Friday, November 21, 2014

Living History in Unlikely Places

One of the things I love to do with this blog is talk about the unlikely places I find living history. When I stumble upon them unexpectedly it is always a thrill. Last week my family went on vacation: Stephen, Percy and I went with my parents to Portland, Oregon. Since Stephen and my dad are both fans of beer, and Portland is well known for its small, specialized breweries, we spent most of our evening meals at pubs and breweries. I am not a fan of beer, but hearing the two of them go on and on about something they both enjoy was well worth it. I ate a lot of good soup. Our Wednesday night stop was to a brewery called Hair of the Dog. When we got there we found their normal offerings replaced, an author was signing his book, of historical brewing recipes! The list of what was on tap started with an offering created from an 1804 recipe, and continued on through the century ending with one from the 1930s.

While the guys oohed and ahhed about the changes to the recipe and flavors as the century progressed I was a bit sad that I really don’t like beer. I was still able to enjoy the fact that all these beer lovers were sipping a bit of history. They were participating in Living History, and making sure that the past was still relevant today. And I am always a fan of that.
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Monday, November 17, 2014

Bringing the streets to life

As Special Events Manager I get to make magic during all sorts of events. I think a large part of that magical atmosphere is created by people, specifically first-person role-players so I try to add as many into my events as possible. Even before I was hired to run SBM’s holiday event, Candlelight Stroll employed more role-players than the regular season, and more than the other events. We have 8 houses that are set up as our “Historic Houses” (i.e. furnished to a specific time period, telling a specific story, and not an exhibit or craft demonstration house) and during Stroll they all contain role-players. One house has only one person in costume, some of the other houses contain up to 8 people bringing holiday stories to life. Some of those folks are employed as role-players during the regular season, many of them are teenagers that participate in our Junior Role-player program, some we hire in specifically for the three weekends in December.

This year I’m hiring folks to perform a few roles inside the historic houses, and I’m also hiring folks to perform on the streets of our neighborhood to extend the atmosphere (and to entertain those people who are stuck waiting in lines.) I did a little of this last year, I hired two of my friends from the Renaissance Faire to interact on the streets and they did a great job. They’ve perfected their craft of interactive improvisational theatre over years of working Faires, and the two I picked are also history buffs. I got great feedback about those two, and permission to hire a bunch more. But I only know so many folks who are close enough to the coast of NH who would want to perform on the streets in December. I’m looking at possibly hiring people I have not worked with before which is exciting, but daunting too.
Junior Roleplayers head on to the grounds during Candlelight Stroll 2013

The challenge will be ensuring a certain level of quality among the role players when we bring on extra people who do not have all year to perfect their craft. Visitors will not be able to tell by looking who is a year-round role-player, who is a RenFaire performer, and who is an actor hired just for this event. I am planning to do a day of training to get a basic starting point for all the different costumed people, We’ll see how much it is possible to do in just one day.
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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Not That Rich

I recently read a blog post by one of my favorite bloggers Kitty Calash in which she mentioned a conversation discussing if the rich folks living Providence, RI in the late 18th Century could afford curtains. I won’t wade in to that conversation, but it brought up a discussion I had last year with a roleplayer that I was training about the vagaries of defining a historical person as "rich". I had to explain that although the Goodwins might have been a little rich they really were not super rich. Today we can talk about the super-rich, the 1%, those that drive a Lexus versus a Toyota, versus a Honda, versus a Lamborghini. When we have conversations about those living a long time ago, subtleties like exactly how rich someone is can be lost.

Here on the grounds of Strawbery Banke we have a house we call the Governor’s Mansion. It is actually a very modest house. The family that lived there had five kids, two of which lived in the house as adults. So in the year 1870 there were three generations in the house: Mr. and Mrs. Goodwin, two grown daughters, at least two grandchildren (maybe three), plus four servants. By my count there are 4 small bedrooms on the second floor; the servants and children would be stuck in the third floor attic space. On days when everyone was home it would have been a very crowded house! So that means they must not have been very rich.

And yet … They took vacations and expensive train trips every summer. Mr. Goodwin’s investments did well enough that he could fund a campaign for Governor, and had enough clout to get all his banking friends to fund the first New Hampshire troops sent off to fight the Civil War. The females got their wardrobes from the dress makers in Boston and New York. They had four servants. So they were rich.

But of those servants, only one was male, and he was the coachman. They did not have a butler. Their servants were all younger (the oldest being 25) and mostly immigrants, so they were not the expensive class of servants. Mr. Goodwin did not own hotels, plantations, or factories (other folks in town did,) but he did own shares in railroads and bridges. So not that rich.

I ended up explaining it to my trainee this way: if the Goodwins lived today, they could not afford their own private jet, but would fly first class. Yes they had money, but they were not part of the 1%. See there were gradations back then too.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Fall Museum Plans

Even though it is still summer by most American calendars, fall and winter planning are well underway at Strawbery Banke. The two events that started off my career as Manager of Special Events are coming around again and I am super excited to add a little of my own creativity into them this year.

Ghosts on the Banke: last year I had only just started less than a month before our Halloween event, so mostly I was carrying out the vision of the last person in my position. "Ghosts" is a safe trick-or-treat that last for two hours per evening on Friday and Saturday the weekend before Halloween. It is a small budget event, and most of that budget is spent on candy so over the years it has gotten away from being a history event, though it is still about community. This year I'm going to try to bring a little history back, by enlisting the help of local theater groups: improv troupes, high school clubs, anyone I can find, to tell "ghost stories" or historical themed skits and scenes on the grounds during the event. I'm going to have to put in some miles tracking down groups to participate  but hopefully this will add a new level of community involvement, more history, and lot more life to the event.

Our holiday event: Candlelight Stroll is also on my mind. To this one I need to add more outdoor activity. This is not that easy to do in December in New England, but that is what I am hoping to do. I am trying to increase the number of caroling groups, or at least spread them out more evenly over the three weekends; I am hoping to work with local Boy Scout and Girl Scout troupes to get them involved, and I have been given the okay to hire more costumed role players!

The last one is the one closest to my heart, I've done so much historical interpretation, acting, role playing, whatever you want to call it, myself. I think it is a great way to bring history to life, and Renaissance Faires have taught me that it is also a great way to keep a crowd entertained. Since we have houses ranging in date from 1690 to 1950 I am looking forward to hiring people to portray all sorts of townsfolk from all sorts of eras. I've already written up the casting call even though I will not put it out until September. The next step as far as putting more costumed role players on site is to start in on the research, also tons of fun, and something I have missed doing! Read this entry on entry page

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Percy's first LH Event

Percival Shellenbean

Well it has been a busy spring and summer for us here. In mid-June baby Percival was born! We are both healthy and happy. I’m getting used to being parent to an infant, he is learning important stuff like digesting milk, and waving his arms and legs.

Percy in his antique pram, Lilly looking on.
We have not done much history stuff this year, we attended a really fun immersive event in April, and then visited the Connecticut Renaissance Faire’s Robin Hood show to attend a friend’s wedding. The visit to the faire was two weeks before the baby was due, and since then we’ve stuck pretty close to home. Now that he is closer to two months I’ve gone back to work. I have big plans for Halloween and Christmas, but I’ll share those later. We also took Percy to his first history event this past weekend. Well, he came to my museum on July 4th, when he was two weeks old, but we were just there as visitors, modern clothes, stroller, all that.

This past Sunday we got all dolled up and went to a Roaring Twenties lawn party hosted by Boston Swing Central, held at the amazingly lavish Crane Estate at Castle Hill. I heard about the event last year through some blogs I read, but had forgotten about it until the Commonwealth Vintage Dancers’ newsletter arrived in my inbox. I did not get the news letter in enough time for the initial date, but the event was postponed due to rain which gave us one week to prepare. I was so desperate to get dressed up and get out of the house that I was determined to go even though we did not have proper attire, nor the energy to make up the clothes etc.. I did manage to convince our friends to come out with us with their cutie 2 year old daughter. They pulled stuff out of their closets, I scoured TJ Maxx and Marshall’s, Stephen wore his lovely tailored suit, and Percy wore an actual vintage piece, sewn for Stephen’s grandmother when she was a baby. My mother pulled the vintage pram out of the attic that she used to push me in when I was a baby, and we bought picnic stuff on the way out of town.
The Shellenbeans, photo by Amanda Sullivan

The weather was fine, the band was amazing, the dancers looked fabulous, and the site was extravagant. There were some impressive antique cars, and some of the vintage shops from Boston had come out with their wares. I did not do any dancing myself but it was fun to sit on the blanket, eat cucumber sandwiches, and watch the well dressed people go by. The crowd was so different from any of the other events we attend. There were a lot of folks in their mid-twenties to early thirties looking spiffy in their vintage duds. Then there were the slightly older couples who were obviously there to dance. Generally the audience felt more hipster and less nerdy than the Renaissance faire crowd, though he clothing level was about that you might find at a Renaissance Faire: some really awesome, most folks at least trying, way too many sneakers. There were a few kids in attendance, but only a few. The crowd was also very different from those at battle reenactments: much younger, much more relaxed and fairly evenly divided between men and women. Surprisingly, it was also a different crowd from either the SCA dance events we attend, or the Colonial and Civil War dances: those tend to be much much smaller, a little more welcoming to newcomers, and fairly heavily clothing centered. All in all, attending this event made me feel really lucky to live in an area where I can participate in such an amazing variety of Living History events.
The Sullivan family, photo by Alena Shellenbean

Percy was such a good baby. He was fine in the car until we were almost there, then he submitted to the funny dress and the crocheted cap once he was in a clean diaper. He enjoyed bouncing along the in the old pram, and when we got to our picnic spot he nursed, lay on the blanket for a while, then fell asleep and went back in the pram. We got a ton of compliments on our own antique transportation, and folks adored Percy in his finery. We were only able to stay out for a few hours, none of us are sleeping through the night, but it was so worth it.

Now we’ve got to get back into the sewing room and get ready for the fall! Read this entry on entry page