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Interview with Donald Meulemans and Bastian Becker, June 23, 2018

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:00 - Demonstration

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Segment Synopsis: This segment features a demonstration by reenactors.

00:01:20 - Introducing Bastian Becker and Donald Meulemans, portraying Napoleonic era officers

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Partial Transcript: This is an oral history interview for the Living History Oral History Project. My name is JD Carruthers. Today is June the 23rd, it's Saturday, and we are at Hougoumont Farm at Waterloo in Belgium.

Segment Synopsis: Meulemans and Becker talk about their national origins from The Hague, Netherlands and Cologne, Germany respectively. Meulemans talks about differing views on authenticity in living history. He contrasts the personal sensation of being in the past, even if very brief, to other interests such as dressing fancy, the social relationships, and learning about military or civilian lifestyles of the past. He says their artifacts and other material culture are not originals but reproductions due to the expense and fragility of the originals. Becker talks about the expense of his entire kit including musket and uniform, which he estimates to be two-thousand euros. He says it is typical to acquire pieces over time. Becker says he has been active in living history since 2005 and Meulemans says since 2003. Becker says he portrays other persona within the Napoleonic period and periods. He notes he is currently portraying a Scottish soldier but that he also portrays a Prussian. He says he also portrays German Wehrmacht medical officer persona from World War I through World War II periods. Becker talks about elements of his uniform which are from the Gordon 92nd Highlanders. Meulemans says he is portraying a brigadier general of the British army, and he adds that he portrays other roles from any point during the period of George III. He says he has portrayed a British redcoat from the American Revolutionary era, but not in the United States.

Keywords: Authenticity; Historical realism; Periodization; Persona; Reproductions

Subjects: Material culture.; Uniforms.; Waterloo (Belgium); Waterloo, Battle of, Waterloo, Belgium, 1815.; Wehrmacht

00:06:29 - Civilian occupations and period diversity in European living history

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Partial Transcript: I'm, uh, I'm interested in the variety of uh, portrayals. I mean this is a military portrayal because we are here at Waterloo, but what do you see in the way of the range of like civilian occupations in living history in, in Europe?

Segment Synopsis: Meulemans talks about the wide variety of potential portrayals and persona from the Napoleonic period from countries such as Britain, Germany and Holland. He says that there is considerable interest in the living history movement connected to the author Jane Austen and that there are Jane Austen societies that recreate balls where Mr. Darcy wants not to dance. He says this period of the early 19th century is widely popular throughout Europe even beyond the interest in Jane Austen. Becker talks about living history events he has attended, including the 200th anniversary of Waterloo which was three years previous. He says he also attended the bicentennial event at Salamanca, Spain. They discuss attending the two largest living history events in the Napoleonic bicentennial cycle, which were Leipzig and Waterloo. Becker describes the public interest in living history as robust generally. However, he says that in Germany there is public and official skepticism because of military themes and use of weapons in living history portrayals. He says in other countries the concern about "playing war" is not as great. Meulemans talks about earlier periods such as medieval and Viking. He says the existing architecture such as castles and city walls lend themselves to reenactments of early periods. They say medieval living history is fairly popular, and there is some limited interest in the Roman period. Meulemans says he thinks the second most popular period is the Thirty Years War and also mentions the English Civil War. He talks about the history of the Thirty Years War, which he says the Dutch call the Eighty Years War.

Keywords: Geography; Historical anniversaries; Hobby; Living history events; Periodization; Persona; Reenactment; Reenactors

Subjects: Austen, Jane, 1775-1817.; Great Britain--History--Civil War, 1642-1649.; Leipzig, Battle of, Leipzig, Germany, 1813.; Salamanca, Battle of, Salamanca, Spain, 1812; Thirty Years' War, 1618-1648.; Waterloo, Battle of, Waterloo, Belgium, 1815.

00:11:34 - Living history museums in Europe / Time machine metaphor

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Partial Transcript: You mention that, uh, th, this is a hobby for you.

Segment Synopsis: Becker talks about historical locations in Europe that employ living history costume interpreters but says that the profession is hampered by limited funds. Meulemans talks about his visit to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and cites that as a model of how living history interpretation should work. He discusses the importance of diverse interpretive portrayals to engage visitor interest. He says in Germany, museums have artifacts on display, but the human interactive element is reserved for special days. When asked about Anderson's time machine metaphor, Becker says he thinks they try to bring the past forward. Meulemans says that their living history activity applies in both directions, moving the past forward and the present into the past depending on the event and activity. He distinguishes between an educational interpretation which brings the past forward and a reenactment which takes the present into the past.

Keywords: Reenactment; Time machine metaphor

Subjects: Colonial Williamsburg (Williamsburg, Va.); Living History Farms (Museum)

00:15:10 - Favorite memories in living history

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Partial Transcript: I know that we've, uh--I don't want to take up too much of your time, so let me just kind of wrap it up with a, uh--what I call my capstone question.

Segment Synopsis: Becker says he has many favorite memories in living history and talks about the sensation of standing on an original battlefield such as Waterloo and reenacting the battle. He talks about the contrast in sensations of what it must have been like on the original battlefield to what it is like during the reenactments. Meulemans talks about two special memories, first of which was the 200th anniversary of Austerlitz in which the weather conditions of snow and fog were similar to the original event. He describes seeing the column of French infantry emerging from the fog in the same way that occurred in the original battle. He says his second favorite memory in living history was in 2014 when he portrayed Colonel Campbell who transported Napoleon from Fountainebleu to Elba. He says this event used a tall sailing ship. Becker says he most often uses third person voice and he discusses the difficulty of portraying a first person persona. Meulemans talks about how some living history practitioners enjoy educating the public, but he adds that he does the activity for himself. He says he engages with the public to answer questions, but when he is on the field he is in character. Becker talks about his education and profession as a nurse. Meulemans says he is retired from the Dutch air force and then worked in sales.

Keywords: First person voice; Period rush; Persona; Reenactment; Third person voice

Subjects: Austerlitz, Battle of, Czech Republic, 1805.; Elba (Italy); Waterloo (Belgium); Waterloo, Battle of, Waterloo, Belgium, 1815.