A Periodic Broadside for Arts and Culture Workers
April 2007. Vol. 11, No. 1.
Center for Community Arts and Cultural Policy
Arts & Administration Program, University of Oregon                        ISSN 1541-938X

Creating Historical Consciousness: A Case Study Exploring Museum Theater

Ann Craig

(Note: Links open in a separate browser window or tab)


This article asserts that there is a gap between academic and public interpretations of history. Historical museums have the opportunity and the responsibility to help narrow this gap by presenting more complete and complex historical narratives. This case study describes how museum theater was developed and implemented in 2005 – 2006 to enhance the historical exhibit, Spirit of the West, at High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon. Through the innovative use of volunteers, High Desert Museum was able to create a trained and dedicated corps of performers to portray historical characters. This study explores the process and results of the museum's strategies.

Museums have a responsibility to educate visitors by offering more complete and complex versions of history (Hobbs, 2002; Loewen, 1999; Rutherford & Shay, 2004). Complete and complex historical narratives are those interpretations of history that use current scholarship to uncover changing perceptions and new evidence. These may include previously unheard voices and considerations that inform a broader context of the historical period portrayed. The periodic re-interpretation of history, based on emerging scholarship and fresh understandings uses all the available evidence to improve and democratize understandings of history.

Scholarship suggests that by encouraging collaboration among historians, museum professionals, and the public, history museums can incorporate complex historical narratives into dynamic learning environments that can engage a variety of museum visitors (e.g., Eichstedt & Small, 2002; Gardner, 2004; Hayashi, 2003). In an address to the National Council on Public History, Smithsonian curator James Gardner (2004) declared that public historians must be "advocates" for both history and visitors. Accomplishing these goals simultaneously can be a challenge; museum professionals struggle to balance complex knowledge from academia with the need to interest and entertain visitors.

Scholars and museum professionals agree that museum theater is a promising tool with which to address this challenge. Museum theater captures the interest of audiences of various age groups, backgrounds, and ethnicities and is an excellent tool for presenting multiple perspectives and controversial issues (Bridal, 2004; Falk & Dierking, 2000; Hughes, 1998). (1) This case study explores how museum theater was implemented and whether it was able to enhance the historical narratives presented in the exhibit, Spirit of the West. Could this museum theater experience help create and facilitate historical consciousness among High Desert Museum visitors?

Museum Theater at High Desert Museum

Located three miles south of downtown Bend, High Desert Museum is set in a natural environment. Currently occupying approximately 40 of the 135 total acres it owns, the museum incorporates indoor and outdoor exhibits which feature art, natural and cultural history, and wildlife of the High Desert region.

Administrators planned to implement museum theater throughout the museum, incorporating a variety of topics and contexts from poisonous snakes to discussions about land use. This case study focused only on the museum theater developed for the Spirit of the West, a history exhibit. Mounted in 1990, Spirit of the West is a series of eleven life-size displays depicting Western expansion in the High Desert (see Figures 1 and 2). The exhibit scenes wind chronologically through one wing of the museum's main building and recount the different people and time periods that had an impact on the region. Each exhibit is complete with sounds and artifacts that give visitors the feeling that they are stepping into that particular place and time. There is little text throughout the exhibit; each scene has only one panel to identify the topic and year with a few sentences describing the exhibit and interpreting artifacts.

Paiute encampment
Figure 1: The first scene in Spirit of the West, a 1790 Paiute encampment depicts Native American life in parts of the High Desert prior to Euro-American expansion into the region. (Photograph: Ann Craig)

Spirit of the West diorama
Figure 2: The final diorama in Spirit of the West, a buckaroo ranch in 1900, illustrates the importance of ranching and the influence of Hispanic and Latino culture in the High Desert. (Photograph: Ann Craig)

Though visually rich, the exhibit design is problematic because it suggests a linear progression of history and implies that inhabitants depicted in each diorama existed only during the time periods in which they are represented. Museum staff hoped that museum theater would further expand and redefine the message in Spirit of the West by offering varying perspectives and providing the opportunity for museum visitors to connect with the past through a personal connection in the present (Bridal, 2004; Hughes, 1998).

Program Development & Implementation

A new staff member, Bill Armstrong, was hired to design and implement the program because of his past experience with museum theater. Armstrong was charged with training volunteers to become museum theater performers and using exhibit areas as stages for presentations. Volunteers attended training sessions over a three-month period. During this time they selected a character to interpret and learned about museum expectations, interpretation techniques, research methods, presentation styles, and protocol.Volunteers participated in activities such as creating a driver's license for the character, discussing the kind of work his or her spouse did, explaining cultural influences, life-changing experiences, and influential persons in their characters' lives (Armstrong, personal communication, April 12, 2006). Volunteers researched and refined their characters in order to perform by Memorial Day weekend, the museum's official kickoff of the busy summer season. Museum managers hoped to have Spirit of the West staffed by several living history interpreters daily throughout the summer months.

Results: Has museum theater enhanced Spirit of the West?

The structure and content of the living history presentations suggests general conclusions regarding the program's ability to enhance Spirit of the West. Only 5 of the 11 sections in Spirit of the West have living history interpreters. By encouraging volunteers to choose their own characters to interpret, the museum relinquished control over deciding which sections of the exhibit would be "peopled." This decision may have been effective in recruiting and maintaining volunteers in the training process; however, it has resulted in an uneven distribution of characters and sets. The lack of age and ethnic diversity among living history interpreters is another program flaw. Of the 14 living history volunteers presenting characters in the Spirit of the West, 5 are men and 8 are women, all are white, and only one is under 40 years old. The age and ethnicity of characters is limited by the age and ethnicity of volunteers, thereby diminishing the program's ability to include varied first person perspectives (see Figure 3).




Hudson Bay Company Trader's Wife


Fur Trader Fort



Applegate Trail Wagon



Applegate Trail Wagon



Applegate Trail Wagon



Silver City

Shotgun Messenger


Silver City

Temperance Advocate


Silver City

School Marm


Silver City



Silver City

Dress Maker


Silver City

Miner's Wife


Placer Mine



Placer Mine



Buckaroo Ranch

Figure 3: The living history characters developed during the training workshops will interpret 5 of the 11 dioramas in Spirit of the West.

For summer 2007, the museum is determined to include more diverse roles (B. Armstrong, personal communication, March 23, 2006). If the museum hopes to increase and diversify museum audiences and perspectives, human and financial resources must be committed to recruiting and/or hiring interpreters of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Although the program lacks ethnic and age diversity, the exhibit has been enhanced with other perspectives that contribute to its depth. For example, characters' social and economic positions in their communities are relatively varied, ranging from a shotgun messenger and a rancher to a school marm and a bordello madam (see Figures 4 and 5). The volunteer who plays Mona, a bordello madam from Silver City, uses the character to challenge assumptions about madams and bordellos in the American West. During her interpretation she explains that madams were often respected for protecting women and providing health care to the community. Bordellos provided safe houses for women who needed to escape from abusive husbands or fathers, and in the absence of a doctor, provided medicine and cared for the sick (S. Walker, personal communication, April 27, 2006).

Volunteer living history interpreter
Figure 4: Volunteer living history interpreter Mike Ford plays a shotgun messenger who protected Wells-Fargo cash boxes that were transported on stagecoaches in the 1880s. (Photograph: Ann Craig)

Living history volunteer
Figure 5: Living history volunteer Gary Dolezal plays a ranch owner who worked with buckaroos at the turn of the 20th century. (Photograph: Ann Craig)

The lack of academic input from a professional historian is another weakness of the program. A Historic Review Committee, comprised of museum staff and volunteers, meets periodically to discuss museum goals for historic interpretation. However, the absence of a professional historian, whose job it is to perform historical research, is a serious flaw in the program's structure. If the museum hopes to become a respected destination that interprets the American West, it must employ or contract a professional historian.

The stories and discussions offered by living history characters in Spirit of the West provide visitors with a greater depth of information and historical understanding than the exhibit offered previously. Though the lack of multiculturalism and current research is a significant problem, the attention to research and presentation techniques among volunteers have made the interpreters excellent resources for increased historical understanding. Still, it is essential for current interpreters to address the lives of people who are not represented by first person characters.

Museums offering museum theater or living history programs must consider who performers will be able to represent. Museums that address the history of the American West must offer not only discussions of the significance of African Americans, Native Americans, Asians, and Hispanics to this history, but also the first person perspective that fosters an emotional connection between the visitor and the past.

1. For further discussion of and precise definitions of museum theater, see the International Museum Theater Alliance Web site at, Retrieved November 5, 2005.


Bridal, T. (2004). Exploring museum theatre. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Eichstedt, J.L. & Small, S. (2002). Representations of slavery: Race and ideology in southern plantation museums. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Falk, J.H. & Dierking, L.D. (2000). Learning from museums: Visitor experiences and the making of meaning. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Gardner, J. (2004). Contested terrain: History, museums, and the public [Electronic version]. The Public Historian, 26(4), 11-21.

Hayashi, R.T. (2003). Transfigured patterns: Contesting memories at the Manzanar National Historic Site [Electronic version]. The Public Historian, 25(4), 51-71.

Hobbs, S.D. (2001). Exhibiting antimodernism: History, memory, and the aestheticized past in mid-twentieth-century America. The Public Historian, 23(3), 39-61.

Hughes, C. (1998). Museum theatre: Communicating with visitors through drama. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Press.

Loewen, J.W. (1999). Lies across America: What our historic sites get wrong. New York: New York Press.

Rutherford, J.W. & Shay, S.E. (2004). Peopling the age of elegance: Reinterpreting Spokane's Campbell House – A collaboration. The Public Historian, 26(3), 27-48.

Ann Craig is the Education Coordinator at the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History. She earned her Master of Arts in Arts Management, Museum Studies from the Univerisity of Oregon in 2006. Her research interests include cultural interpretation and techniques for building audiences is historical museums.

Valid XHTML 1.0!| Valid CSS!|

CultureWork is an electronic publication of the University of Oregon Center for Community Arts and Cultural Policy. Its mission is to provide timely workplace-oriented information on culture, the arts, education, and community. For links to other sites of interest, see the ICAS links page. For previous issues of CultureWork, visit the Previous Issues page. Prospective authors and illustrators please see the Guidelines.

Opinions expressed by authors of CultureWork broadsides do not necessarily express those of the editors, the Center for Community Arts and Cultural Policy, or the University of Oregon.

Arts and Administration | Center for Community Arts and Cultural Policy

©2007 University of Oregon Center for Community Arts and Cultural Policy unless otherwise noted; all other publication rights revert to the author(s), illustrator(s), or artist(s) thereof.

Editors: Julie and Robert Voelker-Morris                                        Advisor: Dr. Douglas Blandy. 

Comments to: