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Advice on Starting a Living History Group

[This great article was originally written by Matt Amt of LEGIO XX, Maryland and it soooo good, I just had to use it! Perhaps people will actually follow some of these guidelines and improve the hobby... Not to sound arrogant, but I look at tons of reenactor websites and agree with pretty much all Matt says here about these sites--they need work. Marsh]

Starting and running a living history group is a lot of work, but it can also be very fun and satisfying. Since I am sometimes asked for my advice about this, here are what I would say are the most important points.

TAKE CHARGE

If it is YOUR group, then YOU decide how things will be done, and you should only enlist people who will cooperate with your vision of how the group should operate. But, you have to pay attention to your members -- don't try to force something on the group that no one wants. You may have to modify your goals and methods now and then, but in a real democracy you and your ideals could be trampled too easily. If your group should eventually become solid and set on a path you like, you might then decide to let someone else lead; but if you start with a democracy and lose control, you will never regain it. A democratic form of rule is also conducive to factionalism and long meetings.

Clearly explain your chosen form of government to all potential members up front, and tell them what they can expect and what is expected of them. Give them the option of just being associate members so that they can still learn and keep in touch. Some aspects of the organization might be left up to the membership, for instance, do you all want to portray the same thing, or have each member portray a different troop type, era, etc. You will also want to get input on who can or will attend what events (but don't expect a LOT of feedback on that subject).

COMMUNICATE

Publish a newsletter regularly, at least every TWO months. If the majority of your members have email you can do an electronic newsletter and save stamps. Or, you can have frequent and regular get-togethers--monthly, weekly, whatever--for eating, making gear, or just talking. Regular contact is essential in keeping the group (and yourself) motivated and informed.
Part of this is helping recruits--hooking them up with patterns, materials, lists of approved suppliers, and construction assistance. Always have flyers, guidelines, and lists handy to give out at events.

If practical, set up a Web page/site--it can be as simple as a brief description, a couple good photographs, and your name, address, and email address. Links to other groups are good, and ask them to add links to your page. People all over the country (and world) will see it and contact you.

ORGANIZE

Keep decent records of members, associates, FINANCES, etc. Keep copies of all your correspondence and email, so you know what you've said to whom.

In choosing a group name, a "society" name (like the Ermine Street Guard) might be a good idea if you have a significant civilian contingent, i.e., what do your wives and girlfriends think of all this? (Also, see 4. below.) It also allows for flexibility in your military impression; Ermine Street Guard usually portrays Legio XX.VV, but on sites associated with the original Legio II Augusta they carry a vexillum marked "Leg.II.Aug". If you do want to pick a particular unit, check to see what units are already recreated. If your favorite is already taken, perhaps your group could affiliate with the already established unit.

Incorporating as a non-profit organization is not essential, but it gives an aura of professionalism, and has advantages regarding legal liability. When you are ready to incorporate, consult your state government and a friendly lawyer. Incorporating can also be a real bureaucratic pain, however, and most sites won't care if your group is an "Inc." or not. You can put the group's money in a separate bank account (you'll have to if incorporated), especially if different people will be doing the job of treasurer.

HAVE EVENTS

No one wants to be in a group that never does anything. If there are no multi-period events accessible, contact local historical sites and ask about holding events on their grounds, either just your group or with others, your period or not ("timeline events" are always popular). Ask any teachers you know, or children in school, if you could do a demo for their class (5th to 6th grade is best, but try anything once). Contact the Classics departments of colleges and universities for demos or any classical fairs or conventions they may sponsor. Before you do, however, find out about local weapon laws--some brilliant politicians would rather arrest teachers and reenactors for carrying swords than punish real criminals. You won't have to advertise much to line up more demos than you have vacation time for.

Find out about parades, Highland games, and other such activities. We have tried a couple local community fairs and found them less than sensational, but fun is whatever you make it. Science fiction conventions are also not the best setting for unit demos, but members who like to attend them anyway might stir up interest by going in their kit.

You might only have one or two major events each year, but little "dog-and-pony shows" can keep interest up and are good for exposure. Any month that has no event should have a party and/or workshop session. Full-kit musters and drills in someone's back yard are good for practice and field-testing new gear.

Warn recruits about the possibility of long "dry spells" of little or no activity. Especially tell members with civilian impressions that they will have to make their own fun or risk boredom and burn-out. The ladies of Legio XX started by having a "Picnic on Vesuvius" at events where the legionaries were marching in the heat, but these got boring after a while. Then my wife portrayed a Roman herb-seller, with home-grown medicinal herbs displayed on a blanket in front of a simple lean-to awning. Many such crafts are possible, and will be far more interesting to members and public alike. Put a couple merchant and craft booths in a row and call it a forum. Two of our members built a portable caupona or street-front tavern, which can even be expanded as desired to add more shops. Keeping soldiers occupied is easy: if you don't have a shovel, just drill.5.

HAVE PATIENCE

Getting a group dressed, equipped, and active takes TIME, money, and effort. Armorers in particular are notoriously slow to fill orders. Some recruits may get frustrated waiting several months for equipment, others may simply lose interest and drift away. As the group becomes more self-sufficient you may be able to entice them back, but generally the people who are serious about the impression will never quit. Alas, very few of the people who contact you about joining your group will actually become active members.

And finally... BE AUTHENTIC!

Authenticity shows professionalism and dedication. It is essential that everything we show to the general public be as accurate as we can reasonably make it. Do your best not only to maintain your historical accuracy, but to improve it. Many people have gone before you, wasting time and money on inaccurate gear, and have ended up replacing it. You can avoid repeating those mistakes by finding out where and how they got their better things. Don't rush out and order junk from a catalog just because it looks "pretty good" and is readily available. RESEARCH, learn what is right, and make the effort to do things right the first time. You won't regret it.

Some Extra Tidbits and General Thoughts:

When choosing a unit number, taking the designation of a unit which actually existed will probably give your group more respectability than making up a number.

Some people believe that it is silly to have dozens of different "legions," "Divisions," or "Regiments" scattered all over the country, and that little groups should all coagulate into larger ones with a single name and number. This certainly makes sense for American Civil War groups, with hundreds or thousands of participants at any event. But it won't really make any difference in how Roman events in the US are run, or how big they are, and often our various impressions are similar enough that we can perform together quite well. If you and one friend are the only Romans in your state, what does it matter if you are your own little Legio IV or part of some bigger national group that you will never get to play with anyway?

By the same token, arguments that units should only have officers if they can field a significant number of troops are not really applicable. This is a hobby, and we are supposed to portray what we like. If your unit has a legatus, a tribune, a centurion, a signifer, and one legionary, that shows the audience much more than five identical legionaries, right?

When just getting started, it is probably a good idea to get your own kit more or less complete before recruiting for new members. This will give you a much better idea of what you are getting into. Know your stuff, too--find out what equipment is good and what is not, and who the good suppliers are.

I have never actively recruited for Legio XX. At first this was mainly because I had to make most of the gear for new people, and needed to work on my own as well! But now, I prefer to let the recruits come to us of their own free will--I never pester them about getting equipped or turning out. The serious ones will stay around. However, once you are ready to recruit and are actively looking for warm bodies, public exposure in local parades, town fairs, gaming or fantasy conventions, etc., will probably have more effect than pinning up posters. Find out how to get involved in such events, and make stacks of flyers or pamphlets to hand out.

The Unit Website

How did reenacting ever manage without e-mail and the Internet?? It sure is a mystery to me! Having a website is certainly not vital to being a group, but it Definitely does make your group visible world-wide. A growing number of potential reenactors have access to the Net, and they are looking for YOU. So here is some advice from Quintus, author of the Legio XX website, on just how to make a great website -- even if you aren't a techno-weanie. Remember though, these are just my personal opinions and taste, but if you peruse my website, you'll see that they add up to a very clean and usable site.

The first key word is SIMPLICITY. You want your site to pop right up onto peoples' screens without any needless delays. If they think they are going to have to wait more than a minute, they'll leave.

Skip the bells and whistles, flaming torches, animated cartoon soldiers, music, etc. Never use Java (whose purpose seems to be only to crash my computer!), and don't force people to download the latest and hottest new browser "plug-in" simply to view your site.
Put the information there in black and white and make it all load as quick as possible.

"In line" photos or graphics (those that are right there on the page) should be no more than 30 or 35 K in size. If you want to use a larger picture, put a clickable smaller version (called a "thumbnail") of it in line that links to the larger version.

There is one group which has a number of very dense, in-line photos on their website, each one being several hundred kilobytes in size even though their physical dimensions are no bigger than the 30k ones on my Legio XX site. Apparently their webmaster has a thing for high-resolution photos, which is a complete waste of effort as they are only going to appear at 72 dpi (dots per inch) to the viewers on ANY computer monitor. Even with the very high-speed connection at my office their site takes forever to load--avoid this--it makes the visitor mad and they leave, never to come back! ;-(

The first page (main, home, index, etc.) should have your group's vital information: name, location, contact name and address/email, and at least a brief description of the group's purpose. Skip the "cover page", it just forces the viewer to wait for a useless image to load before he can click on it and get to the site. Books need covers, websites don't.

Backgrounds, Colours, etc.

Personally, I can't stand black backgrounds, colored text, or complex background images that make it hard to simply read the text. Things like that also make it real hard for the visitor to print the page to read offline! There are some nice subtle backgrounds out there, and they are fine if they add distinction and taste without being distracting. Make sure the text and links on each page are big enough to read easily. I also prefer to use standard blue-hightlighted text for links to other pages, since it stands out very clearly, rather than little clickable images or buttons. Every such image simply adds to the download time for a page, if only a little. There is also a commercial site whose buttons very cleverly mask the names of the pages they go to, so you can't see which one to click for which page! Be careful how you design such features, and don't be a sucker for unnecessary gimmicks.

Frames--Tool of the Devil

I don't really like "frames," either. All they do is reduce the usable area of the screen down to a 3x5 card. And usually the top section is just a gaudy title bar, a complete waste of space. Plus you only see the URL for the main frame, which I find annoying because you can never see (or refer anyone directly to) the URL for the page that you are on. Sidebars for links at least have some use. I always have links on each page so that you can get from it to almost any other page, though there are a few parts accessible only from the main page or one of the Handbook pages. DON'T just put "Next Page" on the bottom each page, forcing the viewer to go from one to the next rather than allowing them to skip around as they please.

Navigation, etc.

Of course you want to put a little thought into a logical organization (though the liberal use of cross-links can make it all tie nicely together anyway). And make SURE everything is spelled right, especially the foreign language terms! Plurals can be particular troublesome, but triple-check them. Errors and confusion give a very amateurish impression.

A Final Note

A number of other people have borrowed pictures and text from my site, and that's fine as long as the credit is readily visible. Let me know what you need. Links are certainly fine, even to specific pages of the Legio XX site. Heck, it saves typing... But really, get photos of yourself, your gear, and your group online as soon as you can, so that viewers of your website will see YOU. (If they want to see me they'll come to MY website, eh?)

Written by Matthew R. Amt, Commander of the Twentieth Legion

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