Are we free? The struggles of a professional historical interpreter…

Katherine of Aragon Weekend Jan17 (58) Today we are addressing  a rather sensitive issue –  what happens if people do not take  your job seriously because  your job is somebody’s hobby… It has been brewing on my mind for a few months ( years really!), and I have discussed it with lots of other professionals, and now at last have time to put some of the ruminations on paper ( well, screen…)

Yes, I love my job. But yes, I would like to be paid for it too. 

It happens to all of us, over and over, again and again – we are contracted to do a job, but people are surprised we are charging for it.  A few months back I was asked to spend  6 weekends at a historical venue nearby, from 9-5,  providing craft demonstrations and interpretation.  I was told the venue had  received a very generous National Lottery fund, and were putting lots of events for the public, some ticketted, some not,  to enhance the venue’s standing and income.  Great, I thought,  an interesting job.

But when I replied with a quote,  the organisers laughed – ‘Oh no, we meant you do it for free, as a volunteer! You know, just for fun of it, since you seem to like what you are doing? We really want quality stuff to entertain the public, but would rather spend our grant on enlarging the venue’s facilities, so we cannot afford to pay people  who dress up. But we are a nice bunch, so you will have a great time!

You can probably guess my reaction. The organisers were disappointed but not too much – we will get some free people instead then, we know it is not the same, but they don’t cost us anything.  Maybe you will reconsider – at least you will get some exposure?

Well, let us put it into a different context.  Would you be happy if  someone  who likes law took over your job in law firm for free, just because they love it? if someone was so passionate about educating  young drivers they would take on your career as a driving instructor, teaching folks for free?  A passionate amateur photographer who provides free wedding shoots  out of pure love for the art? I am not saying the hobbyists/ amateurs are bad at it, mind you –  they may be better or worse than you, but they won’t charge, since they are having fun.

In an ideal world, that would be perfect – we all do as much of what we love as we want, serving the community for the fun of it, but we have all our needs covered, so actually we don’t need to enter a paid employment.

Alas, we live in a very different world.  If you are affluent enough to  treat your hobby seriously and go to events for free, entertain the public and having a great time, it is all well – but think about all those  for whom the job would pay their bills. ( we have done and will do events for charity/ but this is possible only after we have earned enough to pay our own bills…)

True,  historical interpreting is a relatively new thing. It has emerged as a separate profession over the last few decades, but that doesn’t mean it is not a proper job  – a job that requires dedication, unusual hours, a considerable investment in learning the necessary skills, materials, props, clothing, training etc, as well as a running a business. Many people start it as a hobby, many always knew that was the job they wanted to devote their lives to. It is not an easy job, contrary to a popular belief, not an especially well paid one either – but can come with a huge professional satisfaction.

Let us have a look at a few features of a professional historical interpreter.

  • extensive knoweldge of their historical field ( or fields) – often backed by a related college or Uni degree, as well as more than cursory knowledge of generic history relevant to their period. A Victorian cook would be familiar with the receipies of her period, as well as clothing, social customs and have a generic understanding of social history of the era and location.
  •   top quality kit – not a Steampunk corset and a granny skirt, not a cotton tunic, but properly researched and made garments that are not costume – they are working clothes suitable to the role.  These are either commissioned, or made individually by the interpretors – but in either case they do require  a substantial financial investment.
  • constant learning and honing skills relevant to their portrayed persona –  if you are a noble knight, you not only need to look like one, but act like one too, including basic combat skills and horseriding, as well as  being able to perform skills required by a knight of a given era.  A  posh Regency lady  who cannot play, sing, dance,draw, sew, embroider, ride, speak a couple of languages and is not able to run a house would be a very poor marriage prospect in the past (  though good looks and a huge dowry could level the odds) –   but these skills would up any interpreter’s game a lot too.  Craft demonstrations etc – goes without saying!  And if they posses none of the relevant skills, then the next point  is of huge importance.
  •  ability to present to the public, on a small and big scale. Whether addressing the crowds, or individual members of the public, the ability to interact in an engaging, entertaining and educational manner is essential – especially if it is an educational job.  Basic acting skills and good memory  are  vital,  often a teaching qualification comes in handy.
  • dealing with all the backgroud stuff – marketing, invoicing, admin, negotiating, accounting,  insurance cover etc – the list is endless.

So why a person who invested their time and resources  wouldn’t expect to be paid for the service they provide? 😦 and yet we are, quite often too…


And please, let us be clear on one subject – Volunteers are great. We seem to have a love hate relationship with them, but  to be honest, I think they provide a very useful service – especially in the cases when the organisation/ museum/  etc doesn’t have funds  for anything else.  Many museums use volunteers  on everyday basis, hiring paid specialists only for bigger events. And that is great – many places would collapse without them, and we, the paid crew during the big event, do appreciate the volunteers’ work and assistance on the day. Also, many people volunteer because their age or health prevents them from entering a full time employment and as a volunteer they can contribute their skills in a less demanding, more flexible environment.

It is when the organisations can afford professionals ( or are commissioned to provide such) but instead use free folk, without  having to fork out extra money ( and in some  instances  pocketing the extra cash, alas) that it is getting tricky.

If they are lucky, the volunteers will turn up on the day, and will be of the quality ilk. If not – they will be understaffed ( there is no contract obliging a volunteer to attend if it is raining or if they feel a bit under the weather) or have a bunch of cotton clad knights or ‘edwardian’ ladies wearing hippie  lace dresses.  I have been to events when half of participants didn’t turn up – they were volunteers, and the weather was abysmal, so only a couple of unpaid guys showed up ( respect!!! ) alongside the bunch of paid folk, who were under contract to be there no matter what envirnemental conditions…

Many museums take proper care for their volunteers too –  they provide quality, historically accurate clothing, courses, education and support, basically training a highly efficient local staff. This is great. But equally, many places just opt for the cheapest available resource – and we have all seen the plastic princesses swanning around the venue all happy to wear a nice frock in a nice place, but unable to interact with the public, unable to answer  questions or provide  any other information apart from – I am Anne Bolleyn, I know all about her and Tudor England because I have read all the books by Philippa Gregory…


At an event at Aston Hall – one of the places that manages a perfect balance between volunteers and paid staff ( as far as i know )

In short,  my point is: if the venues  have funds to provide the public with the best possible entertainment/ education – please ( if any of you read this anyway… ) do, and don’t be surprised when we  charge for being there, no matter the weather, doing the job we love. Have the volunteers as well – the more the merrier,  but understand that we are doing a job  – a job we just happen to be passinate about.

If they don’t – that is understandable, many places are really struggling – but don’t exploit people. If you are lucky enough to have volunteers willing to help you, do take good care of them. Provide education, help with quality kit – it will all be appreciated, by both the volunteers and the public, who, surprise surprise, can tell the difference in quality….

But what about all you guys who love dressing up and are happy to spend time at events for free, but having read all that above feel just a little  bit guilty for stealing  somebody else’s job?

Well, rest assured there are a number of ways – there free public events  of which there is more and more nowadays, balls, parades etc.  (below – Victorian picinc and boating trip – free, beach party, free, and a ball in Denmark –  a reasonably priced ticket!). Join a reenactment group – a quality group will help you out with kit, learning etc, you will attend the events and have fun, and the groups are often paid by organisers to be there, provide displays etc – not much, alas, usually much less than they are worth really, but enough to cover main expenses ( transport,  accommodation, public liability insurance , food).

Better still, if you dont fancy a group – but you have a friend who is an intepreter, ask them to include you in their events too.  Then they are able to provide the venue with more people for the same fee, and  you not only help your pals – but have a good time doing so too, the best of the two worlds! You will often need to be up to your friend’s standard – quality kit will be essential, but you may not be required to interact with the public if you are shy, or don’t feel knowledgeable enough. Or you can leave early if you are tired. You never know, this may serve as a sort of apprienticeship and in time you may want to take it up as a profession too!


At Holkham Hall at a very busy Christmas events – both paid interpreters and volunteers teams working together in harmony to provide the visitors with the best experience!



Working with a friend volunteering as a lady in waiting

These are just my thoughts on the volunteering/ unpaid jobs subjects – results of personal experiances as well as discussions with friends who are in the same business – as well as volunteers. What do you guys think? Any other suggestions?



18 thoughts on “Are we free? The struggles of a professional historical interpreter…

  1. A few years ago, a very small museum asked me to do a photo shoot, which turned into a great volunteer activity that brought in lots of the public and hopefully raised the bar a tad for the out of area volunteers. They paid for us to stay in a decent local hotel and fed us along with other volunteers at the event. And for a few years after that until some changes to the staff made things less workable. Now they that they are again looking for things to bring in a crowd, if I am able due to work restrictions, I will volunteer again…if just to have fun with some great friends!
    Someday I hope to be paid for my hobby, but for now I will do what I can.

  2. If you haven’t seen Harlan Ellison’s “Pay the Writer”, I recommend youtubing it (and yes, I see the irony). Most people would not be as blunt or an ass about it, but I’ve never heard it summed up any better than: “So other people are suckers, that’s not my problem.” I’m a professional musician, in an oversaturated area. I have to pay to play, and play for free regularly. And every time I feel like a group is taking advantage of me (had someone want me to do 4 rehearsals and a concert for $20 — that’s a friggin’ slap in the face), I watch Harlan Ellison be the asshole I’m afraid to be, and I remember my worth.

    And no, you shouldn’t be free. The fact that some people will do that is a happy surprise, but organizations shouldn’t expect free labor.

    My sister worked for several museums, and had a similar problem — they were only willing to offer “resume-building” internships or offer a pittance. She had to work for 3 museums at the same time to actually pay rent.

    And last but not least — people respect what has a hefty price point. If it feels like a bargain, they will treat you like shit. Always happens.

    (And I know none of this is news to you — I guess this is my own ramblings on this point.)

    — Tegan

    • Thank you for mentioning Harlan Ellison’s Pay The Writer, I just watched it and it is SO true. All of these comments and the blog post are absolutely correct. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked to work for free, either as a writer, or as a seamstress. I’m glad that this is something that’s finally being talked about – creative people and people who are passionate about creative fields deserve to get paid for their work just as much as anyone else working in any other field. Our time is NOT free and it is not worth any less than anyone else’s in any other profession. We have worth and so do our talents and we shouldn’t be expected to just give everything away for free just because other people don’t get that.

  3. So very well written! Sometimes it surprises people that I charge for my education programs and sometimes it doesn’t. But, when it takes hours and hours of just prep for the shows (ironing and steaming all the things, getting all the outfits together with all the underthings and accessories, loading the car, transporting all the things, setting up, taking down, taking stuff back home, putting it all away, and then laundering…) there is a lot of work, both mentally and physically that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t have any clue about. Yes it is a hobby, but it’s also a paying hobby!

  4. In the bottom picture these two girls remind me of Mozart’s opera “The Marriage of Figaro” the way they’re dressed! Their dresses look like the costumes worn in this Mozart opera-Susanna and the Countess.

  5. Well written. At a hobby basis we are dancing historical dances. We can be 10-12 persons in historical dresses dancing for hours. Do we want to be payed? Isn’t it a hobby? Yes, it’s a hobby, but the clothes are expencive, we spend a whole saturday or sunday, have a long way to drive, but still obviously not woth paying for. A bit strange though – if they need a musician – of course he must be paid!

  6. Very interesting. It’s a shame that the museum mentioned in the post wasn’t more upfront in their approach. Surely an ethical venue should approach businesses with a clear and honest proposal – “I’m afraid we don’t have the budget to pay you but you would be welcome to attend our event in costume to advertise your business/sell your products.” – that would be a fair offer, without assumptions or taking advantage.

    I’ve volunteered at a particular museum on and off for years – their budgets are incredibly tight, but still the staff there are very respectful and always wait for me to offer my time, before assuming that I will be available. So some venues definitely ‘get’ it!

  7. Good article, but I think you spent too much time justifying volunteers and attempting to justify their place. Your message is that interpreting is a profession, not a hobby. Real, properly rendered interpretations must be provided by professionals and interpreting (by top-notch interpreters) is not cheap. We must focus on our profession and avoid that political correctness about volunteers. Let’s not confuse the readers. Non-professionals may be nice people but they are never at the same level as a true professional interpreter.

    • Actually in the field of historical interpretation I have met quite a few volunteers and amateurs who were excellent- often better than some professionals, with better kit, better public interaction style and a more in depth knowledge on a particular period.

  8. I work as a freelance live interpreter in Germany, and recognise what you describe about museums or event organisers saying “but you like that sort of thing” and “think of the exposure”. Honestly, that sort of thing drives me NUTS.
    Imagine saying that to a tradesperson who, say, you’ve asked for a quote to refurbish your house. Would anyone even dream of giving them the same lip? “You enjoy tiling, don’t you? Just think of all the people who will use my bathroom in years to come, and what a chance this is for you, you should be grateful that I’m giving you a platform”.
    As soon as you apply such feeble-minded waffle to other (pref. non-artistic) professions, the absurdity we’re already aware of becomes more obvious to other people.

  9. Sewing for a living…. I totally understand and agree with your post about getting paid for your art. I am asked all the time to make items for others. After many years of being asked to do this for free. I now say I only sew for my family. I have tried to sew for pay. I have given up on this. $2500.00 for a full outfit is reasonable to me. In fact it’s cheap. I am working for about 10.00 per hr once you break down the cost in hours and supplies. PS. Your acid green Victorian jacket is wonderful.

  10. Some years ago I worked as a professional historical interpreter, and was hired by a large stately home to give a series of presentations throughout one summer, All went well and was incredibly well-received by the public. The following summer, the same venue contacted me again – but this time, they asked me to train two local students to do the same presentations – for free – because they didn’t want to pay for a professional this time around. They were surprised when I refused.

  11. Very good article. It shure helped me recognize some new problematic areas. The problem actually isn´t limited to the creative field. As a vet you often have the same problem. You love animals, so can´t you do this for free? Well, no. Medical instruments and machines don´t come cheap, we need to live (and we worked hard to become a vet) and a lot of what they pay is actually for the drugs we have to buy too. And then you have to put up with the accusation that you want animals to get sick in order to make money…

  12. This always disappoints me! My boyfriend is a professional musician and they are forever underpaid and asked to do shows for “publicity.” I cannot understand wanting professional conduct, skills, and knowledge without understanding you must pay these people. You spend 30+ hours making a beautiful, historically accurate and functional item, let alone the research time. It is so much unpaid time and labor, the least one can do is pay fairly and treat experts with respect, and gratitude!

  13. This is such a wide spread issue. So much so that a group of Aussies created a cryptocurrency called “exposure” ha ha ha ha. I think it’s a bit tongue in cheek rather than a legitimate product, but it is nice to have the option for when you’re asked to be paid with exposure.

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