HistoryTube: The YouTube Trend of History Through Reenactment

History reenactment has always been an interactive and engaging way for museums and historic sites to educate the visitors. I also notice that over the years there is a growing trend of reenactment video channels on Youtube. For my print project, I’m interested in analyzing the history channels on Youtube, specifically on the channels that use history reenactment as their main vehicle to present history. I plan to look into several Youtube Channels, such as Drunk History and CrowsEyeProductions.

Drunk History is an educational comedy series where a historical event was recounted by a drunk narrator and reenacted in each episode. Drunk History was aired in 2013 and continued for six seasons until 2020. The series recreated some of the most famous nationals historical events including the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment. The series also highlighted some of the lesser-known stories, such as Oney Judge, an African American women enslaved by the Washington family, who became the subject of an intense manhunt after she escaped from the family, or Nellie Bly, an American journalist who exposed the condition of the mental health institution in the 1880s and prompted the asylum reform by faking insanity to enter the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island and record what she saw. The series took on a fresh spin on history storytelling, it used comedy to draw the audience’s attention while recounting a historical event. The historic accuracy of the series remained a point of concern for many history channels on Youtube. The content of Drunk History was also explored and examined by several independent newspapers. There have not been any major disputes on the stories told in the series. However, it is clear that the reenactment element and the character dialogues of the series are only intended to serve as comedy and are not historically accurate. 

Season 4 Episode 6 “Kpop Sisters”

Different from Drunk History, The Crows Eye Productions tries to make the historical reenactment as realistic as possible. The channel has a series titled “Getting Dressed in…” where each episode would show how it was like to get dressed in a historic period. The channel started in 2007, has 342K subscribers, and has produced 28 “Getting Dressed in …” videos and many other history reenactment videos. In some videos, there are only music backgrounds, the actors would reenact the scene without any narration. In more recent videos on the channel, more videos show the reenactments being narrated and the audience is given a historical background of the period and places the video is based on and detailed descriptions of the clothing used in the video. The time period range of these videos is very wide, with the earliest time in the 14th century to the 1960s. The Crows Eye Productions channel mainly focuses on fashion and clothing in history, although it also expanded its production to create series such as “Walk with me through time”, featuring videos set in different time periods with the narration of extract from literature in the time period. 

From video “Getting dressed in the 18th century”

I am very curious to examine how these platforms communicate and engage with their audience using history reenactment? How is the audience’s reaction towards these approaches? How historically accurate are these contents? Could these platforms reach a broader audience compared to traditional history television channels? I have also come across many other similar channels that are involved with history reenactments, such as Townsends, a channel that focused on the 18th Century lifestyle, English Heritage, and WWII History and Reenacting. Depending on the research of these two channels, I am open to including more channels in the project.

2 Replies to “HistoryTube: The YouTube Trend of History Through Reenactment”

  1. This is a really fantastic and creative idea Mengshu. You’re right to point out how much interesting history focused content is being produced and disseminated on Youtube and I don’t think I’ve seen any research engage with that. That is all to say that if you did pursue this project I think there is a lot of potential to work through it to something you could either publish on or present at a conference.

    If you do run with this, I think there are a few key things to think through. One is what literature you would situate this study in and the other is deciding on what set of channels/videos you would focus your analysis on .

    On the first point, I think that it would make a lot of sense to situate a study like this in the context of historical storytelling in various media over time and in scholarship about the way Youtube works and is different than other kinds of video media that came before it. I’d recommend something like “Historians In Public” https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/H/bo3641730.html as a jumping off point on the historical media part. There is a section in there about historians working in Film an a few others in there about other ways historians have engaged with new media. For the youtube side, there are a few good books to start from like “YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture” and “The YouTube Reader”

    In terms of focusing on channels. My sense is that given the way you framed this that you would want to cover the range of ways that history is being communicated on the platform. So I think in that vein, you likely want to identify something like 3-7 different series or channels to explore and then set up some key questions to compare and contrast them on. Some of the other studies on youtube will offer some ideas for ways that you could study the content of the videos. I think the diversity of videos you’ve already mentioned is great, my sense from them is that you’re identifying a range of videos that have achieved some level of popularity that also represent different kinds of story telling. So you can be explicit about that too. That is, this would be about successful/popular series on youtube and not about the full range of historical storytelling that might happen in videos that folks are sharing but that aren’t as well polished and produced.

    I think one of the things that will be interesting to get into with these is not just the content of the videos but a bit about the context of their production. That is, to develop a television series or a film required lots of cash, but these series can be created at much lower costs. So I think one thing to consider in all of this is how much you can sort out about the people that created these series. Do they have history backgrounds? What are their different goals or objectives? It’s likely you can find some interviews with them online and even just looking at their bios, profiles, and websites will likely give context on them. You also could probably email some of them and ask them questions directly. All of that is to say that I think there is a lot of potentially interesting work to do in contextualizing who these creators are and what their goals are.

    To sum this up, I think this is a great topic and you’re already on a good start toward some really rich examples to focus on for a paper. Great work!

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