||Travel through time to
experience the past for yourself. With Mary Wiseman, it’s
Wiseman is a historic character interpreter at the
living history museum at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.
She plays Martha Washington as part of a large-scale,
ongoing reenactment of the past. "I want to give
people the feeling that they are in colonial times,"
she says, "to engage them and connect them to the
To prepare for her role each workday, Wiseman reads
from a collection of Martha Washington’s letters.
"I look at what Martha wrote to family, friends, and
business acquaintances to learn the details of her
life," she says. "It’s one of the best ways to
discover her difficulties, hopes, and daily routines and
her feelings for family." Wiseman seeks out feelings
and situations that are applicable even to contemporary
visitors. "If Martha wrote a letter about waiting
anxiously for the return of her son from a trip," she
says, "I can use that to start a conversation with a
parent from today."
Wiseman, like all historic interpreters, fleshes out
the details of her character’s life in a number of ways.
In addition to studying Martha Washington’s written
correspondence, Wiseman culls material available in an
onsite research department. Its staff of historians and
librarians finds answers to Wiseman’s questions and
reviews her ideas. Historians also tell her about events
surrounding her character, including who and what Martha
Washington knew and the politics and gossip of the time.
Interpreters home in on the minutiae of a life—favorite
foods, beloved pets, the distance walked while doing
errands—because they recognize that small details are
often more important than larger dramas. For Wiseman, this
means supplementing the research with her imagination to
visualize everyday events in Martha Washington’s life.
She uses the tactic only for character development,
however. Wiseman is careful to adhere to facts when
talking to the public.
Transformation into a character begins in earnest when
an interpreter dons the costume. Before meeting the
public, Wiseman dresses in 18th century garb: a shift, two
petticoats, stays, stockings, garters, hoops, gown, cap,
hat, and cape. Dressing takes at least an hour—time she
uses to prepare for her role. "As I’m dressing, I’m
getting into character," she says. "I become
more like Martha. I even move at a more and more leisurely
pace as I go."
Ensconced in her role, Wiseman is ready for anything.
She fields visitors’ questions on countless subjects,
including housework, politics, how she met her husbands,
and the color of her wedding dresses. Wiseman says of
answering, "The goal is to be seamless. It has to be
natural, not rehearsed. I think in two ways at once: what
information do I want to give, and how should I do
it?" Wiseman tries to re-create Martha Washington’s
personality, too. "People don’t realize from her
portraits how warm Martha was," she says.
"People wrote about her hospitality, and I try to let
that show through."
Most of the time, Wiseman sits and talks to visitors,
often for long periods, in one of the historic buildings.
But sometimes, she gives outdoor tours or attends an
evening ball. Depending on the character, other
interpreters might work primarily outdoors or in
workspaces, such as forges or stables.
Historic interpreters strive to give the public an
accurate view of history, often correcting false
impressions. For example, Wiseman says some people are
surprised when she reveals little-known secrets about the
complexity of running a colonial household. Others are
amazed to learn of women’s involvement in political
Like many interpreters, Wiseman performs a variety of
tasks related to her character. She creates and stages a
one-woman show at Colonial Williamsburg. She also helps to
develop and maintain the interpreter program there,
training new interpreters and suggesting new research
topics. She serves as a consultant for historical movies
and toys. And currently, she is writing a book about
playing Martha Washington.
Wiseman became an interpreter, in part, because of an
interest in theater. In college, she studied drama. Then,
she worked part time as a tour guide in Williamsburg while
raising a family. She became a full-time historic
character interpreter 6 years later.
No specific formal training is required for most
interpreter jobs. The ability to communicate is the most
important qualification, according to Wiseman. Knowledge
of history is an advantage, but historical details can be
learned on the job. At Colonial Williamsburg, for example,
newcomers spend several months in the classroom learning
history, 18th century language and deportment, and acting
skills, such as improvisation and voice control. Each
year, interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg attend
refresher courses to stay current in the latest historical
Some interpreters have practical experience related to
the character they play, like a restaurant owner who takes
the role of tavernkeeper. On living-history farms,
agricultural experience and knowledge of environmental
science is often required. And to train for the part of a
historic tradesworker, such as a silversmith, people
usually train on site as an apprentice.
College degrees in interpreting also are available from
at least 30 schools. Most programs cover more than
character interpreting. They include recreation
management, museum studies, or any other subject that
relates to giving historical information to the public in
an interactive way. Some also teach natural history and
geology to prepare students for work as interpretive
guides in National Parks.
The National Association for Interpretation offers
certification in historical interpretation to those who
pass an exam and have experience. It offers conferences
and workshops, as does the Association for Living History,
Farm and Agricultural Museums.
Even with training, however, finding work can be
difficult because of the limited venues for interpretive
work. Employers include living-history museums and farms,
historic homes, travel companies, and National, State, and
local parks. Some interpreters are self-employed,
performing at events or serving as consultants and
planners for museums. To gain experience, interpreters
often begin as volunteers, seasonal workers, or tour
The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not collect data on
historic interpreters. But industry sources suggest that
beginning earnings are often about $8 to $10 an hour, or
$18,000 to $30,000 annually. Earnings increase with
experience and management responsibility.
Wiseman isn’t in it for the money, however. "I
love history," she says, "and anything I can do
to make history interesting to others is rewarding."
Original photos courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg