Outdoor History Museums

Living History Farms Spring 2009. Photo credit: billnwmsu, Creative Commons.

Outdoor history museums are immersive historical environments created by collections of buildings that might be preservations, restorations, or replicas. Thinking about the term broadly, outdoor history museums can refer to living history farms, agricultural museums, pioneer museums, or even “open-air museums.” It is what happens in these environments, however, that makes them a powerful lens through which to explore issues of inclusion, equity, diversity, and service.

As they developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, outdoor history museums were expressions of two sometimes competing impulses. On the one hand, they challenged established museum collections practices by displaying the material culture of ordinary people. On the other, many founders used them to promote a nostalgic version of the past that ignored painful and difficult histories. Starting in the 1970s, outdoor history museum administrators and frontline employees transformed these sites by adding more historically accurate interpretations. Often, historical accuracy meant interpreting painful and traumatic pasts. At the same time, the use of living history, or performing the past, became increasingly popular at outdoor history museums. In some cases, outdoor history museums developed programs that used living history to engage audiences in some of our nation’s most fraught histories. While some of these efforts were lauded, others were met with criticism and concern from both audiences and interpreters. Administrators, frontline employees, and audiences began conversations that continue today about how to interpret diverse and inclusive pasts in an ethical way that serves both the public and employees.

Origins and Early History

A brief discussion of the history of outdoor history museums highlights how the dual and sometimes conflicting goals of educating and entertaining audiences have shaped the outdoor history museum experience. The origins of the outdoor history museum idea can be traced to the mid-nineteenth century. Echoes of the form can be found in historic house museums and the New England kitchen exhibits at Sanitary Fairs. Another form of the outdoor history museum approach can be seen at the 1867 World’s Fair in Paris where participating nations were invited to display their architecture and folk culture. Swedish folklorist Artur Hazelius was in attendance and went on to open what is widely recognized as the first outdoor history museum, Skansen, in 1891. Hazelius hoped to democratize museum collections by displaying the material culture of the wealthy alongside that of ordinary people. He was also driven by a desire to provide a cultural grounding for Swedes as they experienced the transformations of the industrial revolution, which was reflected in his motto: “Know Thyself.” The Skansen model proved quite popular in Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany, where numerous outdoor history museums were established during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.[i]

The Growth of Outdoor History Museums in the United States

In the United States, the earliest outdoor living history museums were founded by wealthy industrialists. These men sought to solidify their interpretation of the past using the built environment. In 1929, Henry Ford opened Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, just a short drive from downtown Detroit and adjacent to the Rouge, at the time the largest factory in the world. The Village included over 90 buildings (some preserved, some replicas) all of which predated the automobile. The centerpiece was a re-creation of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory. Ford wanted to celebrate middle-class farmers and inventors whom he believed were left out of written histories. He moved buildings, such as the home and bicycle shop of the Wright Brothers, as well as his own birthplace to the Village. Ford also moved several buildings representing African American history, including two brick slave cabins. Greenfield Village was ahead of its time because it venerated vernacular architecture, but histories of conflict, especially the conflicts between labor and capital, were absent. This kind of forgetting was endemic in the earliest iterations of outdoor history museums.

In the same period, Episcopal priest W.A.R. Goodwin had approached Ford about the possibility of restoring Williamsburg, Virginia to its colonial glory to boost the town’s economy through heritage tourism, but he passed on this invitation and instead focused on Greenfield Village. Goodwin found an interested patron in John D. Rockefeller, Jr. After purchasing Williamsburg from its residents, Rockefeller hired professional architecture firm Perry, Shaw, and Hepburn to preserve, restore, and recreate the town as it was in the eighteenth century. Rockefeller believed that Americans were losing sight of their cultural and political origins and saw the site as a way to shore up democratic patriotism. Unlike Greenfield Village, Colonial Williamsburg recreated a real place and a specific moment in time. When it opened to the public in 1934, the site’s approach to preservation became a model for best practices in preservation work. The Colonial Williamsburg project came at a cost, however, especially to many of Williamsburg’s working-class and black residents who were forced to relocate or leave the town altogether. Despite the fact that in the eighteenth century much of Williamsburg’s population was enslaved, that history was ignored in the interpretation. In fact, the Colonial Williamsburg workforce was segregated and the site essentially denied service to African American tourists by refusing to provide separate accommodations at hotels and restaurants.[ii]

By the end of the 1950s, several outdoor history museums had opened in the United States including The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York (1944), Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts (1947), Old Salem, in North Carolina (1950), Historic Deerfield in Massachusetts (1952), and Plimoth Plantation (1957). Although they continued to be limited in the histories they communicated, many began to experiment with living history interpretation. The model was first used at Pioneer Village in Salem, Massachusetts (1930) when interpreters wore Puritan clothing and demonstrated seventeenth-century crafts. This third-person living history approach was also adopted at Old Sturbridge Village. At Plimoth Plantation, interpreters took it a step further, performing in first-person as famous figures like William Bradford, John and Priscilla Alden, and Miles Standish.

Changing Interpretive Models

The establishment of the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM) in 1970 indicated the popularization and professionalization of interpretation at outdoor history museums. Through annual conferences, bulletins, skills workshops, and other publications, ALFHAM has provided countless resources for professionals who seek to “bring history to life.” According to the organization’s website, “at the heart of ALHFAM’s mission is the responsibility to share practical knowledge and skills among those who make history relevant to contemporary lives.” Consequently, the organization provides invaluable and extensive resources for both their members and the general public who aim to better understand living history and living history farms.[iii]

The 1970s brought the tensions between entertainment and education at outdoor history museums to the fore. The employment of more academically trained historians at outdoor history museums led to challenges and changes to some of the interpretive practices at established sites like Colonial Williamsburg and Greenfield Village. For example, during the 1970s, Dr. Cary Carson led a team of scholars to develop a new interpretive program for Colonial Williamsburg that addressed criticisms that the site offered a sanitized version of the nation’s history. And in 1979, six African Americans were hired to interpret the history of enslavement. Under the leadership of Dr. Harold K. Skramstad, Greenfield Village also overhauled its interpretive plan. Historical research changed the interpretation of several buildings, a new African American Family History and Culture program was established, and a new living history farm opened. The expanded and more historically accurate interpretations of the past created more opportunities for education, but also raised new questions about how to ensure audiences departed with the intended message.[iv]

The decision to recreate a slave auction at Colonial Williamsburg brought these questions into sharp relief. In 1994, Christy Coleman, director of Colonial Williamsburg’s African American interpretation program, organized a performance titled Publick Times. Local African American political and religious groups opposed the event before it even began, arguing that performance trivialized a traumatic and painful history. Members from the Virginia branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) arrived on the day of the performance to protest. After witnessing the auction, NAACP political action director Jack Gravely changed his mind, explaining that the event had made the pain of enslavement real. But SCLC member Reverend Curtis Harris said that it was “a show, not an authentic history.”[v]

Conner Prairie in Fishers, Indiana has also been lauded and criticized for its experimental living history program, “Follow the North Star.” Conner Prairie interprets pioneer life through an 1886 farm and since the 1990s has also focused on the history of indigenous peoples. In 1999, staff member Michelle Evans worked with black leaders in Indianapolis to develop a ninety-minute program called “Follow the North Star” for visitors twelve years of age and older. Visitors played the role of fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad and interpreters were either “sympathetic allies” or “racist antagonists.” Four years later, the program won an Excellence in Programming Award from the American Alliance of Museums and in 2012 it received an Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH). But the program also drew criticism. Some white audiences reportedly giggled during the program and there were accusations that the program could be a traumatic experience for children of color. In response to criticisms, Conner Prairie CEO Norman Burns announced that it would “update” the program to “reflect the learning and needs of today and tomorrow’s audiences” in 2019. Burns explained that the new program would be reorganized in partnership with the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience. [vi]

Many have noted that these experiments with living history can have complicated effects not only on audiences but also on interpreters. African Americans who interpret enslavement at Colonial Williamsburg often describe their feelings about their work as complex. As James Oliver Horton explained, the “prestige attached” to being an interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg is accompanied by the “somber realization that their workday centers on ‘playing slaves’ for a public audience that is often unsympathetic.” Thus, black and white interpreters frequently discuss the range of feelings that arise. Amy M. Tyson examined the cost of this kind of “emotional labor” in her study of Historic Fort Snelling in St. Paul, Minnesota. In 2008, the Fort began to expand its focus on military history to include histories of enslavement and American colonialism. Tyson explains that some interpreters were reluctant to share these histories because they sought to create a positive, meaningful connection with visitors. When interpreters did share the traumatic and painful histories of the Fort, the emotional cost was high. Further, she asserts, “between demonstrating tasks like blacksmithing or laundry, drawing meaningful connections across time, and monitoring their own and the visitors’ emotional states, interpreters engaged in presenting painful histories might find themselves working . . . on an ever-accelerating assembly line of emotional production.” These increasing demands on frontline employees are rarely, if ever, met with adequate compensation.[vii]

Best Practices and the Visitor Experience

Professionals working at outdoor history museums continue to work toward emphasizing the educational experience by honing living history techniques and developing best practices. In 2009, AASLH, the Institute for Learning Innovation, Conner Prairie Living History Museum, and Old Sturbridge Village engaged in an expansive study of visitors through a leadership grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services titled “The Outdoor Living History Museum Interpretation Research Project.” The goals of the study were to test the best practices used at each site and to understand how the visitor experience at outdoor living history museums changed over time. The study of visitors included not only on-site questionnaires and interviews with audiences and interpreters, but also follow-up telephone interviews with the same visitors at two weeks and three months after their visits. The findings included extensive discussions of the value of various living history methods, an assessment of the best practices used, and an analysis of visitors’ experiences.[viii]

The power of outdoor history museums to connect audiences with the past is undeniable. Due to their form, they offer abundant opportunities to experiment with learning through hands-on, immersive activities. Visitors are transported into the past through interactions with preserved or replicated buildings and by living history interpreters. But what are the consequences for audiences and interpreters immersed in painful pasts? Are these opportunities for consciousness raising or do they trivialize experiences of social injustice? What are the emotional costs for interpreters? How do outdoor history museums balance their natural affinity for entertainment with educational goals? Like many museums, numerous outdoor history museums have struggled financially since the 2000s. As pressures mount for them to stay afloat, these questions will become more pressing.[ix]


[i] Rodris Roth, “The New England, or ‘Old Tyme,’ Kitchen Exhibit at Nineteenth-Century Fairs,” in The Colonial Revival in America, ed. Alan Axelrod (New York: Norton, 1985), 159-183; Sten Rentzhog, Open Air Museums: The History and Future of a Visionary Idea (Kristianstad, Sweden: Carlssons, 2007), 4-32.

[ii] Anders Greenspan, Creating Colonial Williamsburg (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002), 16-76.

[iii] Greenspan, 142-43; “Our History,” The Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (2014), https://www.alhfam.org/Our-History#history; “ALHFAM Resources,” The Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (2014), https://www.alhfam.org/Resources-main.

[iv] Greenspan, 148-177; Cary Carson, “Teaching History at Colonial Williamsburg” (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1985); “Greenfield Village Didn’t Always Get It Right,” UPI Archives, June 2, 1991, https://www.upi.com/Archives/1991/06/02/Greenfield-Village-didnt-always-get-it-right/1950675835200/; “Firestone Farm—Dedication—Item 30,” The Henry Ford, https://www.thehenryford.org/collections-and-research/digital-collections/artifact/406616/; “America’s Stories Come to Life,” The Henry Ford, https://www.thehenryford.org/history-and-mission/americas-stories-come-to-life/.

[v] James Oliver Horton, “Slavery in American History: An Uncomfortable National Dialogue” in Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, eds. James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 50; Greenspan, 163-164; “‘Slave Auction’ Divides Crowd in Williamsburg,” The Baltimore Sun, October 11, 1994, https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1994-10-11-1994284095-story.html.

[vi] Cherstin M. Lyon, Elizabeth M. Nix, and Rebecca K. Shrum, Introduction to Public History: Interpreting the Past, Engaging Audiences (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2017), 141-46; “Good Morning: Conner Prairie to Change Its Follow the North Star Program,” The Herald Bulletin, April 22, 2019 https://www.heraldbulletin.com/news/local_news/briefs/good-morning-conner-prairie-to-change-its-follow-the-north/article_48ecefc8-47f2-50ea-b840-74f2e416fb1a.html; Scott Magelssen, “This is Drama. You Are Characters’: The Tourist as Fugitive Slave in Conner Prairie’s ‘Follow the North Star,” Theatre Topics 16, no. 1 (March 2006): 19-34; Olivia Lewis, “Conner Prairie Slavery Re-Enactment Draws Criticism,” Indianapolis Star, August 7, 2016, https://www.indystar.com/story/news/2016/08/06/conner-prairie-slavery-re-enactment-draws-criticism/82987036/.

[vii] Horton, 52; Amy M. Tyson, The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 145-171.

[viii] “The Outdoor Living History Museum Interpretation Research Project,” American Association for State and Local History, March 2009, http://download.aaslh.org/AASLH-Website-Resources/The+Outdoor+Living+History+Museum.pdf.

[ix] Mitchell B. Reiss, “An Open Letter to the Colonial Williamsburg Community,” Making History: Inspiration for the Modern Revolutionary, June 29, 2017, https://www.scribd.com/document/352531032/Open-Letter-to-Colonial-Williamsburg-Community.

Suggested Readings

Allison, David B. Living History: Effective Costumed Interpretation and Enactment at Museums and Historic Sites. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield/AASLH, 2016.

Greenspan, Anders. Creating Colonial Williamsburg. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002.

Magelssen, Scott. Living History Museums: Undoing History Through Performance. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2007.

Peers, Laura. Playing Ourselves: Interpreting Native Histories at Historic Reconstructions. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press, 2007.

Rentzhog, Sten. Open Air Museums: The History and Future of a Visionary Idea. Kristianstad, Sweden: Carlssons, 2007.

Swigger, Jessie. History is Bunk: Assembling the Past at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014.

Tyson, Amy M. The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Front Lines. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.


~ Jessie Swigger is an Associate Professor in the History Department at Western Carolina University where she also serves as Director of the Public History Program. Her book, “History is Bunk”: Assembling the Past at Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2014. She is currently writing a history of the first four children’s museums in the United States.