October 27, 2016

Whosits & Whatsits: Defining the Historical Interpreter

Who are we?  Just people wearing funny clothing?  
What are we?  A band of volunteers, school teachers, 
reenactors, history majors, or worse, know-it-alls?  
And why do this thing called "historical interpretation?"

For three years now, I’ve been employed at the Genesee Country Village & Museum as a historical interpreter.  When people ask about my work, their response is usually along the lines of “what language do you interpret?” or simply “so, you do what?”  That’s my clue to launch into the spiel.

Which leads to the question:  what is a historical interpreter?  How do we define our jobs?  What are the requirements of the position, and what qualities make for better interpreters?  As the introduction post to a collaboration series of historical interpretation hows, today I will be addressing these questions in hopes of providing clarification and inspiring interest in fellow historical enthusiasts to join in the fun.

The Whosits

First, defining the job - who we are and what we do.  A historical interpreter is simply that - a person who interacts with the public to make history understandable.  As if the people, places, objects and events of the past were foreign language that needed to be translated into a contemporary, understandable and engaging culture that matters to the audience.

Photograph courtesy of Judy J.

The Department of History at the Vancouver Campus of the University of British Colombia gives a fantastic job description: 
"Historical interpreters navigate the public through history: you are a guide who bridges the past with your audience as you take them through curated exhibitions, historical sites, and landscapes. It is a stimulating career choice for a historian as they get to share their knowledge directly with a diverse set of visitors, each of whom will react in their own ways to the historical narratives presented, and bring their own set of questions and ideas about what the history means to them. This means that the historical interpreter needs to be able to 'read' their audiences in order to present information that the audience can best relate to. Visitors can range from small children to foreign tourists to retirees, and often include people from varied economic, cultural, and regional backgrounds. Any interpretive tour, exhibit, or resources is intended to provoke a response from the audience, to stimulate their experience in a site-specific way relating to the past and the visitor’s own experiences of the present."  - Excerpt from the webpage "Historical Interpreters"  

I couldn't have said it better.  All I would add is that historical interpreters are often encouraged to work in other areas of museum programming, be it specialized trades, domestic arts, educational events, and/or off-site "move-able museum" presentations for local communities.  While we at the Genesee Country Village present primarily in third person, there are other sites and individuals that work in first person, portraying specific historical figures or recreating daily life in general roles.

Photograph courtesy of Judy J.

Again, to quote from the Department of History at the Vancouver Campus of the University of British Colombia:
"Jobs in historical interpretation may include working in museums, historic buildings, corporations, parks, library exhibitions, and public attractions. Some interpreters are self-employed, making a living giving historic walking tours of towns and cities during the tourist season, holidays, or even year-round. The tours might be about the local social life and culture, or about the history of war, crime, or hauntings. Historical interpretation provides an opportunity to match a passion (for example with wilderness areas or wildlife) with history and public presentation. Positions vary from seasonal (summer work during tourist seasons) to full-time (museums or indoor historic sites)."  - Excerpt from "Historical Interpreters"  
So, as you can see, the possibilities are endless!  All it takes is an interest to explore, lots of research and enthusiasm...and, well, what else you might ask?  Let's move onto the requirements for historical interpreters.

The Whatsits 

Next, determining the requirements of the job.  Are we all history, education and museum studies majors?  Well, no.  While a lot of the successful interpreters that I've encountered have degrees in the fields, several times over at the undergraduate and graduate levels for many, the position is open to a variety of educational experiences.  While each site will certainly look for its own set of requirements, the common denominators seem to be a passion for history and public presentation, and a lifelong commitment to learning and all areas of education.

On Study.com, a website devoted to career and college searches, listed under the Historical Interpreter Job Requirements are the following:  

"Employers generally don't require historical interpreters to have a specific background or degree. They look for candidates who have the ability to conduct research, demonstrate good communication skills and perform a part believably. Most interpreters get on-the-job training. A background in history can be helpful. Some interpreters hold degrees in history, museum studies or education[...]
"In order to perform a character's role convincingly, historical interpreters must conduct extensive research into a specific time period. Their specializations vary; for example, a battle reenactor needs to be well-acquainted with historic battlefields and techniques. Historical interpreters do not require a formal education."  - Excerpt from the article "Historical Interpreter: Job Description, Duties and Requirements

I should mention that while it is true that historical interpreters come from a range of educational experiences, (I am thinking of seasonal interpretation positions here), most full-time museum positions require specific undergraduate and graduate degrees.  And, those who have chosen to pursue a career or those in the midst of post-secondary educations, such as myself, often enter seeking essential, experienced-based learning experiences and apprenticeships not found in a classroom.

Photograph courtesy of Judy J.

Regardless of degrees, the unwritten expectations of all historic interpreters are vast.  As teachers to diverse populations in open, outdoor classrooms, if you will, learning reading your audience and their subtle clues, speaking clearly and answering questions concisely, while narrating an exciting tale of a meaningful, connectable history is essential to successful interpretation.  Do you have what it takes?

The Whysits 

Our last section here will examine the whys of historical interpretation - why do we do what we do?  Let's take a look at the qualities that make for successful public interactions and the skills necessary to develop for successful historical interpretation.  Hopefully these will provide insight into the types of people attracted to the field and perhaps even help you to decide if historical interpretation is right for you. 

Photograph courtesy of Judy J.

Before delving into my list, here's what an expert has to say:  Lee Wright of The History List lists "six critical skills" in his fantastic 2013 article, "Getting a Job as an Interpreter at a Historic Site: What to Include on Your Resume and Why."

Lee Wright's "six critical skills" include:
  1. Having an interest in history
  2. Dealing with children
  3. Communicating to the public 
  4. Customer service & hospitality 
  5. Dealing with pressure 
  6. Experience handling money
* I recommend reading Wright's entire article, especially if you're currently (or will be in the future) searching for a job in historical interpretation.

Now, for my list, which is by no means all-inclusive, of the necessary qualities and unwritten requirements of successful historical interpreters:  

Attitude is everything.  

Winston Churchill once defined attitude as that "little thing that makes a big difference."  This certainly holds true for historical interpretation.  Being enthusiastic, friendly, professional, personable, and approachable, each and every day, is important.  Your interactions with visitors depend on your desire to learn and teach about a collective past.

Photograph courtesy of Judy J.

Communication is paramount. 

Great public speaking skills only go as far as your willingness to listen and want to engage with others.  Learn to be fully present and listen in conversation.  Learn all that you can from others and learn to take constructive criticism to improve your interpretations.

Photograph courtesy of Rhonda B.

Patience is equally important.  

You will need to tolerate a lot.  Have patience with visitors of all age, and extend that courtesy to fellow employees.  Show patience with being asked the same question for the umpteenth time, and with people who may not be familiar with museum etiquette.  Make all questions, no matter how silly sounding, welcome.

Research is required.  

If you don’t know it, don’t say it, simple.  Have a good understanding of history, especially the specific sites, exhibits and roles you interpret.  But most importantly, have a eagerness to learn more.

Wear it right and you do it right. 

Much like actors depend on their costumes to "get into character," historical interpreters and visitors alike have the same need to be fully immersed in the time.  While there are modern and monetary limitations to historical accuracy, have a willingness and desire to make improvements when possible.

Photograph credit: Stephen S.

Sweat in the heat, freeze in the cold & above all, be prepared.

As an interpreter, you must be prepared for all types of weather from extreme heat and humidity, to freezing cold temperatures, ice and snow, and any other type of precipitation.  Also, an ability to work for long hours with large quantities of visitors, sometimes without breaks, is a must.  The work can be very active, with lots of bending, lifting and carrying.


Be flexible, period.  

You must, and I repeat must, be able to work with all ages, cultures and conditions with respect.  The job is equally challenging and rewarding.  An open mind and ability to roll with the punches is just as important as knowing your stuff.

Photograph courtesy of Judy J.

Master the Art of Multitasking. 

Your interpretation and attention to visitors clearly comes first, but often, your demonstrations need equal attention, especially when fires, animals or other dangerous tools of the trade are involved.  Caring for your building and customer service can sometimes seemingly require a balancing act.

Photo credit: Ruby Foote, GCV&M's photographer.
Photograph courtesy of Judy J.

Have fun.  Be happy.


Smile, even on the bad days.  Laugh, because it's infectious.  Show that you're enjoying yourself and your work, and your visitors will follow suit.

Photograph courtesy of Judy J.

Love every minute of it. 

Winston Churchill also said that "we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give."  I'm not complaining, but will state that the job simply does not pay enough for all that you will be expected to do, on and off the clock.  Rather, we do all that we do because we love it.  If you don't, it won't be fun.  But if you do, it will be so worth it.

Questions & Comments?

Are you interested in becoming a historical interpreter, or are you already a historical interpreter, and if so, with which site(s)?  (High fives to my fellow GCV interpreters!)  Feel free to share your experience(s) below.  What skills do you find most important on the job, or what advice would you offer to those interested in the field?

Finally, what types of historical interpretation topics would you like to see addressed in the future?  (View our page here: Historical Interpretation How Tos)

Photograph courtesy of Judy J.



  1. Oh my goodness, Annaeiese, this piece is so well written and spot on. You are gifted on so many levels. Thank you for this great.

    1. Thank you so much, Pam! I think you've mastered each and every one of the qualities that make successful interpreters...and I can't wait to see you in the village again, soon!


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