance, convert the public who attend History Alive and other events into paid up members of all groups which take their historical fancies. There needs to be more engagement with the public. There needs to be a program of getting the public involved, of teaching them about history, and of explaining to them what we find so cool about the past. We need to turn them into us.