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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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Good First Impression

I’ve brought this up before, but I’ve been thinking about it again. Upon meeting someone we only get a short time to make a first impression. As someone educating about a different time and place the first impression is doubly important. Here are the things that I consider important in a LH introduction:
1.    Something about the time period you are representing
2.    Something about the person you are portraying
3.    Something to engage your audience
I like to try to do all that in just a few short sentences.

When using first-person interpretation we have to be clever to get the most important information out there since we are talking from the long-ago, to an audience of modern individuals. It is a challenge, but a good one. Even when using third-person it is important to avoid giving just a name and a date. Most people don’t have the historical knowledge to put dates into any kind of context. Event smart people who should know dates often don’t. and names have a fairly low educational factor.

So what does a good introduction sound like? Stephen delivered one of my favorites here at the museum with his 1870s coachman character, it went something like:
“Welcome to the kitchen! I hope you don't mind if I don't stand, Mr. Goodwin gave us the evening off. We’re having a bit of a party to celebrate Christmas eve, and to celebrate that we’re one year further away from that dreadful war.”

I love this intro because although in this particular iteration the character is unnamed and the date is not given, there is so much an audience member can get from the intro:
1.    The speaker is an employee, and a fairly formal one (usually they stand when a guest arrives)
2.    He has identified the place: the kitchen of the home owned by Mr. Goodwin
3.    The day itself is something special: a party of Christmas eve, and at the end of a war.
4.    Because he does not specify the war, he has left an opening for his audience to ask. Though they could ask any number of questions based on his statement, the one hanging in the room is: “what war is that?” which can lead to quite a good discussion about the era, about the character, about the audience member’s own experience of war.
"George Rose" chats with a visitor in the kitchen at Goodwin House
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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Getting Restless

Things are gearing up here for opening day at the museum. The seasonal staff have been in training all week, getting reacquainted with us full-timers, learning about the new programs, and introducing new staff members. The costumes are coming back out, the cook stoves are being fired up, the houses have been aired out and dusted off. I am so jealous of those who are stepping back into the shoes, cracking open the cookbooks, and greeting the houses once again.
I love my job, it is so much fun to bring special days to the museum; but I miss actually acting out the daily tasks, and portraying the fabulous women of this neighborhood. I did get into costume last weekend at a very cool reenactment, but it has only slightly diminished the pangs as I see the aprons and skirts go whisking by.

I think I need to plan a tea party for May, so I can get dressed up. The renfaires seem very far away.

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