How do spectacles like historical re-enactments help place us at the scene of a major historical event? By using sensory stimulation, historic sites ensure visitors keep coming back (in time) for more.
I love military re-enactments. There’s just something about showing up at a historic fort and catching sight of thousands of redcoats, canvas tents, musket fire and cannon blasts that offers pure indulgence for any history buff, especially one who grew up in the Upper Canada region. I’ve been involved with the history of the War of 1812 since I was a kid, having slept in the soldiers’ barracks at Fort York (Toronto, ON) twice for Girl Guides camp. Later, as a teenager, I started volunteering at the Fort; I also wrote my IB Programme thesis on Tecumseh’s Indigenous Confederacy before and during the War of 1812.
During the bicentennial commemorations of the War of 1812, I could be found at the Battle of Queenston Heights, the taking of Fort George, and the Battle of York re-enactments. It’s been six or seven years since I last attended an event, so when I returned to Fort George yesterday it felt like a long-awaited homecoming.
These kinds of events tend to draw a huge crowd, for obvious reasons – the performances are almost like 200-year-old action movies. People love loud bangs and smoke, music, and (I say with a wry smile) violence – all of which are sensational elements of performance. Complete with lemonade served in a corked glass bottle, regimental fife and drum corps, and a sutler’s row, the immersion level at Fort George yesterday was off the charts.
Military re-enactments offer the sights, sounds and smells of battle, which, though a dynamic and exciting prospect, should also be treated with respect. The Battle of Fort George re-enactment included a lament performed by the musical corps to honour the victims of the war who fought and died at the site – as well as Indigenous peoples who supported either the British or the Americans and yet were not compensated with their promised outcomes. Certainly, military conflict isn’t actually something to shout “huzzah!” about – it’s a grim product of colonial interests. But by portraying early military combat at the original site of its happening, interpreters and re-enactors can educate visitors on the scale, impact, and ongoing legacies of battles.
Re-enactment is an active form of interpretation which immerses the visitor and offers what I call a “passive” visitor experience – passive in a way that indicates that on-site interpretation is excellent. The more organically information is presented to me as a visitor, the less I have to work to picture the historic site in use – meaning I can be passive during the learning process since I’m provided with plenty of interpretation and storytelling. I don’t even need to read text during a re-enactment – I’m shown, not told, what happened. The spectacle aspect creates emotional reactions, and the impressive visuals are what I remember. At the Battle of Queenston Heights re-enactment, when British-Indigenous leader John Norton (Teyoninhokarawen) emerged to lead the Mohawk warriors into battle, the audience applauded its heartiest – something which intrigued me, and which I haven’t ever forgotten.
There are numerous complicated perspectives in the War of 1812, and it can be a lot to grasp. What I found excellent at this year’s Fort George re-enactment was the commentary provided throughout. When the two interpreters first started narrating the battle, I thought it would be annoying, but it was actually so informative. I learned tactical insights about what was happening on both sides – the invading American contingent and the defending British & Indigenous forces. Visitors from both sides of the border had come to attend, and I found that hearing the context imparted valuable knowledge to the audience, myself included. It also demonstrated the re-enactors’ commitment to authenticity, as actions such as “flanking” the invaders were explained, and so on. It gave the battle meaning, and I felt confident I could then share my tactical understanding of the history with others in the future.
Re-enactments animate historic sites, meeting visitors where they’re at – in the 21st century. I didn’t have to struggle to picture the broad expanse of grass as a battlefield because it became one, simulated before my eyes. I was transported into the early 19th century, with historic vendors selling historic wares and wearing historical clothing. And the re-enactors themselves get to explore historical research in a thoroughly hands-on way – stepping into the soldiers’/warriors’ shoes and living history.
That’s why I jump at the chance to go. I get to witness history … or at least the closest thing to it.