Ceri Jones

An illusion that makes the past seem real: The potential of living history for developing the historical consciousness of young people



Dr. Sheila Watson

Research interest/area

In the light of widespread concern over the state of history education in England, this study explores how living history at museums and historic sites contributes to engaging young people in representations of the past. It draws on theories of historical consciousness (how people make sense of the past, present and future in the everyday), specifically that of German historian Jörn Rüsen (2004, 2005), which imply that ideas about the past formed in the everyday exist in tension with learning history in the classroom. Applying Rüsen’s theory to a novel context, visits by six schools to the Museum of London and the Tower of London, enabled an examination of the interaction between students’ ideas about the medieval past and its representation in living history, and the implications of this interaction for their historical consciousness. Active, conscientious and high achieving, the characteristics of the students involved in this study were significant when understanding their responses to their experiences. However, many of the points made in the literature about the development of young people’s historical understanding were reflected in their experiences, and this study, therefore, builds on a growing body of research which suggests that there are significant cultural patterns to how individuals understand the past.

From the evidence of this research, living history’s potential lies in enabling students to encounter, ideally through first-person interpretation, perspectives on the medieval past which (as far as possible) come from within that period. As a dynamic experience, it simulates the real-ness of the past, and makes its differences more concrete for students who are used to thinking about it in abstract ways. More research is needed to understand how the interaction between students and living history performances leads to particular types of historical consciousness, however, understanding living history as a performance, rather than its capacity for reproducing the past authentically, is essential to realising how it interacts with students’ ideas of the past.


Rüsen, J. (2004) ‘Historical Consciousness: Narrative structure, Moral Function and Ontogenetic development’ in Seixas, P. (ed), Theorizing Historical Consciousness, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Buffalo and London, pp63-85

Rüsen, J. (2005) History: Narration - Interpretation - Orientation, Berghahn Books, New York and Oxford

Academic/career achievements

My research has been informed by my work as a Research Assistant and Associate for the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) at the University of Leicester, where I have worked since 2002. Working with RCMG, with its focus on the relationships between museums and their users and the social role and value of cultural organisations, has developed my interest in the theories and concepts that shape the presentation of history in museums and heritage sites and how this impacts upon individuals’ understanding of the past.

I completed my study as a distance-learning PhD student at Leicester, but I continued to work full-time for RCMG so was able to take a key role in the PhD student community in the School. My achievements include:

  • May 2006 - invited to present my PhD research at the University of Oldenburg, Germany, where I presented a talk on ‘Making the Meaningless Meaningful: Exploring the role of museums in the understanding of history.'
  • June 2007 - Finalist in the Festival of Postgraduate Research, University of Leicester
  • April 2009 - ‘“I think somewhere in my head there’s always this thing going on that this isn’t real”: Exploring the role of living history in learning about the past’ – conference presentation at Annual meeting of the Association of Social Anthropologists, University of Bristol, PhD student panel

I was involved with four conferences put on by the PhD students in the School of Museum Studies between 2006-2012:

  • Member of the conference committee and editorial board for Material Culture, Identities and Social Inclusion (2006).
  • Member of the conference committee for Materiality and Intangibility (2009), contribution included writing a successful funding bid to the AHRC for the 2-day conference.
  • Member of the conference committee for Curiouser and Curiouser (2012), specific duties included development of website and conference support.
  • Member of the conference committee for Museum Utopias: Navigating the Imaginary, Ideal and Possible Museum (2012). Presented paper on ‘The light that burns twice as bright burns for half as long’: Museums and the Ruins of Utopia.'

I was involved in developing and presenting ‘Think Tank’ sessions for MA students on themes around history in the museum and research methods from 2008-2012, and the development of 'Tea in the Attic' informal sessions for PhD students which covered a range of topics from discussing academic papers to exploring particular research theories.


Following the completion of my PhD in 2011/2012, I presented my research at several conferences including:

  • February 2012 - ‘Frames of Meaning: Young people, historical consciousness and difficult heritage’ at the Challenging History conference 2012, 23-25 February, City University and Historic Royal Palaces
  • September 2012 - ‘You could see it in your mind’ Which is more effective, first or third person interpretation, for engaging young people in the past? presented at the OpenArch/IMTAL Conference at Foteviken, Sweden, 24-26 September 2012
  • December 2012 - ‘Bringing the past to life?: Exploring the role of authenticity in developing young peoples’ historical understanding’ presented at ‘The Real Thing? The Value of Authenticity and Replication for Investigation and Conservation’ conference at University of Glasgow, 5-6 December 2012
  • June 2013 - ‘Challenging historical legacies: young people, museums and the medieval past in England’, presented at the Legacy: Mythology and Authenticity in the Humanities conference at De Montfort University, Leicester, Friday 28 June


Jones, C. (forthcoming), 'Bringing the past to life?: Exploring the role of authenticity in developing young peoples’ historical understanding' in The Real Thing?’: The Value of Authenticity and Replication for Investigation and Conservation, Archetype

Jones, C. (forthcoming), 'Frames of meaning: young people, historical consciousness and challenging history at museums and historic sites' in Challenging History in the Museum, Ashgate

Jones, C. (2011) An illusion that makes the past seem real: The potential of living history for developing the historical consciousness of young people, PhD thesis, https://lra.le.ac.uk/handle/2381/10927 [retrieved 23 01 2013]

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