Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Next Era


When browsing around the internet I came across this Dream Regency Wardrobe. There are way too many pieces to this wardrobe for me, but oh goodness wouldn’t I like a dream wardrobe full of historical clothes! Actually, I do have a closet full of historical clothes, but they represent eras from the 12th Century through 1945. And the itch has struck me again, I think I need to take up a new time period!

What with a baby, job, house, and the eras I already play in I probably do not need another time period, but remember the link that started this crazy train of thought is about dreams, and my current daydream is about the next era that I would undertake, if I were to undertake another era. But which one? Well there would have to be local events at which I could take part, and it would be a bonus if I could bring Percy along. There would need to be something about the era that I was interested in researching. Oh and the outfit. Is there a specific outfit that I would like to re-create?

Here are my three top choices of the moment:

1812: Proper Young Lady
Oh how I would love to reenact the era of Jane Austen. The crisp white dresses, the romance, the dancing! And I could take part in the Regency Ladies' Wedgie Society! But really, I’m not a young lady any more, and Jane is so far across the pond. How does the era stack up against my list?
Events: There is an awesome, if somewhat early (year 1800) event that takes place down in Providence RI called: What Cheer Day. I’m not sure I’m up to their standards, and it is very far, but I do dream of taking part one day. Commonwealth Vintage Dancers do have a Regency dance weekend, I’m busy that weekend this year, but maybe next year.
Research: The museum where I work has a house furnished to the late 18teens, I could certainly start there. I might even continue just looking at Portsmouth history during that time, there is a rich history that involves African Americans, neighborhood fires, the start of industry, and the blossoming of the neighborhood known as Puddle Pock.
Outfit: I actually already have a few dresses and spencers that could go in this time, but I’ve really always wanted to make a military inspired wool pelisse. I love the long lines, and the warm look in the face of all the flimsy cotton!



1912: Suffragette
Cast off the shackles of yesterday! But seriously, we’re still fighting these battles, and what better way for a reenactor feminist to do so than by honoring the suffragettes of our past? That and I’ve wanted an early 1900s suit forever.
Events: Well, now that the anniversary of the titanic is past, I don’t actually know of any events where I could wear this. Maybe just out to tea? A few years ago a friend hosted a fancy tea in Concord, MA, and a few years before that we went to dress-up tea on Cape Cod. Maybe it is time for me to host one not too far from our new house.
Research: I am intrigued by the time right before World War One. I even have a couple of books on this era just waiting to be read. I wonder when I’ll have time to read a whole book.
Outfit: Did I mention that I already have the design picked out? I’ve wanted a traveling or walking suit for a very long time. I think they are elegant, yet practical, and I think the style would fit my frame so well. Oh, and I already bought the fabric, it is a white wool with red pinstripes. Oh, how I want to make this!



1920s Leisure Life
Oh the dancing, the picnics, the croquet! Actually this time appeals less to me than some of the others, but there are plenty of events, right in my area.
Events: This one is very event heavy. Last year we attended the “Jazz-Age Lawn Party” down in Ipswitch Mass, and now I find there is a similar one here on the seacoast of NH that involves a boat ride out to the islands, and a picnic by the old hotel. Blankets on the lawn on a summer afternoon are perfect places for toddlers, I think these sorts of events fit the family for this summer.
Research: I think what most interest me about the 20s is the dance. I’d love to learn the Charleston, foxtrot, and I bet I could learn a lot about daily life by studying dance trends.
Outfit: Last year I just bought some stuff from TJ Maxx to attend our first event, but I would be way too embarrassed to do that two years in a row! Besides, one of my favorite bloggers shared this post about a new pattern she tried. It is a modern pattern, but from a very retro company and looks like I could easily make a few modifications to make it even more twenties, but still be able to wear it out and about an no one would know it was not a modern dress. Plus I have a lovely pink and green striped linen in my stash that is just begging for a dress like this.

So while I'm not sure any of these project will get done this year, a gal can dream, right?

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Visual Thinking Strategies



Back in November I attended the New England Museum Association's conference in Boston. I still have mixed feelings about the conference, mostly because November is so busy with my job, and spending two days away from the office seemed like a waste of valuable time. The conference was so crowded I did not get to attend as many sessions as I wanted to, and some of the ones I did attend were not too useful for me in my current position. What I did get out of it was a chance to connect with people who do what I do, and that is what makes the trip worth it. It also really makes me want to host the FPIPN conference in Portsmouth next spring.

One of the sessions I did attend was on Visual Thinking Strategies. Although I was unaware of the term as it was meant in the session, I have inadvertently been teaching using VTS since I was in college. Thinking back on it, someone must have taught it to me, just never used the term. I'm not sure if it was my parents while they dragged me to museum after museum or if it was in college classes on art history or museums but someone must have used visual thinking strategies on me. The session at the conference basically went through the kid's program at one of the mill museums in Northern Mass. They showed photographs of child mill workers from the early 20th Century and asked the kids what they think about the photo and why, then showed them modern photos of child labor around the world, and did the same. While the presenters were walking us museum folks through their kids program I was flashing back to an experience just out of college when I put together and ran a summer camp.

I was working at Historic Northampton, the director had given me a chance right out of college and I was so overwhelmed. But I did manage to put together a one week summer program for kids teaching about life in the year 1875. Every morning when the kids arrived we all hunkered down on the carpet in the tiny classroom behind the gallery, and I would bring out a stack of images: photos of New York and Boston in the 1870s one day, greeting cards the next, advertisements the next. We would look at the images and I would ask the kids what they thought about the kids in the photos, about the products advertised, about what things were considered beautiful, or cool or … My questions were much more leading than the actual VTS questions, which are just: “What is going on in this picture?” and “What makes you say that?” but we used the images to spark some really good discussions. The kids did not have to know a lot of history going in to the discussion, they just had to look at the image and they could take part.

Last week we were talking about a new summer camp program here at the museum that would focus on food. We brought up food in art and in advertising, and wondered how to incorporate that into the camp program, well that is easy! Giving a kid an image and asking them what is going on in the picture can be a fantastic way to establish a shared vocabulary, a jumping off point, a reference for all the other crafts, recipes, garden tours that take place over the week. I don’t get a lot of chances to work directly with visitors any more,  but sitting in on the camp planning session was a lot of fun, and reminded me how much I like visual thinking strategies. Read this entry on entry page

Monday, March 2, 2015

A Reenactor's Timeline



A few of the groups (I'm in there in the middle) at the LHA's 25th timeline event in 2011
I've attended a few LH events that are "timeline events" where groups representing a number of different historical eras/cultures set up encampments, hold demos, participate in fashion shows, and more. For those of us who portray an era that is a little less common, sometimes timeline events are the only events where were get to interact with other people who do living history. Military History Fest is not called a timeline, but it has all the elements, and we've been attending that one (this past February being the only exception) since it started. When we were just starting out with Das Geld Fahnlein we drove all the way to Maryland to participate in a timeline event with another Landsknecht unit, and a few years later tracked down a small timeline event in the middle of Vermont. We've event thought of hosting our own for a while, but getting something new off the ground can be quite difficult.

Winter in the office is when I plan all SBM's events for the next year: get feedback on last year, take a good look at the way we have done things in the past, and think about making changes for the upcoming seasons. Many of the events that I oversee are very established with key elements that work well, and only need minor changes every year: Halloween is about safe trick-or-treat, Christmas is about holiday stories, music and decorations, but July 4th has always seemed a bit unfocussed. We have a big naturalization ceremony in the morning to welcome new citizens to the United States, but as fun as it is to attend, most visitors (or potential visitors) don't think of a naturalization ceremony as a good reason to come to a museum on a day usually devoted to parades and barbeques. This past month I've taken a look at all the elements we've included in our July 4th celebrations: food vendors, craft sellers, kids games, reenactor encampments, garden crafts, special tours, readings of the Declaration, a kid's bike parade, cupcake walk, the list of random bits and pieces went on and on with very little to unify them other than the color scheme. So I took off the list any bits that fit in with other events we already host: we have two food-related events, and a big craft event in the fall. Those bits that had little to do with history like the non-historic kid’s games and cupcake walk I tossed out. Then I looked at the list of things I had left and picked out my favorite parts. The bike parade is a huge hit and I love parades of all shapes and sizes, garden crafts fit so well into the museum’s mission and everyone has fun taking a bit of the museum home, and then there are the reenactors.

Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time will know that I feel very strongly that Living History is a great way to engage with the past, and reenactors do just that, they themselves engage with the past, and help others to do so as well. In 2014 there were three different reenactment groups that participated in SBM’s July 4th festivities: one portraying 1740, one 1865, and one 1943. In year’s past there have been even more: a 1770s doctor, some 1914 folks. Then there are our normal costumed roleplayers who are inside the historic houses representing 1777, 1870, 1907, and 1919. Then there are the Junior Roleplayers who all come out on July 4th and bring to life the buildings and lanes that are usually so static. Once I looked at the event through the lens of my own interests, I discovered that I already had a reenactor’s timeline in the making, with many reasons to cement the theme.

Why a reenactor’s timeline? Strawbery Banke already shows change over time with houses interpreted from 1690 to 1950, so we are well set-up to host multiple time periods. Our houses represent some eras that are less commonly reenacted (not just the ones during major wars) so I’m hoping to attract reenactors who portray some of the less common personas. Strawbery Banke Museum is known to a lot of local reenactment groups, many of whom had told me they would like to be more involved here. Since I do some reenacting on my own I have connections in the reenactment community that I can utilize to get more people involved. Even more exciting to me, I plan on actively looking for groups or individuals that have non-military impressions. We show daily life here on the seacoast, I’ll welcome military reenactors but I want to showcase all sorts of history. There is a fairly active vintage community on the seacoast that I hope to engage; they love history and live locally, but many of them do not visit SBM. One of our staff members has a Model-A Ford which he will bring, and he has promised to bring out a few of his antique car buddies too. I’m excited to get some Native American groups involved, and hopefully some of the fantastic African American LH presenters that are in the area.

I’m gearing up by contacting as many local, or not so local, museums and historic sites that host reenactment events, so I can ask them questions, and hopefully make some professional contacts. I’m reaching out to folks in the LH community that I’ve never worked with before. I’m making a list of all the timeline events in New England, and finding those with interesting, not necessarily military, displays to enrich those that come out to visit SBM on the 4th of July.



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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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