Bringing the Past to Life

PROVO, Utah – Aug 09, 2019 – BYU Marriott MPA professor Jeff Thompson didn’t realize the two weeks he and his family spent performing in the Nauvoo Pageant would shape his next research project. His newfound interest in historical interpreters and their purpose for the work they do not only changed Thompson personally, but is also helping him revolutionize his approach in the classroom.

Thompson and his family spent part of summer 2018 participating in the Nauvoo Pageant, a play depicting early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “I didn’t go into the pageant thinking it would be academic,” Thompson explains. “It was just meant to be a family experience. But by the end of the two weeks, I was deeply committed to the story we were telling.” Thompson’s experience prompted him to think about why he had such a profound connection to a story that was not his own. This questioning helped him realize why people not only share history but become transformed by it.

Thompson’s newfound passion for conveying history helped him understand the individuals he researches. “I study people with deep, intrinsic motivation,” he says, “people who feel their work is a calling.” Though unaware of it at the time, Thompson’s involvement recounting history in the Nauvoo Pageant would prepare him for his next research project.

A few months after performing in the pageant, Thompson embarked on a faculty development leave to Europe. While visiting historic sites, he noticed actors dressed as famous figures from the past. He saw how invested these historical interpreters were in sharing history and noticed the similarities to his own experience in the Nauvoo Pageant. With this personal connection on his mind, his research project began to take shape. “I started interviewing interpreters. I talked to medieval sword fighters and eventually interviewed people who played nobility and royalty,” he says.

Thompson’s research helped him understand that historical interpreters were particularly invested in sharing stories that had been lost to history. “I heard over and over again from the people I was interviewing that they wanted to bring to life what everyday people were experiencing in centuries past,” says Thompson.

Through his interviews, Thompson found historical interpreters to be personally motivated by stories that weren’t their own. “They are not re-enacting history for fun,” Thompson explains. “Historical interpreters have a strong ideological belief that telling history matters because it changes the future.”

He discovered that historical interpreters want people to leave their performances with a greater desire to learn about history, read books, and become critical thinkers. “These interpreters have this ambition to educate because they believe it will save the world,” says Thompson. “I have been amazed by how grand their motivations are for something that, frankly, a lot of people mock.”

When interviewing interpreters, Thompson recognized their desire to change the world, something he sees in his MPA students. “BYU Marriott MPA students are idealists. They are willing to make a little less money in order to make the world a better place,” Thompson explains. “These are young people with big ideas that matter, but they are sometimes a little naïve about how hard it is to change the world.”

Thompson believes his research can help his students develop a clear idea of how they can make a difference and view their work as a calling. “Most historical interpreters have a concrete sense of the good they want to do,” says Thompson. “A lot of my students are not there yet. I love helping them learn how to sharpen their purpose.”

Though Thompson’s research is still taking shape, he believes his discoveries will benefit BYU Marriott MPA students. On his unusual journey studying historical interpreters, Thompson has found new ways to encourage his students to view their work in public service with renewed resolve and believes they can find calling in the work they do.

Jeff Thompson
Jeff Thompson
Jeff Thompson and his family at the Nauvoo Pageant. Photo courtesy of Jeff Thompson.
Jeff Thompson and his family at the Nauvoo Pageant. Photo courtesy of Jeff Thompson.

Media Contact: Chad Little (801) 422-1512
Writer: Nikaela Smith