Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Book Review: The Same Ax, Twice

Same Axe Twice: Restoration and Renewal in a Throwaway Age, by Howard Mansfield was recommended to me by a colleague at the museum. This book is not just a look at history, it is specifically how we use history, recreate history, honor it, and interact with it today. Every chapter is a series of vignettes of different historical reenactments and recreations: the first airplane, people who make their own telescopes, Civil War Battle reenactments, and more. It turns out there are a ton of really diverse ways that modern Americans are interacting with the past. Mansfield talks about how we here in New England have been interacting with the past since the Victorian era with the invention of “Old Home Days” as a means of cultural celebration and mourning the loss of family members moving away from their local roots.

Mansfield is from New Hampshire, and writing with an incredibly local perspective. This is particularly interesting to me, having grown up here a lot of the villages and towns are familiar. The history of this region is something I grew up with. I think the book would still be interesting to folks outside of the state who enjoy regional sociological studies, but that could just be me. As someone who has both consumed the tourism of the region, as well as worked in the tourism field here, I agree that nostalgia is a part of our touristic appeal. Nostalgia is an odd concept, but one that is important when discussing how people view history, and in this case, New Hampshire history. A few years ago I tried to read “The Past is a foreign country” by David Lowenthall and I admit I did not get very far in that book before I had to return it to the library. “Same Axe” reminds me of Lowenthall’s book, in a smaller format.

I found the whole to be fairly melancholy: guys reviving old engines are described as puttering among the exhaust and nostalgia. American progress is described as a sad state of affairs. After a section on the Nevada atomic test sites Mansfield concludes: “American places are but a moment’s bright flash, followed by long, confused memories.”

But the diversity of history presented and the amount of connections that people were making to the past was inspiring for someone like me who often wonders if I am alone in my obsession with change over time.

Howard Mansfield has written a number of other books on history, I’ve also been told I have to read “In the Memory House” and any number of his other books. I think I’ll wait until a sunny day though, just in case they are as mopey as “Same Axe.”
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Friday, January 23, 2015

Book Review: Past into Present

Is there a book for what I do? For creating, improving, and learning about first-person historical characters? Yes, there is one: Past into Present: Effective Techniques for First-Person Historical Interpretation by Stacy F. Roth. Published in 1998, Roth undertakes to record techniques of first person interpretation as practiced at a number of museums around the US. She looks specifically at interactive interpretation: those where the LH interpreter has conversations with the visitor as opposed to museum theatre, where there is a more set script, and the visitor is more an audience than a participant. In the book, Roth covers the basics like: establishing a vocabulary, the places where first person interpretation is practiced, pros and cons from a practitioner and audience perspective. She goes in depth on how different people at different sites create their interpretations, connect with the public, and deal with different types of audiences.

The book reads less like a how-to and more like an academic dissertation, so it can be difficult to dig pertinent info out of wordy paragraphs for those who are looking for an intorduction. But for those of us of a studious mindset there is plenty to sink your teeth into. The appendixes contain both a glossary of terms, which is very necessary in this field, and a list of “character development” topics that can spur on a beginner, or add depth to an established character.

Roth was not the first person to write about Living History, that distinction goes to Jay Anderson. And there have been books published since, but Roth has not been surpassed, Past into Present is the place to start, and is where we need to return in order to up our art.

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Series Review: Tales From the Green Valley

After reading The Building of the Green Valley back in 2011 I finally watched the TV series this past month while recovering from minor surgery. What a lovely series. Stephen and I watched it on YouTube, we devoured all 12 episodes in just a few sittings.

The premise: 5 history experts spend a year on a 16th century farm, doing all the things a farm family would do around the year 1620. Each episode represents a month in the year, and starting in September they wear the clothes, plow fields, eat meals, make and use tools, care for livestock, the whole thing. This is not like the reality shows that put “average folks” in historical circumstances, the two women and three men who participate are archaeologists, historians or experts of some sort. We are not subjected to any personality drama, just lovely scenery of Western England, beautifully restored buildings and landscapes, and enthusiastic experimental archaeology.

I am not an expert in 16th Century farming, so they certainly could have made choices that were less than accurate that I missed; but with that caveat, it all felt really good to me. I thought all the activities portrayed on the show: laundry, thatching, land clearing, charcoal burning, haying, cheese making, hog butchery, etc. gave a really good feel both for those who knew nothing about the history, and those of us who strive for accuracy in our own presentations. I definitely learned a bunch. I did not know that much about thatching, or that there was such a thing as a ceramic still for medicine making. In every episode there were times when I would sigh with longing over a besom broom, a lovely landscape, or something else in the show.

Watching Tales from the Green Valley was a really nice way to spend some cold January evenings dreaming about the upcoming reenacting season.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

That random collection of digits

The average American does not know dates.

I was talking with a retired Literature professor about volunteering at the museum and learning how to hearth cook. I mentioned that we use recipes from the late 18th Century, and his response was to ask if we were making pemmican and other Native American meals. By 1770 (what I meant by the later 18th C.) there were very few Native Americans left in Downtown Portsmouth, there had been English settlers here for over 120 years.

The museum was hiring an outside group, dancers specifically, for some shows and the organizer was effusive about his wonderful costumes. First he said they were just like Currier and Ives, then he mentioned “A Christmas Carol” then went on to talk about “vintage dress”. I had to ask if he was talking 1840s when Currier and Ives started  and when a Christmas Carol was first printed, or 1900s which is when Currier and Ives ended and what is usually considered vintage. He had no idea. When I got to see his costumes they actually were pretty good renditions of the 1860s Currier & Ives prints, it was just the concept of dates and names for separate eras that he had no interest in.

I gave a tour of the museum to a kid just out of college where he had majored in history. I mentioned that Ichabod Goodwin was governor of the state just at the beginning of the Civil War, but that we show his house how it looked in 1870. The kid asked if it was a colonial house.

Maybe it is just the way that I use dates and events, names of time periods versus names of styles. I like to think I’m not a bad history educator. It does say to me that when introducing some to a historical concept, giving a date: as set of numbers strung together to indicate a time in history, or giving an era whether it is Colonial or Victorian can be totally ineffective as a method of grounding your audience.

Here is a challenge to you all: How can you give your audience an anchor from which to understand you without using dates or era name?
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Friday, December 19, 2014

Baby in Camp

Here is my annual Connecticut RenFaire post, only a few months late. I have been insanely busy over the past couple months. I don’t recommend having a baby, selling and buying a house, and managing 3 months of intense events at work while participating in reenactments every weekend. Now we’re a couple months later, this is what has stuck with me.

Every year that we’ve set up as Das Geld Fahnlein at the Connecticut Renaissance Faire has been an incredibly different experience. In 2009 we were just starting out: everyone had new outfits, we were teaching ourselves how to cook over the fire, and starting to gather the props and gear of a military camp. In 2010 I worked hard on cooking from historical recipes, and on how we spoke to and educated faire visitors. 2011 we got rid of a bunch of the camp items that had been “good enough” and I got rid of more plastic bins, instead storing our gear in baskets, chests and cloth bundles. That year we also got some new members who brought great energy to the group. In 2012 I was working as a role player at Strawbery Banke which meant less time at faire, and most of the other founding members took time off too, so the group was small and a little strange. It was the last year the faire was in Hebron, CT and a lot of our group was struggling with burn out and wondering if it was still fun. On a positive note it was the first year we had a baby in camp: Amanda and Tom brought their one-year-old, who proved just as popular with visitors as the dog and the cook fire. 2013 we were on a new site which was challenging but we were back on track: we laughed, learned, enjoyed each other and enjoyed history. I was feeling under the weather a lot during the run, turns out I was pregnant!

The challenge of this past year was welcoming the newest member of our family into the Fahnlein. Percy was 4 months old during CTRF, and we were all still learning how to be a family and participate in the things we love to do. Percy was totally adorable in his period clothes: he had all the outfits that Amanda had made for her daughter, plus another friend sewed him an outfit, which was good because I had no time to sew anything for him. We got our picture taken at lot. I also inevitably heard over and over: “that’s not a real baby” then got to listen to the squeals as Percy gurgled, waved his hands, snored or did something else that proved he was real, happy, and just doing his baby things. Percy made a lot of friends. There were faire folks outside our group that we had not interacted with that saw the baby then came back every day to visit, or Percy and I would leave camp to go around the faire and call on all the folks who thought interacting with a baby was pure joy.

Before the faire run I had hoped I would still be able to help with the cooking, monitor the weapons, attend the demos, maybe even march in the parade. I ended up doing none of those things. I had Percy adequately clothed for the weather, but at 4 months old he was still very vulnerable to the wind, bright sun, cold rain, all the things that nature throws at us during a New England fall. So he and I stayed in the big tent and talked to visitors from there. We nursed, napped, I sang him songs and made funny faces, we paced the rugs or lay on the bed. Meanwhile the rest of camp was busy at the cook fire, weapons display, medical demonstration and all the usual things. It was a bit isolating, being stuck in the tent, though people did come to visit me, and I passed the baby around in order to have a few minutes to tidy up, wash dishes,  eat some food. I had made a baby sling so I could wear him around while working, but the weather was just too variable for me to expose him to the elements for any length of time. I did get to interact with visitors when they came in to our tent: they would pet the dog and coo at the baby and I would try to impart a little history. Quite a few Sundays, Stephen told me to head home early.

Was our first camp experience with baby a success? Yes, I think it was. I just need to lower my expectations for myself while I make sure that Percy has a good time growing up.

Percy, Lilly, and I at the Connecticut Renaissance Faire. Photo by Amanda Sullivan

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