Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Looking at Old Houses

Oh you poor neglected readers! I'm so sorry I have not updated in so long. Many life changes happening here that have left me exhausted most of the time. Stephen and I are a month and a half away from having a baby! Inviting Alysa into our life was a great experience, so now that we've had a teenager we're going back and staring from the beginning. We can't wait to bring another little reenactor into the world.

As if adding to the family was not crazy enough, we're also moving, Right now my commute to work is an hour and twenty minutes, one-way. So I spend almost 3 hours in the car every day driving to and from work. That is not going to be okay once I'm a new mom, so we're selling our current house and looking to buy closer to the museum. Right now I'm fairly convinced that selling a house is more stressful than being pregnant, though it could be just that the house deadlines are approaching much more rapidly, and my pregnancy has been very uncomplicated so far.

I do intend to write up a blog post about the latest reenactment I attended, which will basically be my last until after the baby is born (none of my reenacting clothes fit me, and as I mentioned, I'm constantly exhausted.) Today I thought I'd write about house hunting. Since Stephen and I love history, and there are a ton of historical houses available in New Hampshire, many folks have asked if we're looking to purchase a historical house. The answer is a tentative maybe.

I grew up in a house built in 1795 so I know the pitfalls very well: they are drafty and hard to heat, they are always dusty and for those with allergies or asthma (Like Stephen and myself) they can be a health problem. They require constant maintenance since some part of the structure is always getting old and in need of replacement. As a historian I also know the value of old houses: they tell the stories of their community, you can trace the different ages they have witnessed on the walls and floors. Also, they are probably going to last for at least another 200 years if not more, as long as someone who loves them treats them well.

When doing our initial online house searches we are much more likely to bypass a house built in the 1980s (I don't like split-levels and we both hate wall-to-wall carpeting) and look more seriously at a house built in 1890. Go back much further (there was one house in our price range listed as built in 1760) and I get worried, unless it has been well cared for, and the insulation has been updated, that house could be a nightmare to look after. Our focus is much taken up with work, reenacting, and soon to be parenthood, we are looking for a home, not another project.

But I find old houses so hard to resist! This past weekend a central chimney cape with a lovely barn caught my fancy, and I am totally in love. The kitchen is horrible, the whole thing needs work, and the stairs are an accident waiting to happen, but the house is nestled right into the land, it looked so welcoming, and had a lot of great stories to tell. I can imagine all our books feeling right at home in those rooms, and listening to the sounds of the house at night. I can picture the gardens and the rope swings, the living room and the sewing room, Stephen's workshop.

Well we've only just started looking, I'm hoping there will be other houses out there, ones that will require less work, but maybe still have a hint of history about them.

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Vacation for my Role-Playing Soul

Stephen and I spent this past weekend down in Williamsburg, VA at a retreat for role-players sponsored by the Association of Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums. The FPIPN conference runs every-other year, Stephen and I have attended the past three. They have each been very different, but good and are a great chance to re-charge, and renew our energy.

This year we presented two talks: one we entitled “Get Real” about connecting our audiences to the past by portraying real people: using the emotions, conflicts, life issues that all humans face. The other talk was a long session (two hours) where Stephen and I did a version of the LH Triangle I presented at Strawbery Banke last fall.  Unfortunately doing so many presentations of our own meant that we missed out on attending many other people’s presentations, ah well.  Our talks went over fairly well, and most excitingly, there were two folks there who asked if we go out and do trainings at other museums. The answer is most definitely yes!

One of the joys of this year’s conference was that it took place a little later in the year, and was held in a location far enough south, to be a nice break from the winter. We left NH covered in 2 feet of snow, and found Virginia to be full of songbirds, and spring shoots, 20 degrees warmer, and pleasant enough to sit outside to eat our lunches. We took afternoon walks, Stephen had a morning run, we left our coats in the car and just walked around in sweaters. Turns out I really needed a couple of days in the sun.

Even better than the break from the weather, was the company. The population of people as obsessed with the highest level of Living History Interpretation as me is very small. It was wonderful to spend a weekend with other folks who worry about how to present prejudices of the past (it would be false to leave them out, but alienating a visitor can shut down learning) and how to get beyond our own modern mind-set to give a truer impression of life in the past. We got to tell some of our funny stories, and hear the funny stories of other folks. I was a grumpy-puss at the fancy dinner on Saturday night, but I did enjoy listening to other people’s conversations. There was also a great moment where one of the participants got up and sang a tavern song with a chorus that he taught us all (actually Stephen and I knew that one already) and inspired other people to get up and sing. I sang a bit of a Yiddish tune since I was presenting Mrs. Shapiro and Stephen sang Finnegan’s Wake since he was there as George Rose.

I always wish these things could be twice as long. So that we could talk to more of the participants, attend more of the talks, see more of each other’s work. We also did not get a chance to visit Colonial Williamsburg during open hours. We were in CW’s training facility, but on Saturday we did not get out until most of the museum buildings were closed, and on Sunday Stephen had a flight to catch. Now I guess we have an excuse to go back.

What a nice re-charge.

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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Not Universally Accessible

We just got some feedback on the Christmas program here at the museum, it is feedback that I have heard before, on an issue that I have struggled with for many years: universal access for those of all levels of mobility. As a historic site, one must travel the roads and paths to get to the historic buildings, all of which are entered by going up stairs. We have retro-fitted some buildings with ramps, but entrances are not the only problems: getting around inside the buildings can be tough, and just getting to the buildings from the visitor center can be a challenge.

The busiest day of this year’s Christmas program was also the most problematic in terms of visitors navigating our site. The weekend before we had received a foot and a half of snow, then on Tuesday we got another 8 inches. All that had been cleared off the paths, but Friday and Saturday were warm and the light mist had been melting the snow all day. Since it was fairly cold, the ground was mostly frozen, forcing the snow melt on to our nicely shoveled paths and either re-freezing in to ice slicks, or mixing with just enough thawed ground to cause massive mud puddles. The grounds were totally a mess. I wore my rubber boots and muddled through, but those visitors who had dressed up in fancy shoes, or had mobility issues were having trouble on the grounds.

What could we do about this particular situation? We were certainly salting and sanding the icy patches, pushing back the snow, but even with a dedicated grounds crew there was not a lot we could do about the mud puddles. The water was not being absorbed into the frozen ground, and in order to soak up all that water we would have needed to invest in a couple tons of sand or gravel, or possibly several industrial vacuum cleaners. Do they make vacuum cleaners that suck up mud puddles?

So short term we could not do anything about the rough walking conditions, but that does not mean we can not improve for the future. So what are some of the long term solutions? The easiest and most cost effective solution to weather conditions on roads is to pave them: wooden walkways, cobblestones, concrete, asphalt. All of these would significantly reduce the mobility issues of our modern visitors. However, we are a historic site and none of those methods of paving can be documented for the time when most of our houses were built, which is the late 1700s early 1800s. At that time the roads were dirt, so that is what we have: dirt. By having piles of snow and mud puddles in December we are giving visitors a taste of winter in times past, and all the limits that go with it.

So yes, a number of elderly visitors and those with mobility issues do have trouble navigating our grounds in bad weather, even if nothing is falling from the sky at the moment that they come through. From a modern perspective that is totally unfair. I think universal access is an incredibly worthy goal and I do try, in my own little way, to work towards universal access for people of all abilities. But I am also a historian and can tell you, folks with disabilities did not really get to enjoy the “good old days.” Aside from the stigma a differently-abled person had to endure, in the time before electricity there were no elevators, no electric wheel chairs; heck, all those muddy paths were dark and even more treacherous before the cheap modern light bulb. What happened when older folks were no longer able to walk all that well? They certainly did not expect to go out with the grandkids to a nine-acre site in the middle of the winter and expect to walk around for several hours. But just because they were excluded in the past does not give us permission to exclude people today. BUT we don’t want to give up on presenting history, that is what we do!

I know there are people out there in the museum world doing wonderful work on universal access, but I have found very little of it on historic settings. If a reader has any insight, please share. I’d love to put more brains to work on this.

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Book Review: Telling History

Telling History: a manual for Performers and Presenters of First-Person Narratives by Joyce M. Thierer was published just a few short years ago in 2010. I did not hear about it when it came out, I did not hear about it from any museum conferences or mailing lists. I located it during a Google Books search. Since I DO first-person interpretation, and I'm fairy well connected to the pseudo-community of Living History, I was surprised I had not heard of a new book.

Telling History is very specific, it is for those that do big-audience performances, 30 - 40 minute monologues on a stage followed by question sessions at the end. I mostly do interactions in-setting of limited duration, but I'm willing to mine any resource for useful skills and info.

Thierer starts by writing an introduction to the genre, then in her first chapter talks about other types of living history and why they are inferior. She uses generalities, and worst-cases for her opinions, then writes about what she calls "Historical Performance" by calling up its best practices. A fairly messy way to justify your book. Starting with chapter 2 Thierer starts in on the "how to" stuff, and immediately references a PDF document online, on her website. She does not describe the document but continually references it for the next few chapters, practically forcing me to put down the book, wait until I had access to the Internet and enter her URL. Then the URL didn't work. Actually she had a number of different URLs, none of the ones I tried worked. The book does have appendices, I don't understand why the worksheets could not be included in the appendix, with the amount they were referenced.

All that being said, I do still think the book is worth reading. Thierer's guidance on how to pick a person to portray and how to do historical research would be very useful for those just starting out. I found her script writing chapter very informative, and made me think I could actually write my own script to present an interesting historical program. I am not as big a fan of the sit-for-40-minutes sort of program, but if someone manages to follow all of Thierer's best practices, I bet the performance would be pretty good.

I found her chapter on business to be the hardest to get through. It was long, and not as good as a book on the subject of starting a business. Yes, historical theater is unique, I wish she had concentrated on just those parts that were unique. The following chapter, written for museums and other institutions, was much shorter, and crammed full of useful information for the institution and those that want to be hired. Thierer's list of questions that every institution should ask before hiring a performer (and that every performer should be able to answer) is challenging, geared towards those who do a lot of scholarship, and are really professional. It is an aspirational list for those of us not employed as college professors.

Her final chapter is the most ambitious, but possibly the most inspiring. She writes about her dreams for historical theater and includes reaching wider audiences, and a professional organization that develops standards and provides training. These have been goals of mine at some point or another, though at this point I have found enough small groups or institutions doing these things that it is now my goal to organize the groups, or at least make sure people know they exist.

She sticks to basically just two example performances that she keeps returning to: her own experiences playing Calamity Jane, and her partner's experiences as Amelia Earhart. This allows for continuity, but got a bit boring after a while. She was very focused on American History, and specifically mid-west history, but this is what she knows. Those of us who have different geographic or temporal focus can still use a lot of what she presents, just know that the bits on costuming, picking themes, identifying research material can vary widely from her examples.

Thierer's book is well written. It is easy to read just a chapter at a time, but if you stop in the middle of a chapter be prepared to go back and at least skim when you pick it back up. Her book is ambitious and assumes some pretty high standards. These are both good things.

Anyone involved in Living History who is looking to find the book that best describes their own experiences is in for a long search. I have become a gleaner of advice and information, picking up bits from all the diverse books out there. Though Thierer's book is very specifically for those doing performance monologues, there is plenty to be gleaned for those of us who do other sorts of Living History. Read this entry on entry page

Saturday, January 4, 2014

2014 - Or at least the beginning of it

I seem to have lost my Thanksgiving post. I'll hopefully find it soon, and put it up before the end of this month. That is not too late, right?

I also have some more thoughts on the Candlelight Stroll program I would like to share. Plus my thoughts on the historical sites visited over Christmas, that should not be too much to get done soon, hopefully.

What I do have to share at the moment is my historical schedule for the next few months. These next few months used to be the quiet months where we'd jump on almost any excuse to get in garb and out of the house. Now I think our schedule is full:

Jan 10: 12th Night Ball in Sudbury, MA
Jan 25: Market Day at Birka in Nashua, NH
Jan 31 - Feb 2: Military History Fest in Chicago, IL
Feb 8: New England Reenactor's Fair in Sturbridge, MA
Feb 22 - 23: First-Person Interpreters Conference in Williamsburg, VA
March is empty right now, but...
April 11 - 13: Early Modern Muster of Arms in Fort Wayne, IN
April 25 - 26: Plymouth State Medieval Forum, Plymouth, NH

Late spring, early summer is being left relatively empty, but I'm sure it will fill up fast!

That is just the stuff outside of the museum. I think that is plenty for now, but if anyone knows of something going on in March, let me know!

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