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

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Looking at Old Houses

Oh you poor neglected readers! I'm so sorry I have not updated in so long. Many life changes happening here that have left me exhausted most of the time. Stephen and I are a month and a half away from having a baby! Inviting Alysa into our life was a great experience, so now that we've had a teenager we're going back and staring from the beginning. We can't wait to bring another little reenactor into the world.

As if adding to the family was not crazy enough, we're also moving, Right now my commute to work is an hour and twenty minutes, one-way. So I spend almost 3 hours in the car every day driving to and from work. That is not going to be okay once I'm a new mom, so we're selling our current house and looking to buy closer to the museum. Right now I'm fairly convinced that selling a house is more stressful than being pregnant, though it could be just that the house deadlines are approaching much more rapidly, and my pregnancy has been very uncomplicated so far.

I do intend to write up a blog post about the latest reenactment I attended, which will basically be my last until after the baby is born (none of my reenacting clothes fit me, and as I mentioned, I'm constantly exhausted.) Today I thought I'd write about house hunting. Since Stephen and I love history, and there are a ton of historical houses available in New Hampshire, many folks have asked if we're looking to purchase a historical house. The answer is a tentative maybe.

I grew up in a house built in 1795 so I know the pitfalls very well: they are drafty and hard to heat, they are always dusty and for those with allergies or asthma (Like Stephen and myself) they can be a health problem. They require constant maintenance since some part of the structure is always getting old and in need of replacement. As a historian I also know the value of old houses: they tell the stories of their community, you can trace the different ages they have witnessed on the walls and floors. Also, they are probably going to last for at least another 200 years if not more, as long as someone who loves them treats them well.

When doing our initial online house searches we are much more likely to bypass a house built in the 1980s (I don't like split-levels and we both hate wall-to-wall carpeting) and look more seriously at a house built in 1890. Go back much further (there was one house in our price range listed as built in 1760) and I get worried, unless it has been well cared for, and the insulation has been updated, that house could be a nightmare to look after. Our focus is much taken up with work, reenacting, and soon to be parenthood, we are looking for a home, not another project.

But I find old houses so hard to resist! This past weekend a central chimney cape with a lovely barn caught my fancy, and I am totally in love. The kitchen is horrible, the whole thing needs work, and the stairs are an accident waiting to happen, but the house is nestled right into the land, it looked so welcoming, and had a lot of great stories to tell. I can imagine all our books feeling right at home in those rooms, and listening to the sounds of the house at night. I can picture the gardens and the rope swings, the living room and the sewing room, Stephen's workshop.

Well we've only just started looking, I'm hoping there will be other houses out there, ones that will require less work, but maybe still have a hint of history about them.

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Vacation for my Role-Playing Soul

Stephen and I spent this past weekend down in Williamsburg, VA at a retreat for role-players sponsored by the Association of Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums. The FPIPN conference runs every-other year, Stephen and I have attended the past three. They have each been very different, but good and are a great chance to re-charge, and renew our energy.

This year we presented two talks: one we entitled “Get Real” about connecting our audiences to the past by portraying real people: using the emotions, conflicts, life issues that all humans face. The other talk was a long session (two hours) where Stephen and I did a version of the LH Triangle I presented at Strawbery Banke last fall.  Unfortunately doing so many presentations of our own meant that we missed out on attending many other people’s presentations, ah well.  Our talks went over fairly well, and most excitingly, there were two folks there who asked if we go out and do trainings at other museums. The answer is most definitely yes!

One of the joys of this year’s conference was that it took place a little later in the year, and was held in a location far enough south, to be a nice break from the winter. We left NH covered in 2 feet of snow, and found Virginia to be full of songbirds, and spring shoots, 20 degrees warmer, and pleasant enough to sit outside to eat our lunches. We took afternoon walks, Stephen had a morning run, we left our coats in the car and just walked around in sweaters. Turns out I really needed a couple of days in the sun.

Even better than the break from the weather, was the company. The population of people as obsessed with the highest level of Living History Interpretation as me is very small. It was wonderful to spend a weekend with other folks who worry about how to present prejudices of the past (it would be false to leave them out, but alienating a visitor can shut down learning) and how to get beyond our own modern mind-set to give a truer impression of life in the past. We got to tell some of our funny stories, and hear the funny stories of other folks. I was a grumpy-puss at the fancy dinner on Saturday night, but I did enjoy listening to other people’s conversations. There was also a great moment where one of the participants got up and sang a tavern song with a chorus that he taught us all (actually Stephen and I knew that one already) and inspired other people to get up and sing. I sang a bit of a Yiddish tune since I was presenting Mrs. Shapiro and Stephen sang Finnegan’s Wake since he was there as George Rose.

I always wish these things could be twice as long. So that we could talk to more of the participants, attend more of the talks, see more of each other’s work. We also did not get a chance to visit Colonial Williamsburg during open hours. We were in CW’s training facility, but on Saturday we did not get out until most of the museum buildings were closed, and on Sunday Stephen had a flight to catch. Now I guess we have an excuse to go back.

What a nice re-charge.

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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Not Universally Accessible

We just got some feedback on the Christmas program here at the museum, it is feedback that I have heard before, on an issue that I have struggled with for many years: universal access for those of all levels of mobility. As a historic site, one must travel the roads and paths to get to the historic buildings, all of which are entered by going up stairs. We have retro-fitted some buildings with ramps, but entrances are not the only problems: getting around inside the buildings can be tough, and just getting to the buildings from the visitor center can be a challenge.

The busiest day of this year’s Christmas program was also the most problematic in terms of visitors navigating our site. The weekend before we had received a foot and a half of snow, then on Tuesday we got another 8 inches. All that had been cleared off the paths, but Friday and Saturday were warm and the light mist had been melting the snow all day. Since it was fairly cold, the ground was mostly frozen, forcing the snow melt on to our nicely shoveled paths and either re-freezing in to ice slicks, or mixing with just enough thawed ground to cause massive mud puddles. The grounds were totally a mess. I wore my rubber boots and muddled through, but those visitors who had dressed up in fancy shoes, or had mobility issues were having trouble on the grounds.

What could we do about this particular situation? We were certainly salting and sanding the icy patches, pushing back the snow, but even with a dedicated grounds crew there was not a lot we could do about the mud puddles. The water was not being absorbed into the frozen ground, and in order to soak up all that water we would have needed to invest in a couple tons of sand or gravel, or possibly several industrial vacuum cleaners. Do they make vacuum cleaners that suck up mud puddles?

So short term we could not do anything about the rough walking conditions, but that does not mean we can not improve for the future. So what are some of the long term solutions? The easiest and most cost effective solution to weather conditions on roads is to pave them: wooden walkways, cobblestones, concrete, asphalt. All of these would significantly reduce the mobility issues of our modern visitors. However, we are a historic site and none of those methods of paving can be documented for the time when most of our houses were built, which is the late 1700s early 1800s. At that time the roads were dirt, so that is what we have: dirt. By having piles of snow and mud puddles in December we are giving visitors a taste of winter in times past, and all the limits that go with it.

So yes, a number of elderly visitors and those with mobility issues do have trouble navigating our grounds in bad weather, even if nothing is falling from the sky at the moment that they come through. From a modern perspective that is totally unfair. I think universal access is an incredibly worthy goal and I do try, in my own little way, to work towards universal access for people of all abilities. But I am also a historian and can tell you, folks with disabilities did not really get to enjoy the “good old days.” Aside from the stigma a differently-abled person had to endure, in the time before electricity there were no elevators, no electric wheel chairs; heck, all those muddy paths were dark and even more treacherous before the cheap modern light bulb. What happened when older folks were no longer able to walk all that well? They certainly did not expect to go out with the grandkids to a nine-acre site in the middle of the winter and expect to walk around for several hours. But just because they were excluded in the past does not give us permission to exclude people today. BUT we don’t want to give up on presenting history, that is what we do!

I know there are people out there in the museum world doing wonderful work on universal access, but I have found very little of it on historic settings. If a reader has any insight, please share. I’d love to put more brains to work on this.

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