UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Livestock in the living history laboratory : backbreeding, whole systems, and the living historical farms movement Gow, Elspeth


As various social and ecological upheavals of the 1970s laid bare the failed promises of modernity and progress, the living history museum began to take its form as a mode of re-enactment that re-created living processes rather than static, visual tableaus. In particular, living historical farms—reconstructions of farming operations complete with period-appropriate plants, animals, and costumed staff—became central to American historical re-enactment. Guided by the newly formed Association for Living Historical Farms (ALHFAM), the living historical farms movement drew on forms of empirical research to re-create the social and material worlds of the nation’s rural past, which included not only fashioning historically accurate implements, clothing, and buildings, but also period-appropriate plants and livestock. The “backbreeding” program, developed at Old Sturbridge Village in the 1970s, sought to return various types of cattle and sheep to their pre-industrial states in order to complete a three-dimensional historical farming experience and code it as authentic. At once, living historical farm re-enactment resembled the concurrent countercultural “back-to-the-land” communes that had emerged throughout the 1960s and 70s: both offered a return to small-scale systems of production on the land as well as operated within, as scholars have argued, a new mode of historical consciousness that championed immersive and sensory engagements with the past. However, as this these argues, the living historical farm movement and, in particular, the practice of backbreeding, embodied both the counterculturalism of the 1970s and the “empiricist” research culture and state and institutional power of the 1950s and 60s. It was not simply that the elite, state-centered motives that led to the beginning of backbreeding and living farms were completely subverted by a new generation of practitioners focused on subjectivity, embodied experience, and the collapsing of past and present. Rather, these two modes of historical thinking were entangled through the practice of backbreeding and the intensive focus on the biological, which indeed defined living historical farms. This thesis, then, urges a closer look at the intersections of science, technology, and animals with the forms of history-based cultural production that emerged around living history museums in the 1970s.

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