History re-enacted: A teacher's guide to costumed interpreters around the UK

By Elizabeth White | 25 June 2009
Photo of a young woman looking up at an aeroplane

An award winning costumed interpreter at the Museum of Science and Industry. Courtesy MOSI

If you want to make history a more vivid experience for your class, then visiting a heritage site and meeting a costumed interpreter could be the answer.

Rather than just reading historical facts in a textbook, meeting a costumed interpreter can really bring a historical period alive and bring particular details into sharper focus.

From the domestics of Henry VIII’s court, to the experiences of a soldier in the Roman army, meeting a costumed character can help your students understand their specific personality and role. It provides the immediacy and believability that many pupils need in order to listen, question and understand.

The following takes a good look at a selection of historically innovative sessions on offer throughout the UK, keeping in mind the most popular topics on your history syllabus.

Romans

Try the Crafty Romans Discovery Visit at Birdoswald Roman Fort. It stands high above a meander in the River Irthing, in one of the most picturesque settings on Hadrian's Wall. A Roman fort, turret and milecastle can all be seen on this excellent stretch of the Wall.

A visit will result in children coming face to face with a Roman soldier in full uniform and they will be able to ask questions to find out about life in the Roman army. Guided tours of the site offers the chance to also handle objects.

Three different activity sessions are also available. Making replicas of Roman helmets involves discussion about uniform, armour and weapons; jewellery-making explores dress, and wealth and mosaic-making focuses on homes and style.

Tudors

English Heritage organises what they call Discovery Visits for Schools. Their sites have an amazing range of costumed interpreters, available to book throughout term time. A typical visit to Cleve Abbey in Somerset brings to life the experiences monks would have had during Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries.

The uncertainty of the monks’ situation is made very real to pupils who get the chance to dress up in monks’ habits and, through drama re-enactment, explore what a monk’s life under Henry VIII was like.

children dressed up as monks

School children dress up as monks at Cleve Abbey, courtesy of English Heritage

Peter Hossent, former drama advisor and leader of session the 'Dissolution drama: will Henry break the habit?' at Cleeve and Muchelney Abbeys, says: "Drama is an effective way of getting into history. It’s feelings and experiences that are important.

"Through them children experience what it was really like to be a certain person at a certain time and the true story of a place can be brought alive."

After the visit, one teacher had this to say: "Peter helps pupils truly feel the part by dressing them in monks’ robes, asking them to make 'still pictures' of a monk’s work, study and worship and engaging them in moments of high drama such as the arrival of a messenger who threatens to take their treasure and destroy the monastery."

children dressed up as monks

School children dress up as monks at Cleve Abbey. Courtesy English Heritage

Steph Haxton, English Heritage Education Manager for Cornwall and historical education consultant/living history advisor, says: "Re-enactment is a brilliant way to teach. It engages children who then become interested and start listening to what you say."

English Heritage actively promotes these visits to schools because of the educational benefits they offer. In their "information for schools" document they say:"Ofsted (October 2008) found that well planned outside the classroom activities improved young people’s development in all five of the Every Child Matters outcomes and that it can also help to re-engage pupils who find motivation difficult."

The report also points to the The Department for Children, Schools and Families’ 'Out & About' package of web-based support and evidence, which helps schools develop, run and evaluate challenging outside the classroom experiences for all young people.

Tudor woman cooks food

A scullery woman demonstrates cooking Tudor style at Boscobel House. Courtesy English Heritage

Hampton Court Palace has a fantastic range of educational visits to choose from. For key stage 2, they offer workshops that cover specific history units on your syllabus.

Pupils can explore court life for both rich and poor under Henry VIII with a costumed interpreter or dress up in replica costume and examine the fabrics used to make Tudor court dress.

Pupils can pursue a more culinary interest by assisting the kitchen workers make dishes for the court and get a feel for the types of food Henry VIII would have eaten while also finding out about the lives of these workers.

For a personal account of a visit to the Palace, and involvement in the re-enactment of Henry’s marriage to Kateryn Parr, visit Culture24 travels back in time for a Tudor royal wedding.

Tudor guard

A Tudor guard talks to a group of children at Boscobel House. Courtesy English Heritage

"We offer two types of Tudor costumed interpreters, courtiers and kitchen interpreters," says David Souden, Head of Access and Learning for Historic Royal Palaces.

"The key to their success is that they animate the historic space. The pupils can see the specific historic space brought alive by the costume and the tactile delivery. What we have to offer is the unique selling point of place, story and character. A believable character, who comes alive and can answer spontaneous questions about their life."

Historic Scotland offer visits to many sites, but particularly appealing are the Junior Guide Tours, which take place at Claypotts Castle, Doune Castle, Stanley Mills and Linlithgow Palace.

While some of these tours are focused more generally on exploring life in a castle, Linlithgow Palace offers a Mary Queen of Scotts tour delivered by junior guides - pupils from local primary schools who have been trained to deliver costumed guided tours of ‘their’ historic site for other visiting primary school groups.

They will lead your pupils into the past and help them discover what life was like at that time.

Victorians

For your Victorian project, your class can see classic Victorian cars, bikes, costumes and steam engines grind into motion at the Great Garratt Gathering at MOSI from August 14 - 16 2009.

Keen students of the Victorian era will be able to meet and interact with characters wearing great vintage costumes, such as bloomers, and witness these fabulous machines in action.

The event also offgers the chance to meet Mr and Mrs Chadwick and MP William Huskisson, rail travellers from the 1830s, and discover the trials and tribulations of travelling by train on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway.

man on bike

A Victorian cyclist demonstrates his skill at MOSI. Courtesy MOSI

If you are studying the early Victorian period, an informative experience is on offer at the Old Royal Naval College. You can meet John Deman a sailor from Nelson’s fleet, and hear about his gruelling journey from the Caribbean to Britain.

Pupils will find out about life at sea as well as his life as Greenwich Hospital pensioner and the crimes and punishments in the hospital at that time. The interactive workshop includes role-play, trying on replica costumes and a visit to a real Victorian skittle alley.

Photo of a man talking to children

John Deman, a Victorian sailor, talks to children. Courtesy Old Royal Naval college

A year 3 teacher who attended a previous session with her class explains: "It gave the children a good insight into a black sailor’s life. It linked very well with Black History Month and Victorian Britain…The actor was great and the bowling alley a great success!"

Showing two boys with gas mask

Two schoolboys in a World War Two handling session at Bewdley Museum. Picture courtesy of Bewdley Museum

Second World War

Finally, if the Second World War is your area of interest, the Blitz is brought fearfully to life at Bewdley Museum’s Blitz and Evacuation programme.

This is a hands-on session where a costumed interpreter introduces you to life on the Home Front.

The discomfort and fear of putting on gas marks and going into their on-site air raid shelter is re-created brilliantly; pupils are then led to the local railway station and sent on a simulated ‘evacuation’ journey.

Showing school children dressed as evacuees on a train

School children dressed as evacuees on a train journey. Picture courtesy of Bewdley Museum

Feedback on the experience has been very positive with one teacher saying: "An excellent programme of activities. Being dressed as evacuees and using the gas masks and identity cards made it even better.

"The activities planned and delivered were brilliant - the children enjoyed them and their learning was reinforced."

This is just a snapshot of the costumed interpreter experiences on offer at museums and other cultural venues around the UK. Why not contact your local museum and see what they have to offer? You can find contact details in our Places to Go section.