'Living history' is making a comeback at some Maryland museums

Historical Society, Jewish Museum among the institutions using actors to enhance exhibits

  • Chris Davis gives students a tour of the museum. Behind him is a scenic view of Harper's Ferry painted by Augustus C. Weidenback in 1863. At the Maryland Historical Society, The Maryland Historical society Players bring to life the displays in the museum about the Civil War for middle and high school theatre students.
Chris Davis gives students a tour of the museum. Behind him is… (Perna, Algerina, Baltimore…)
July 10, 2011|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

In the shadow of Abraham Lincoln memorabilia, John Wilkes Booth will tell anyone who'll listen just why that tyrant had to be assassinated.

Supporting himself on a wooden crutch, a decidedly agitated Booth, his voice rising to match the fierceness in his eyes, rants about the war and how it ended. "My genteel South, gone," he says, seemingly on the verge of a sob.

He goes on to relate the events of that night at Ford's Theatre, the leap from the presidential box and the escape through Maryland that eventually led him to a barn in Virginia, surrounded by Union troops. When he's finished his story, he bows to acknowledge the applause.

Yes, they're clapping for John Wilkes Booth these days at the Maryland Historical Society.

Actually, that's Christopher Kinslow, who is pretty close to a spitting image of Booth. He's one of the Maryland Historical Society Players, a new project created as part of its latest exhibit, "Divided Voices: Maryland in the Civil War."

It has been years since the museum featured live actors interpreting history.

"Living history used to be very popular here," says Harriet Lynn, founder of Heritage Theatre Artists' Consortium, who produced a museum theater piece about quilts at the Maryland Historical Society in 1994. "It's wonderful to see it back."

This Civil War venture, co-directed by Lynn, presents visitors with actors portraying Harriet Tubman, who recounts the story of the Underground Railroad; a couple of fictional Baltimoreans who witness the Pratt Street Riots from a telegraph office; and Christian Fleetwood, a free black man in the Union army who was awarded the Medal of Honor.

"It's about helping people make a connection to the material," says Lucretia M. Anderson, who has the role of Tubman.

Termed "museum theater" or "living history," the practice of enhancing displays of art and artifacts with live performance is perhaps most readily identified with Colonial Williamsburg, where costumed interpreters of history inhabit nearly every nook and cranny.

Theatrical presentations are now found at museums throughout the country.

"We think of it as one of the tools to get visitors really talking about history, talking to us and to each other while they are at the museum and when they go home," says Christopher Wilson, director of daily programs at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. "It's inspiring a dialogue about the past and its relevance to the present."

At that museum, visitors can take part in the re-creation of a workshop on nonviolence in conjunction with the exhibit of the Woolworth's lunch counter where the civil rights sit-in took place in 1960. There are also periodic "Time Trials," in which controversial figures of the past, such as Benedict Arnold and John Brown, present their cases before the audience.

"We think theater is very good at dealing with issues like that," Wilson says. "People are comfortable with getting at emotions through theater."

In Baltimore, performances were a mainstay at the 1840 House, a part of the Baltimore City Life Museums that was sold off in 1999. Over the years, several other venues, including the Walters Art Museum and the Flag House & Star-Spangled Banner Museum, have offered theatrical presentations.

They have also been done for about a decade at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, where performances flesh out stories of Jewish immigrants who came to Baltimore.

"It's a wonderful education tool," says program director Ilene Dackman-Alon. "I've seen it work at the museum, as outreach to schools and at a senior center. To see seniors watching it with tears in their eyes is amazing. The value of living theater is huge. It helps the audience feel connected."

The Jewish Museum is discussing a future theatrical project with the Maryland Historical Society about a prominent Jewish man whose sons fought at Fort McHenry.

"There are so many things we can be doing," she says. "The possibilities are endless. Of course, it costs a lot of money."

Dale Jones, wrote and co-directed the short plays being performed at the Maryland Historical Society, founded the Maryland-based Making History Connections to help promote museum theater.

"It has a reputation for being expensive," he says, "but it doesn't have to be. Script production can cost from $500 to $10,000, for example. You can do a six-month run of performances on weekends for about $5,000."

Jones produced numerous programs for the Baltimore City Life Museums and has written scripts and directed productions for such places as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts.

Last year, he created a museum theater piece for Fort Delaware, where Confederate prisoners were held during the Civil War. "Audiences stayed for 45 and 50 minutes afterward to ask questions," Jones says. "There's a fair amount of research showing that museum theater is a great way to get emotions across to people, making connections to the history."

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