Living History Policies and Guidelines

What is “Living History?”

CABR Fest 2005 Livinig History

 The Living History Program


Cabrillo National Monument

Definitions, Policies, Guidelines,
& VIP Handbook


Original Document by Robert Munson and Nancy Parkinson Munson, 2014
Revised by Park Staff and E-binder Committee, 2022

Why History?History serves two purposes: To provide narrative entertainment and to record how people interacted and reacted to various situations.

Narrative entertainment, or folklore, reveals how we view ourselves and our values.

The record of events is the psychology of what people did, what worked, what didn’t, and why.

History provides valuable lessons and warnings that, if followed, will direct us away from a disastrous path. These lessons cannot be derived from faulty data, propaganda, political considerations, or a driven agenda; to do so leads to a flawed understanding.

Policy Regulating Living History at Cabrillo National Monument

Cabrillo National Monument (CNM) recognizes living history as a valid and useful way to educate visitors about the past. CNM has its own in-house living history program that uses members of its Interpretive Division and Volunteers-in-Parks (VIPs), and also invites individuals and groups to participate in special living history events held at the park.

The purpose of this document is to foster greater understanding of the National Park Service’s (NPS) philosophical approach to living history. All prospective participants are required to read, understand, and follow the guidelines for living history volunteers. Continued participation in the CNM Living History Program is entirely dependent upon the volunteer living historians’ and the invited participants’ understanding of the park’s standards of excellence. These are:

  • The need to preserve its own interpretive and historical integrity.
  • Provide a meaningful experience for the public.
  • Maintain a safe environment.

Part 1: The NPS Concepts and Definitions of Living History

The term “living history” refers to methods of interpreting the past through the use of an interpreter dressed in period clothing and using objects to interpret and present impressions of the people, events, and practices of the past.

Who are “Living Historians?”

The term is applied (as well as misapplied) to anyone who attempts to convey information about the past while dressed in period clothing. The term “re-enactor” is often used in place of living historian. It is important to note, however, that while living historians can “re-enact,” not all re-enactors make good living historians.

Re-enacting is actually a recreational pastime, carried on by individuals with an interest in history. Dressing in period clothing and engaging in period activities allows the re-enactors to “experience” the past.

Living historians, on the other hand, tend to be associated with parks, museums, and historical sites that specialize in interpreting the past through a format that allows visitors to visualize the past through the use of their senses. Living historians can also be dedicated private individuals who volunteer their talents and services to historical sites and, as such, are a valuable resource.

However, living historians and re-enactors are not mutually exclusive, and re-enactors can make fine living historians, and vice versa.

What is Interpretation?

Interpretation gives people insight and understanding into the subject at hand.  The NPS definition of interpretation is:

“Interpretation facilitates a connection between the interests of the visitor and the meaning of the resource.”

The National Association for Interpretation says the interpretation is a communication process which forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and the meanings in the resource.

Freeman Tilden (Freeman Tilden, Interpreting Our Heritage (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 8.) defined interpretation as:

“An educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by firsthand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information.”

To Tilden’s statement, we add that interpretation is also:

The translation of the technical or unfamiliar language of the environment or culture into lay language, with no loss in accuracy, in order to create and enhance sensitivity, awareness, understanding, appreciation, and commitment in the visitor.

Those five words comprise the “Sensitivity Continuum,” a sequence through which a visitor passes if interpretation is successful.

What Does The Term “First Person” Mean?

Al Wolfing Lighthouse Keeper 1887

First person refers to a technique where an interpreter takes on an historical persona (real or invented) and acts as if they were that person. A person in true first-person mode does not know anything about events or the world beyond their historical time frame. This would mean that all aspects of the 21st century at Cabrillo National Monument would be alarming and disarming puzzlements – Navy jets, ships in the channel, and the very cameras that the visitors want to photograph you with, to say nothing of the cars, buildings, and the clothing!

First-person interpretation can be very intimidating to the visitor, and is very difficult, so for these reasons we do not do first person living history, only third person.

What Does The Term “Third Person” Mean?

Unlike the case of first-person interpretation, individuals acting in the third person are rooted of the present time and move in and out of the present and past. Third person interpreters are essentially modern people dressed in period-correct clothing, discussing the past with visitors or other interpreters. The clothing and other objects are used as tools to teach about the past. The effective interpreter should be knowledgeable of the time frame being interpreted and use a combination of first (the past) and third (the present) person for comparing life in the past to life in the present.

Noble Warriors
Noble Warriors

A Word about the Word “Costume”

We avoid using the word costume in referring to living history. To the general public, this evokes association with Hollywood, theater, and Halloween.

Historically, the term costume was used widely in the 19th century to refer to an entire ensemble, head to toe, particularly in women’s fashion. We want to stress and impress to our visitors that we are the regular folk of the 16th, 19th, or 20th centuries.

Sometimes visitors will ask, “What’s with the funny/odd/weird clothes?” An appropriate response, in a good-natured tone, might be, “I am wearing normal/proper/decent/fitting clothes, young man/sir/madam/sire/m’lady for the year ____.”  This helps drive home the point that each of us in our own “time” are just “normal” people as much as they are. The clothing that you wear as a re-enactor is as normal as the clothing the visitor is wearing in their “time.”

What Does It Take To Be A Successful Living Historian?

A passion for history, a desire to share that history, sound knowledge of history, a willingness to adopt the correct “dress,” and the ability to get into the clothes, skin, and mindset of a historic personage.

While this sounds simple, quality living history is extremely difficult and takes commitment and study on the part of its practitioners. They must be willing to familiarize themselves with all aspects of daily life of the time period to be interpreted. Visitors can tell when interpreters are untrained or are using inauthentic items. They deserve the best that you and CNM can provide.

How Does Living History Fit into This?  Why Bring History to Life?

Living history is one tool, but not the only tool, for creating an engaging and informative interpretive experience. Living History should only be used when signs are posted with “Living History program today” so visitors are not confused or uncomfortable when they encounter an interpreter in period dress.

Ultimately history is the psychology of society. Thus history, like society, is people – how they react and interact on a human level.

A presentation on geology, forests, or other hard science topic is enhanced by the ranger in NPS uniform because the uniform carries the cachet of a professional who knows about such things. Likewise, the interpreter in period correct persona and clothing can carry the same cachet of someone who knows such things. People want to relate to people.

Using living history is not a substitute for a well-planned interpretive experience. All living history experiences must include an explanation of living history and an introduction of the interpreter and the period being portrayed. And the content of the program must be relevant to the visitor. All programs must connect to universal concepts and Cabrillo’s interpretive themes.

VIP Erik Thing, Ranger Patricia Heusner CABR Fest 2006

Part 2: Interpretation Periods at Cabrillo National Monument

Our basic cultural living history interpretation at Cabrillo centers on putting a human face on people who are too often buried under a pile of forgettable names, dates, and places. History is people, not data. The person who “hated history in school” can become completely enthralled about history by skilled storytelling.

We interpret in the framework of three historical periods:

Spanish Colonial Expansion in the Pacific in the 16th Century

Spanish colonial expansion into the Pacific in the 16th century initiated what has become known as the “Pacific Rim Trading Network.” To anchor our interpretation of this period, we use the exploration by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo of 1542, as it was one of the first trade exploration voyages, and it was the first European exploration of San Diego.

Lighthouse Keepers of the West Coast in the 19th Century

We remember the lighthouse keepers on the west coast as men and women who brought a phenomenal sense of dedication and responsibility to what was truly a 24/7 job with no days off, no sick leave, and no pensions. We use the context of the old Point Loma Lighthouse as it was in 1887 to bring these people alive to our visitors.

Coastal Defenses of Point Loma during World War II

The third theme at Cabrillo National Monument centers on the coast defenses and home front of Point Loma/San Diego during WWII. We concentrate on the period 1941 to June 4, 1942, as this was a rollercoaster ride from complacency through terror to resolve at a crucial and completely unexpected turn of events which changed our world forever. We do this by getting to know the “They also serve who watch and wait” citizens

Part 3: Guidelines for Living History Volunteers

Living History Volunteer Thinking Points

If you are interested in becoming a living history volunteer, the first things to consider are:

  1. What is the purpose of National Parks?
  2. Why is this site preserved?
  3. How does what I do further this purpose?
  4. Why am I doing what I do? A desire to educate? Play act? Dress up and pretend? Be the center of attention? Serve as window dressing?

All of the above are acceptable reasons to appear as a living history persona at CNM. They are not incompatible. However, as we are dealing with the public, we have a responsibility to create an engaging and informative visitor experience. We must strive to be as accurate as possible while “meeting the visitor where they are.” Understand that the general visitor may have only a basic understanding of the historical period, and for some it will be a completely new experience. Invite them to learn more and do not quiz them to check for knowledge – this can make visitors feel stupid or uncomfortable. Ask open-ended questions and connect to modern day experiences. We do not have the right to disrespect and dishonor the people we portray by misrepresenting them.

Ask yourself honestly: Would the character I portray recognize themself and, more importantly, would they be happy with that depiction? Think about what you would expect of someone portraying you a hundred years from now.

Luke Berkje 1887 San Diego Union News

Application Process

All volunteers interested in participating in the living history program must submit an application to A regular commitment of weekly or monthly hours is expected of our participants. The park will invest a great deal of training, fitting time, and probably money outfitting the interpreter, and it is expected that the volunteer in turn will honor that commitment.

Interpretive Responsibilities

Persona Development

Generic vs. Real Person Persona Issues

At CNM, real historical persona portrayals have been discouraged and cannot be used unless approved by staff. We do not generally portray a known historic figure, unless documentation is extensive, thoroughly researched, and the character serves a definite interpretive purpose.

A real persona is fraught with numerous problems. Frequently, a scholarly type may choose to pick an intellectual battle with you just to see what you know or to further their viewpoint. It can be disastrous if a descendant of your persona challenges your knowledge or portrayal. It is very difficult to tell a relative they are wrong, even if your research has told you so. There is also a tendency in reenacting and living history known as the “General Syndrome” – everyone wants to play a general and no one wants to portray a private.


We portray the wide variety of trades, crafts, professions of our thematic eras based on the social demographics of the era in order to portray the average archetype, not the atypical. These composite characters are developed to reveal a wide variety of insights into the social, political, ethnic, and religious attitudes of another time. They can vary from highly specific character types such as a lighthouse keeper to a generic Spanish colonial sailor.

It is in the lives of the common man or woman that you can often most easily connect with the public. People are always amazed to learn how little human nature and society have changed from century to century, and this is most easily communicated with the narrative of the average citizen.

By becoming another person, with all the background that person would have, you make a presentation come alive. Visitors will ask who you are, where you came from, etc. A personal persona can also protect your true identity.

First Person vs. Third Person

First person interpretation is not done at CNM. In the vast majority of cases, third person interpretation is the most comfortable and effective form of interpretation for the visitor. Under no circumstances will volunteers be permitted to portray nationally significant personages.

Bringing your passion to your persona

Consider taking what you know and love from your own life and apply it to your persona. If you are a pharmacist consider portraying an apothecary in 1887 New Town San Diego. To make the character relevant, the character must mean something to your visitor.

The fact that you find the character personally fascinating does not guarantee relevance to the visitor. Rather, it would be the apothecary’s 1887 approach to medical concerns still found today that can give an understanding of how fantastically medicine has advanced. You would also need to include why an apothecary would be visiting the lighthouse. Complain about how long it takes to get here by wagon, etc.

Absolute Need for Authenticity

We are not a theme park. We have a mandate from both Congress and our guests to be as accurate in all elements of our interpretation as humanly possible. Just as a visitor expects a ranger to accurately know the geology of the Park, they expect equal accuracy in the history.

To a great degree living history is based on learning by doing. As a living history interpreter there is no greater way to understand your subject and thus project self confidence in your presentation, than by getting out and doing as much of your historic character’s day-to-day life as feasible. When you have lived and worked the way they did, with the tools or equipment they used, in the clothes they wore day after day, eating the food they ate prepared the way they prepared it, you gain an insight into why they thought and acted the way they did. It is this level of involvement that you can pass to your visitors. And for the “one book wonders” or self-appointed experts who challenge your knowledge with “How do you know that?”, being able to demonstrate that you have actually done it is the ultimate validation that you know what you’re talking about.

We are not here to excuse, pity, or judge the people we portray, but to understand and explain them, their circumstances, and the forces that operated on them. And most of all, we are here to learn from them and pass that understanding on through our living history efforts.

Interaction with Visitors

Living history requires interaction between the interpreter and visitor.  The key to success is making the visitor feel comfortable and engaged enough to want to stay and participate. Let them ask questions and make comments. Even though this is an educational experience, don’t “lecture.” Do not practice “inflicted interpretation.” Do not be afraid to say “I don’t know the answer to that question.” Use the public’s curiosity to further your knowledge.

Interaction can be impromptu or scripted.

Impromptu interaction is often driven by a visitor’s questions and contains an element of spontaneity. However, most visitors usually have similar questions, allowing the interpreter to give fairly standard answers. Thus, the information being dispensed is consistent. Impromptu interaction works well in small group environments.

Scripted interaction works better for large groups because the element of intimacy can be lost in a large audience. In a scripted scenario, the interpreter addresses the entire group, presenting predetermined information. It, too, can be interactive by encouraging questions from the group or selecting people to participate in the presentation.

Tips for success:

  • What sets a Living Historian apart from others is not just their clothing but their knowledge of the period being portrayed and a familiarity with that period’s material culture, language, behavior, society, and values.
  • While living history is entertaining, it is a proven educational method. Take it seriously and refrain from developing a “theme park” mentality.
  • Complacency results in stagnation. Interpreters who engage in living history must always learn more about the time period they portray.
  • Have fun!
  • Above all, respect and honor those you are portraying. A hundred years from now, how would you want to be portrayed?
Roger C. Living History - Life as a 16th Century Sailor
Roger C. Living History – Life as a 16th Century Sailor

Expected Behavior

Keep in mind that, while here, volunteer living historians represent the National Park Service as well as Cabrillo National Monument. Park program participants represent the park and are required to conduct themselves in a responsible, professional, and dignified manner that will reflect credit to themselves and the National Park Service. To maintain the responsible image of the park, participants’ behavior must be above reproach. Remember that the public associates the behavior of all participants with CNM and its interpretation. As such, each participant’s behavior is a reflection on the NPS.

The primary purpose for living history programs is to provide a meaningful interpretive experience for the visitor through interaction with the interpreter. Accordingly, we ask that living history volunteers devote their attention to our visitors and refrain from conducting private conversations while in public, as the visitors will be hesitant to interrupt.

As a volunteer, you are not expected, or obligated, to endure any verbal or physical abuse or mistreatment from the public. Any time profanity enters the language, or you feel physically uneasy or in danger, you can terminate the contact and walk away. If there is an overt physical threat, immediately call for law enforcement. An inoffensive way of removing yourself from uncomfortable situations is to call Dispatch (799) and note there is a JDLR. The public has no way of knowing the acronym means “Just Doesn’t Look Right” and you’d like some back-up.  At any site other than the Visitor Center, volunteers are required to have a radio with them for use in emergencies.

Physical Impressions

The living history interpreter’s age, physical appearance, and physical condition should be appropriate to the character portrayed.

Clothing, accoutrements, and other equipment are critical and vital parts of a successful living history program. We expect living history volunteers to wear or bring items that are correctly made and appropriate for the time period being depicted. Cabrillo National Monument reserves the right to turn away participants who are deemed to have inappropriate or substandard physical impressions. We ask living history volunteers to comply with the following requests:

  • Participants should not wear modern jewelry. This includes ear studs or earrings for participants unless their persona warrants it. Nose rings, lip rings, and other forms of modern body piercing are inappropriate for the time periods interpreted at CNM.
  • Tattoos which are period incorrect for males, and any tattoos on females, must be coverable by hair or clothing.
  • If carried, modern communication devices like cell phones and pagers must be hidden and should be kept silent and should not be used in public view except in an emergency. Park radios must be used of necessity but can usually be carried discreetly.
  • No modern containers should be used for food or beverages.
  • No sunglasses, unless period-correct style may be used. It is recognized that period style eyeglasses can constitute a major expense. If you cannot function safely without your glasses, you may wish to consider contacts as an alternative to finding period eyeglasses and having your prescription put in them.
  • A detailed clothing/equipment guideline will be provided to you for the specific period you choose to work in, be it 1542, 1887, or 1941.
  • Participants must adhere to the clothing guidelines. Failure to do so may result in being removed from the program.

General Period Clothing Guidelines

Living historians representing people and activities of the 1542, 1887, and WWII periods are required to be appropriately and accurately outfitted. Such attire includes personal grooming and ornamentation such as insignia, jewelry, watches and chains, parasols, walking sticks, hats, gloves and other accessories.

All replica historic clothing worn during living history programs will be of authentic 16th, 19th, mid-20th century fabrics and textiles. Inappropriate synthetics, colors, or fasteners are not acceptable. Zippers, Velcro, speed laces, and snap closures are inappropriate on period clothing or equipage. Heavy cosmetics such as excessive eyeliner or shadow, obvious makeup and lipstick, and colored nail polish are appropriate only for World War II era females. Females with period-incorrect hairstyles must consider wearing hairpieces or wigs. Tattoos that are incongruous with the period must be covered with clothing or makeup.

Much of what has been accepted as period clothing in the past stems from the popular media of 30 or more years ago when the research capabilities and resources were much more limited. With the resources available today, and the increase in fashion history scholarship, there is no excuse for not doing it right. Proper clothing, accessories and equipment are readily available today.

Clothing authenticity levels are more than just outward appearance. It is vital to successful Living History that participants are dressed as correctly as possible from the skin out (although corsets are not required). This accomplishes two things: It allows the interpreter to speak with authority about all the clothing worn by their persona, and it gives the clothing the correct feel and fit for the period.

The park will try to provide all the clothing and equipment it can. However, it should be remembered that some of this is quite personal, such as undergarments and shoes. It will help if the volunteer is able to provide their own personal correct clothing and/or equipment. However, if personal gear is used and damaged or lost, the park will try to make good the loss, but there are no guarantees implied.

VIP Mark Allen Engineer U.S. Lighthouse Tender Madrono, 1887, 2003 Died 3 yrs ago.

Walk-on Participants

CNM only permits pre-screened and vetted volunteers to participate in its living history programs. Unregistered participants (referred to as walk-ons) will be asked to leave the grounds.

CNM staff will provide informal training in the following:

  • Orient volunteer living historians to the site
  • Familiarize volunteer living historians with the NPS philosophical approach to living history
  • Define expectations for volunteer living historians
  • Discuss guidelines relating to participation by volunteer living history interpreters
  • Provide training in various forms and techniques of living history interpretation

We believe that providing such training to those who wish to participate in living history events at CNM enhances our program by familiarizing volunteers with the site as well as our expectations and needs.

These guidelines will serve as a framework for the organization and conduct of living history activities at the park. These guidelines are in accordance with NPS-6, the National Park Service general guidelines for NPS-sponsored living history programming and DO 6 Interpretation and Education.

Information regarding research resources for volunteers and historic background documentation for the park’s living history special events and exhibit interpretation will be provided to the volunteers.

Part 4: Participant and Visitor Safety

Safety is a prime concern. We want to avoid accidental injury to visitors, living history volunteers, staff, and the park and its historic structures.

Participants will not violate any established park safety barriers and may politely discourage visitors from violating such barriers. Accidents, encounters with animals, snakebites, serious insect bites, heat exhaustion, theft, or vandalism are all serious situations that should be reported immediately. It is the responsibility of the participants to apply reasonable and normal caution during all activities and to inform the park staff of any hazardous conditions.

If a participant is the victim of a medical emergency, or observes a medical or other emergency, he or she should inform the nearest park employee. If park staff is not in the immediate vicinity, use the radio to contact 799 which is the Visitor Center desk. If no answer is forthcoming, broadcast an emergency to all staff such as “This is VIP Smith at the Lighthouse. I have an emergency medical situation here. Visitor has fallen. Anyone please respond immediately.”  Wait 10 seconds and repeat if no response. Failing that, use your or a visitor’s cell phone and dial the park desk at 619-523-4285, then 0. After hours, the 911 emergency access number can be used to reach help.

Part 5: Summary

Bottom line of NPS Living History:

Anything worth doing is worth doing well!

Appendix A: Living History Interpreter Job Description

The following are ideas, suggestions, and observations which will make your volunteer experience more enjoyable and personally fulfilling:

  • Initially, you will work with, and/or observe, a more experienced history interpreter.
  • Begin your volunteer experience on a day when fewer visitors are at the park.
  • Don’t try to learn everything about everything. Work at your own pace. Your knowledge base and interactive skills will increase over time. Concentrate your learning on the topics which interest you and don’t feel obligated to study anything that is unimportant and boring to you.
  • Adopt some phraseology and anecdotes from the time period. Review materials provided to you by staff and other volunteers.
  • Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” Make a mental note to ask others how they would have answered a particular question.
  • If it appears that a number of visitors express interest or ask questions about a certain topic, try and learn more about that topic.
  • Consider choosing a topic to discuss on a particular day, one that interests you and that you feel will interest the visitors. For example, what articles of clothing you are wearing, cultural changes over the years, appropriate attire for your character, cosmetics, healthcare, diseases, childbearing, mourning practices, courtship and marriage, manners, the ideal wife or ideal husband, etc. The history of San Diego and its environs may also be of interest to visitors.
  • Have fun! Your presence enhances the visitor’s experience and they will express their appreciation for what you are doing.
  • Be wary of sharing personal information with a visitor. If you wish, adopt a name for your persona, rather than using your given name.
  • Make use of materials available to you at the park. There are many resources outside of park exhibits that are available to you. Check with rangers or use Google or a similar program to search for something you are interested in, e.g. corsets or spats. Visit the website of the San Diego Historical Society ( The staff are aware of many articles, books, websites, etc. which will provide you with lots of interesting information. Share whatever resources you find that may be of interest to the staff and other volunteers as well.
  • Also, share your experiences with the staff and seek their advice and guidance.
  • Even though you may wish to interact in first person, third person enables you to travel between present and past centuries and compare the past with the present in areas such as culture, attitudes, clothing styles, frequency of bathing, corset lacing, popular pastimes and foods, etc.
  • Don’t take your position, or yourself, too seriously. Your enthusiasm and enjoyment of your subject is what enhances a visitor’s experience and enjoyment of their visit.
  • Do maintain a level of decorum appropriate to your time period.
  • Be willing to be a part of the visitor’s experience by posing for pictures and/or speaking for their video camera.
  • Make mention of upcoming events of which you are aware and which might be of interest to the visitor such as Cabrillo Festival, the Escondido Renaissance Faire, etc.
  • If time permits, you may wish to share information about the Junior Web Ranger program with families with children. You may also give them the list of links to sites where they and their parents can learn more about the National Park System and the history of San Diego.
  • Take cues from the visitors as to their level of interest. Don’t force yourself on a visitor who lacks interest or wants to hurry their visit.
  • Don’t take it personally if a visitor ignores you. Some will.

Appendix B: Statement Regarding the Supernatural in NPS

No supernatural occurrences have ever been reported at Cabrillo National Monument, either in the past or present timeframe. The National Park Service has a service-wide policy that does not recognize paranormal interest as a science and does not grant any research permits for this purpose. It has been a park policy to discourage any stories of ghosts in the lighthouse. There have been no known deaths in the lighthouse.

Last revised 18-Aug-22

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