In the chapter Social Objects, Nina Simon discussed a role-playing experience called Follow the North from a museum called Conner Prairie which is a living history site in Indiana. It takes place in 1836 and visitors participate as slaves who are trying to escape from their owners when they were moving through the free state of Indiana. It is not common for visitors to have a role in the action. The visitors are “in the middle of the action as actors themselves,” (154). Simon goes on to say, “This approach leads to powerful interpersonal experiences among visitors in a group. Visitors may be pitted against each other or forced to make decisions about which of them should be sacrificed as bargaining chips,” (154).
Bringing the visitors into the action can open up dialogue for visitors to relate their experiences and understand those of the people they were portraying. A group of people of mixed races would have a great deal to discuss, given the different viewpoints. Role-playing is often avoided especially when it comes to the issue of slavery. Everyone knows it happened and it is not high point for our history; however, avoiding the issue does not help to resolve it or help others to understand why it happened or why it lasted so long.
I experienced something like this in grade school. Every year the sixth graders went to a camp for a week. During this time there was a role-playing activity that was commonly called by the students “a slave run.” We were divided into groups and were playing the role of runaway slaves with a white person as someone who was willing to help us through the forest to get somewhere safe. We had to watch out though because there were men all through the forest that looked for slaves to catch and return to the owners for a reward. I can recall this after many years because this experience was action packed and it was difficult to remember that it wasn’t real. I think the museum was trying to achieve the same thing that our camp wanted us to get out of the experience: to understand the experience of people who actually ran away for their freedom. Role-playing is very powerful and can open up a great deal of discussion about people’s experiences and their insight on those they were portraying.