Performing the past : a cultural history of historical reenactments

Publication Type:
Thesis
Issue Date:
2002
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The reenactment of the past itself has a history. This thesis analyses self-styled 'historical reenactors' in the West and traces the history of the broader phenomenon of historical reenactment in the Australian context from the late nineteenth century to the present. The historical section focuses on several events significant in Australian cultural memory that have been reenacted over time. Historical parades, pageants and reenactments dramatically narrate culturally specific historical sensibilities and demonstrate inter and cross cultural exchanges of historical consciousness. I contend such performances have had a significant position in the formation of popular history since the late nineteenth century and that there is a continuity of conventions in performing the past. I have addressed the position of reenactments as part of a constant interest in the status and power of history in, and for, popular culture. I have shown how a form of history that operated for the public was transformed into a form of history operated by the public in a struggle for authority over the form and content of history. Historical reenactments have been useful avenues for elites to create didactic spectacular history that have also offered the opportunity for marginalised groups to make social and political gains through their participation in the making of public history. Considering the significance of reenactments in the formation of a distinctly Australian public history, they have received little attention from historians. As ephemera, reenactments sit awkwardly in the explanatory frameworks regularly used by historians. Using methodologies from a range of academic disciplines such as performance studies, anthropology and cultural studies, this thesis documents and interrogates the specific form of historical reenactment. In the sections of this thesis that analyse contemporary historical reenactments, I use my own experience as an historical reenactor of more than ten years in an ethnographic approach that reflects on the pleasures, promises and problems 'dressing up as if from the past' offers. In this history I draw continuities between past reenactments and present practices that assist in understanding historical reenactment as a specific cultural form. This thesis contends that reenactments over time have been characterised by three main elements: a collapsing of past and present, an avenue for a 'connectedness' with the past through a sensual experience, and an essential relationship with I authenticity.'
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