Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Conference that I Built

I did something a little different earlier this month, I was the sole organizer of a professional conference.

There are professional organizations and conferences for just about everything! And that is true of Living History too. Stephen and I have attended three FPIPN Conferences, two of which I blogged about: Here and Here, and at the end of the last one the organizer asked if there was anyone who would be willing to host the next in two years. At the time I was pregnant, less than 6 months into my new job at the museum, and reluctant to take on any new projects, but even then I knew that I could do it, and that I probably would. Fast forward two years, and here we are, just a few weeks after the 2016 First Person Interpreter’s Retreat of which I was the organizer, communicator, decision maker and host. To say that I will be processing this for a while is an understatement, but I also want to get down some of my thoughts while they are still fresh.

The FPIPN Retreat is usually a two-day retreat, where members of our community help each other out, teach a few of our favorite tricks, commiserate about our tough experiences, and get re-inspired for the upcoming season. My friends and acquaintances, the FPIPN Facebook group, and the parent org’s newsletter shared the call for sessions, and I heard back from people I had never met as well as some of the usual suspects. I only asked pointedly a few people, and amazingly all of those that I tapped were happy to oblige. We got enough session proposals to fill up both Saturday and Sunday, and on an amazing variety of topics: working with kids, visitors, museum management, emotional topics, new programs, unknown historical figures, an abundance of resources, in all sorts of environments. We had a total of 19 different “sessions” or chances to learn about some aspect of first person interpretation.

I changed it up a little by starting on Friday afternoon with some in-character presentations, and a pizza party/Book Group. I am obsessed with finding all the books on Living History, which is still a relatively small number, and with sharing all these great books, so it was fun to pack up my LH library (one shelf in on the bigger history bookcase) into a tub (they all fit in one plastic tub!) and spread them out for conference goers to look through.

I also hired a keynote speaker. There was one at the first conference I attended in 2010 which had been very inspiring, and set the tone of the conference for me. I wanted to do the same this year, and I knew the tone that I wanted to set. I see these retreats as a chance to connect to other roleplayers, and I see my job as a roleplayer to connect my audience to history. I had met a woman out in Chicago who wrote a whole book about doing just that, and I’d seen her interact, she is good, and definitely articulate. I took a big risk, and invited a Renaissance Faire performer to share with all these serious museum folks the power of positive interactions. It turned out great! I heard plenty of good feedback about how A-E was putting into words things that some folks had been thinking about for years and been unable to articulate. Or even if they’d never thought about it, now they would! She added to the weekend’s feeling of comradery and positive learning.

Even before Friday night was over I heard from a Strawbery Banke colleague who came up to me and remarked that before that day she had not really thought of herself as belonging to a community, but this conference, in just the first few hours had shown her that there is a community of costumed history folks, and she is a part of it. The reenactors who attended told me they found it interesting, the museum people said they learned quite a bit. Event Stephen said he has new ideas for the upcoming year, some of which came up in the presentation that he lead, that he’d never thought about before! And many people remarked on how they had made quite a few new friends this weekend. I’m not sure it gets much better than that.
The crowd for our keynote.

Out and about in Portsmouth. Having way too much fun. Photo by A_E Shapera.

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Friday, March 11, 2016

Living History in 2015 through Cute Baby Photos

What did I do in 2015 that was Living History related? I learned a heck of a lot. Mostly about what it is like to reenact with a baby, and about what I can do even in a low-energy year.  in the early summer I shared a little bit about Early Modern Muster of Arms, and then a bit more about all the activities in June, but then I lost blog writing momentum. I don’t want to bore anyone with event recaps, but I think it will be valuable to look back on last year and remember what mattered at the time. These are not necessarily in the order they took place, I admit the summer has rather blurred over the winter. With plenty of cute baby photos to keep you interested.

Great Northeastern War
For the past ten years I have mostly been a history event participant, and not an event attendee. Just attending an event with very little to do while there other than dress up, walk around and soak up the atmosphere drives Stephen batty, but in 2015 I’ve learned to enjoy it a little more. We went up to an SCA event in Maine on a hot weekend this summer on my urging. I was hoping to meet more local history people. My history friends are scattered all over New England, and the travel is rough on Percy so on of my goals this past summer was to stick closer to home, but more importantly, make more history friends.

So we drove very far into Maine. Okay, not close to home but this is a big event for all those from New England who are members of the SCA, and I knew at least some of the attendants live pretty close to us. Since it was an SCA event everyone who attends is a participant, but we did not take part in the fighting, archery, displays, teaching classes. We did not spend much money in the shops, attend many classes, nor did we camp out. That was probably the biggest mistake, we should have camped which would have given us something to do and a base of operations. It also meant I missed the dancing in the evening, when we were back at the motel trying to get Percy to sleep. Stephen was fairly restless with all this walking around, sitting, and observing, but has agreed to try again this year if we set up our encampment with all of our usual camp activities to keep him (and us) occupied.

Newport Illumination
Another far away event! We drove down to Newport, RI to participate in a day-time event to celebrate the arrival of L’Hermione on the east coast. I wanted to do this one because it was hosted by a LH friend who has been doing a lot of good events, and because those in attendance have the reputation for being seriously good reenactors without taking themselves too seriously. There were about a dozen of us in a nice old building mostly interacting with people who came in off the street and had no idea what to expect. There were two kids plus Percy, who crawled around, played with toys, and did not manage to nap until an hour before the event ended. I learned quite a bit about French occupied Newport, RI and did make some contacts in the reenacting world. Plus I got some super cute photos of Percy, which is always important.
Percy says "We're celebrating Illumination!"
Photo from Newport Historical Society

At the end of the day, Daddy's shoulder is the best.
Photo from Newport Historical Society

Hillsboro Living History Event
I’d been to this one before, some years ago but not in costume. When preparing for my own events at the Museum I got in touch with the organizers, who were nice enough to invite me up to one of their meetings. This event is organized by a volunteer committee who were super nice, and very dedicated to the event. After they shared so much I thought the least I could do is enjoy myself at their event. Stephen had something else on his schedule, so I was joined by Kristina, my trusty companion in historical adventures and Percy came along too. Since this is a multiple time-period event Kris and I chose to pull out our regency dresses that we never get to wear. I found a little white dress for Percy at a thrift shop and he wore his medieval underclothes as the base. We got a ton of compliments from envious participants and volunteers as we strolled along looking regal (and cool) in our light dresses. This year I made a lot more contacts among the reenactors and performers. I even hired a few at the museum this past winter. Percy proved to be a great ice breaker. He wanted to play in every single water bucket we passed, and since most encampments had a fire, they almost all had buckets of water placed on the ground in the middle of their camps. We had many nice conversations with encampment inhabitants while Percy splashed around with his wooden spoon and horn bowl in their buckets. Then when Percy got tired, we headed out, no sense in tiring everyone out!
Kris and Percy in History Jail
Photo by Alena Shellenbean
In the shade at a friendly encampment
Photo by Kris Skillin

Gatsby on the Isles
I think the theme of this year was relaxed events were we dress up and have fun. This one fulfilled the theme admirably. Stephen got to wear one of his tailored suits, I actually managed to sew something, and Percy’s grandma stitched him up the cutest little sailor suit. We put on our spiffy duds, drove in to town, and took a lovely boat ride out to Star Island. There was picnic food, a jazz band, a turn of the century hotel, splashing in a little pool, and making new friends. I appreciated this event not just as a chance to dress up Percy, but also since it is right in my back yard I got to meet really local people who love history. We had never been out to the Isles of Shoals; being on the boat was fun and I got to check that item off my list of local things I had to do. Exploring the old hotel was great because unlike most hotels, this one really has not been modernized a lot. The rooms were small, with bathrooms at the end of the hall. No plush queen sized bends, but the twin beds were under windows of lacy curtains, with wash stands in each room and a feeling that they were totally real. We did not spend the night (baby and limited finances) but came back on the afternoon boat. We still had a lovely time, made new friends, and determined to bring more people next year.
Percy Sets Sail. Photo by Julie Stickler
Picnic on Star Island. Photo by Julie Stickler

New York Renaissance Faire
2015 was the first year that the New York Renaissance Faire has had a group set up a Landsknecht encampment. The organizers of this new encampment contacted us last year, and we were more than happy to share our knowledge, sense of humor, and even some of our hand-me-downs! We traveled out to New York for their opening and closing weekend to lend our support and experience. For opening weekend we brought with us some items we’ve upgraded that were still perfectly good: water pitchers, chamber pots, serving trays; and we gave them a box full of the modern “necessities” that we’ve used over the years: sun screen, travel clock, first aid kit, trash bags, duct tape, extra rope, so many useful things that we packed the little wooden box to bursting. During the day we worked our normal magic: welcoming faire patrons, going over the basics of life in the Renaissance, explaining what exactly is a Landsknecht. Since the folks forming the new guild had never done anything like this before they were finding their feet on everything: cooking, tent set-up, educating the public, sticking to a schedule. We could not help with everything, but we could be there in our cool clothes, answering questions and walking around with the cute babies.

We enjoyed ourselves so much we came back the last weekend too! Actually our main reason was our friends from the Bristol Renaissance Faire were going to be there, and since NYRF is practically in our back yard (hah, when did a 4.5 hour drive start feeling like noting?) at least compared to a trip to Milwaukee we went to visit both our old friends from Bristol and our new friends from NYRF. And dress up in a baby-friendly history environment.

Connecticut Renaissance Faire
I really did look forward to getting down to deeper history. I wanted to do some real education, and use all that I know, but I ended up feeling pretty detached again this year. The rest of the Guild had a great year, a number of new members stepped up, we got into religion quite a bit, and made our meal time in the middle of the day even more historical. We also had a ton more kids in camp. We’ve had one or two before but this year we had children aged: 1 year, 1.5 (Percy), 4, 6, 7, & 8. Not all at once, but having at least three kids running around under foot while the women cooked and cleaned, the men worked with weapons or gambled, etc. made the camp feel totally alive. The older kids played with toys, with each other and with visitors. I mostly chased Percy while he tried to run into the fire, drown himself in water buckets, choke on tent ropes, grab kitchen knives, eat black powder, knock over swords,  and generally harm himself in the most historical ways imaginable. Sure I talked with visitors, but I never really felt like I was able to do more than half-heartedly answer the same old questions while mostly keeping Percy from damaging himself or others. Hopefully next year when he is a little older he’ll be a little less inclined to kill himself, and I might even have found a helper to keep an eye on him so I can get back to cooking, gossiping and pondering the historical subjects I like to ponder.
Percy tries out the guild's new wheelbarrow. Photo by Julie Stickler
I'm not making a mess! Photo by Alena Shellenbean

In Conclusion
What did I get out of Living History in 2015? An appreciation for the opportunities to just attend instead of being an organizer and doer. I missed getting deeper in to history, but I’d rather think about it as toddler-level history, and grow-up level networking. I’m laying the ground work for 2016 and beyond.

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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Learning Through Movement

I am a big supporter of alternate methods of learning, especially when it comes to learning history. Lectures, static exhibits, and books have their place but I’m just tickled that my job allows me to think out of the box and plan for all the different ways people can learn history.

In my role as Manager of Special Events I’m in charge of the celebrations surrounding the 4th of July. When I came in to this position, July 4th was the only event that did not make money for the museum. It was a scattered sort of event, with dozens of random activities, the event needed a serious streamlining. Back in March I talked on this blog about some of the problems, and my first thought about making the event more cohesive. I did not get a full reenactor’s timeline off the ground this year, though having a few more reenactors join us, and a few more time periods represented was a really good start.

What I did manage to do was add two opportunities for folks to get up, move around, and connect to history by using their bodies: a swing dance for adults on Friday night, and an Old Fashioned Field Day for kids on Saturday the 4th. This post is about Friday’s dance, the next one will be about Saturday.

When stumping for the reenactor’s timeline I approached one of the active members of Portsmouth’s vintage community, and asked if he would get a picnic together for the 4th as part of the timeline. He wasn’t very interested in that, but suggested to me that Portsmouth did not have any swing dances, and that we might be ripe for a dance instead. After Adam told me there was nowhere to swing dance on the seacoast I did some research to ascertain if that was true. The only stuff I could find was a dance club at the University of New Hampshire (The Hepcats) and a defunct group on Facebook. I emailed the local dance studios, some of them sometimes offer swing lessons. Boston has a huge swing community, and we’re not that far away. I know they swing in Lowell, and in Manchester NH. Hmm.

Several months after Adam suggested SBM host a swing dance the new head of role-players here at the museum came up to me and asked if, as the events person, I could add a swing dance to one of my events. Well two different people asking for it, and enough interest in vintage outings in the area and no one else doing it, this swing dance was looking more likely.

It took a lot more than just that, The July 4th event went through several more incarnations: we almost hosted a strawberry festival, pancake breakfast, Barbeque, the curatorial team really wanted a pony (I’m not kidding.) but by the time we made it to June the dance was one of the only parts still standing. We scheduled it for Friday night, July 3rd, the same night as the Portsmouth Fireworks. I hired a big band, a tent with a dance floor, and a network of people to get the word out. We made posters, and I did a lot of posting on Facebook. I was so worried that no one would attend that I comped in a couple of dancers on the understanding that they would stay on the dance floor and drag out reluctant attendees too. I got a couple willing to do a dance lesson in the hour before the band played, and asked for their advice on hosting a dance (provide hand sanitizer and breath mints.)

We sold tickets online in advance, but sales were slow. I was a nervous wreck in the afternoon leading up to the dance with the usual July 4th stuff still scheduled to happen the next day, plus the dance was so brand new. The band arrived in plenty of time, the dance instructors, and plenty of SBM employees and volunteers showed up to help out. I supplied pizza to all the volunteers and employees who had agreed to work late (we all missed dinner because of the dance) and the first attendees started to arrive before we’d all finished our first slice. By the time the lesson was well under way the dance floor I’d ordered was nice and crowded.

Folks of all ages, abilities fill the dance floor at Strawbery Banke on July 3rd.

The crowd was swinging and the band was hopping at Strawbery Banke on July 3rd.

And people danced! The lesson was noisy with enthusiasm, and once the band started up people stayed on the dance floor. The dancers I’d invited did a great job of drawing people out who were reluctant, those that had taken part in the lesson tried out their moves. We attracted some more experienced folks as well including quite a few HepCats from UNH who were still around for the summer. A few attendees were even in their vintage best. I only made it out on the dance floor once, but I was so thrilled that everyone else seemed to be having a good time. When the dance ended just as dusk was falling, many folks made a point of coming up to me and telling me that I had to do it again next year.

My volunteers, the SB employees, and I cleaned up fast since it was late, and the tent would be used again first thing in the morning. The band cleared out quickly too and we almost managed to get everything done before the Portsmouth town fireworks started. We all went out on to the lawn to watch the display, which showed rather well over the trees. It was a lovely end to a successful evening, even if we all got stuck in fireworks traffic on the way home.

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Monday, July 6, 2015

Variety in Living History

There is no one Living History Experience
Last month we had a lovely variety of LH experiences, and I’ve been reminded again how there is no such thing as a typical reenactment, if you keep your eyes peeled and your mind open.

Medieval Talk Show: A small group of us went to visit a middle school down in Connecticut, where we got to sit down with the kids, and they could ask us anything. Anything! And we would answer in period from our own experiences. How many people get to interview someone from the past? It was also great for us because we never know what they are going to ask, so it is a chance for us to think about parts of daily life we have never thought about before.

Guild Day: A week later we went back to the same school, but this time brought the whole guild, our tents and encampment furnishings, even Percy came for the day. The students divided up into groups and visited each “station” for a few minutes. Kristina and I talked about families living on the march, and the difference between soldier’s life and noble’s life. While we were talking as fast as we possibly could, we looked after both Percy and Lilly, a very well behaved 3 year old, the child of two other guild members. Both kids were looking adorable in their historical clothes, and were close to stealing our show, but in a good way.  It was hot as heck that day, so I brought out a big copper basin and filled it with water, then gave the kids a few bowls and spoons. They splashed happily while Kris and I talked and talked. I wish we had gotten some photos, but I have not seen any yet.

Workshop: The next day everyone assembled at our house for a workshop in chopping wood. Okay, we did only a little splitting firewood, it was more about making tent pegs, and using natural forks to make spits, carving out some wooden mallets, generally playing with twigs and branches. This one was not in costume or in character, but it was so important to me, because it increased my knowledge about stuff that our characters would have known about. Just like today people know the difference between a sedan and a station wagon, folks in most time periods would have known the difference between oak and maple.

Immersive Overnight: From the workshop we climbed into our 16th Century clothes and marched out into the unknown. We spent the night in the woods in back of our house out of sight of civilization and completely in character. We had no modern amenities: the cell phones, flashlights, coolers, everything stayed at the house. Stephen had written up a scenario for us to follow: we were routed after a battle and had met up, us women and a very few of the soldiers, and were looking for a safe place to spend the night before making our way back to the lines in the morning. This was a completely new thing for us, we usually drive in to a site with a car full of stuff (in this case we only took what we could carry) and we usually drop character when the public leaves. It was hot, it was nerve wracking, and Percy was teething, but we made it through and I think we all learned a lot. I would definitely do it again, though probably not the day after an event.
Getting ready for an Immersive Overnight

How to attach stuff to your Frau.

Percy and I get ready to head into the woods.

Armory day: As if there was not enough from the week before, the next Friday we drove out to Western Mass. Percy and I spent Friday visiting a college friend of mine, then on Saturday while Stephen was being a mud beggar at the Mutton and Mead Renaissance Festival we went to Springfield Mass, to the Springfield Armory, a museum run by the National Park Service. They were having an “Armory Day” timeline event and I wanted to check it out sine I am hoping to host one next year. I wore my 1930s denim slacks from Wearing History, and a cute blouse the fits in the first half of the 20th Century. I put my hair in a kerchief, and Percy in a button down and pair of “railroad” overalls. I don’t think we got a single photo of the two of us. We walked around to the different encampments, played in the grass, drank orange soda and ate a hot dog (the Boy Scouts were selling lunch) and were mostly ignored by the reenactors. I got a few ideas of what not to do: call it a timeline of munitions if only the Civil War Guys are firing, hire a dance troupe to “interpret” a certain historical time period; and a few more of what to do: invite the Signal Corps, the 1812 Marine, Boy Scouts.

Renfaire: Sunday found Percy and I washing up in the guild’s encampment at Mutton and Mead. It was a very different experience not being in charge. Stephen was there, but not in camp, he was being paid to be a mud beggar. I was only there on Sunday so I stayed out of the planning. The camp looked different, there was no set schedule, we all did our own things and interacted, I mostly watched Percy and tried not to droop in the massive humidity. I got to spend time with two of our camp’s new members and we all got asked a lot of really good questions. Western Mass is like that: a lot of very intelligent people, many of whom work at the local colleges, or went to those colleges and never left the area. They were happy to get some info, ask follow-up questions, understand the whys and wherefores of life with a marching army. Plus, I got to see a lot of people who used to work the Vermont Renaissance Faire, which is the one where I got my start and where Stephen and I met. So it was old-home day, with all the renfaire trappings, and a chance to dress up and educate the public.

Seriously, a lot of variety of Living History in a short amount of time.

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Monday, May 4, 2015

Clothing the Renaissance Child: It Takes a Guild...

I feel like I need to apologize because I have had so little time to sew, craft and create historical stuff. What I can do is profusely thank all the wonderful people in my life who are making it possible for me to continue reenacting and participating in Living History as a family.

A few weeks ago Stephen, Percy and I went out to Ft Wayne, Indiana to a “Pike & Shot era” LH event. It roughly covers the 1500s through 1600, maybe a bit beyond. There are so few of us who do this time that we travel long distances to get a group of any size. This was my third year are the event (read about 2013 here) but the first year with Percy. We’ve been doing this long enough that Stephen and I have a fairly well established kit (i.e. our clothes, eating gear, bedding, personal items) but Percy had grown out of the stuff he wore at faire this past fall, and now needs toys and solid food, and shoes… he needs his own kit! I never would have had the energy to assemble a full (if very small) kit for another person, but lucky we have a guild full of friends who all chipped in without us even asking.

Some of the clothes made by my guild mates for little Landsknecht

Tom and Amanda have a daughter who is about 4 years old now, who has been participating with us since she was born. Amanda made all the clothes for her daughter Lilly, and has since passed them down to us so Percy can wear them. Once Percy has grown out of them, we’ll pass them along to the next baby in our group. Tom and Amanda also gave us a lovely baby shower gift of a wooden box full of historical tidbits: a horn bowl and spoon, hand hemmed linen cloths for baby messes, a bag of marbles for when he is older, cloth covered pacifiers for when he is tired. Such a thoughtful gift, I am still discovering all the useful things packed into that box.

Along with the hand-me-down clothes was a fleece hood that Brittney made for Lilly. There was also a pair of little shoes that Brittney had gotten, slashed up the toes, and added little puffs of fabric to make baby-sized kumal shoes! Brittney and Marc had also given us a lovely little bowl they bought on their honeymoon in England.

Percy is rich in eating gear. Rhiannon, a newer member of our group, had gone to a paint-your-own pottery place and done up a lovely little bowl with historic motifs. We all think it is amazing but she was not as happy with the design, so she gave it to Percy; if he bangs it up or breaks it she does not mind. He was given a wooden spoon by my mother, and he was given a lovely reproduction pewter one (lead-free of course) that our friend Julie bought. She ordered the spoon hoping it would be one she could use, only it turned out to be a miniature spoon, way too small for an adult, but perfect for Percy! Rhiannon and Julie also helped out by allowing me to make repairs to my shirt during a recent sewing session: they amused Percy while I stitched furiously, and when he needed mommy time they picked up my shirt and finished the seams while I bounced or fed him.

Bowls and spoons, toys for tots.
My main concern for the weekend was toys to keep him amused. Amanda had given him some wooden beads to teeth on, and all the bowls and spoons are great fun, but he likes rattles. There are quite a few rattles in renaissance portraits, even one surviving silver one! I cannot afford to get Percy a silver rattle, but I did go out and buy little silver bells. I went to a hardware store and got a turned wood stair baluster that Stephen chopped down. Then I attached the bells to it using jump rings and staples. I was really pleased with the way it turned out, until I went to Pier One and found a red painted wand of bells that was much nicer than the one I had created. Ah well, now he has options.

I added a few other things to his kit, a wooden ball, a linen sling to carry him around, a wool blanket to wrap him up, a little ceramic pot of diaper cream. Plus all his modern diapers, bottles, wipes etc.. I packed it all in a pack basket that mom had given me many years ago, so I could sling it on my shoulder and carry it around the fort; if he needed a toy or a change I would have it all with me whether I was in our room, the yard, or the infirmary.

Percy did great all weekend long. The folks at the event were super welcoming, and all my guild folks took turns playing with Percy when I needed to run around for a bit. He played with the other baby in attendance, and smiled at everyone who came to visit. He napped through the firing of guns, but woke when the drum called everyone to muster. I am really lucky with my healthy, happy baby, and I am so thankful for my generous, helpful guildmates.
Percy makes friends at Fort Wayne
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