Living History into the Present

To celebrate Veteran’s Day, I chaperoned an annual field trip that my children’s school takes to Plimoth Plantation, in Plymouth, MA, a living history museum which seeks to recreate the atmosphere of the first permanent English settlement in the New World on a site very close to that of the original settlement. The school staff and I have an ongoing joke that we almost prefer to have real and deep conversations with these folks faking the seventeenth century over the usual trite and sometimes fake conversations we find ourselves having with the real (or at least living) people of the 21st century. What is it about our own sense of history which is so lacking that we have to pay actors to help us re-imagine the past?

Perhaps we feel too far above or beyond it. What’s past is past, and no amount of effort we make can change it. Better to live for the future, whatever that might mean. But how can we hope for a better future without a sufficient grounding in history, something more than the mere record of past events? History, we find, is very much the narrative of what is present, the story which comprises our identity now in the world.

A living history museum like Plimoth really smacks you in the face and makes you realize that all those cherished modern notions of cultural and intellectual superiority wear rather thin in the face of an age without internet or iPhones. You can feel free to argue or disagree with the characters in this colonial New England village, but it becomes quickly apparent whose opinions are well-informed and whose are based on a loose conglomeration of sound-bites and Twitter factoids. When asked inane modern questions like, “What do you do for fun?” the town minister William Brewster does not even understand the question. When “entertainment” is substituted for the word “fun”, the good preacher brightens up and talks excitedly about reading his precious and rare library of 4-5 books, mostly works of Theology.

C.S. Lewis advocates for the study of history…

Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.
Introduction to St. Athanasius On the Incarnation

Clearly, faults and prejudices abound in Plimoth, but they are not the faults and prejudices of 21st century America. Living in this history for an afternoon makes a person much more aware of his place in the present.

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