Thursday, October 30, 2008

Personal Ghosts

Most of us carry personal ghosts in our hearts and in our memories. Those of us who have portrayed historical people sometimes carry ghosts from long ago.

Point of Dreams a novel by one of my favorite authors Melissa Scott, and her partner Lisa Barnett incorporates a very interesting premise, that of the ghost tide. In Point of Dreams, a historical based fantasy, ghosts are very real and astrology rules everyone’s lives. So when the stars are right everyone’s “personal ghosts” make themselves felt more strongly than any other time. In the story it is not necessarily a scary thing, in fact most of them are a comforting presence. An old woman who misses the companionship of her sister can talk to her again, the main character hears the patter at his heels of his favorite childhood pet. My favorite part of the ghost tide concept comes when it is revealed that one of the characters is haunted by a long dead king of his native land. He is of no relation to this king, but having studied the king and made contact, he will be greeted by the king every ghost tide.

Most of us carry personal ghosts inside us, in a much less manifest way of course. But we know people who have died, that we think about, care for, and all that. Some of us, especially those who have made history a part of our lives, may have ghosts from places and times well removed from our own but have quite a strong connection with.

The first specific person that I portrayed as a costumed roleplayer was Martha Wheelwright, poor widow of a sea captain, in the Wheelwright house at Strawbery Banke Museum. When her husband died and left her with a lot of debt the 26 year old Widow Wheelwright was granted permission to live in one third of her husband’s house after it was sold. On quiet mornings at the museum I sat in her kitchen and thought and thought about what it would have been like to be Martha. Was she angry, depressed, resigned to her fate? Was it as quiet in her kitchen as it was right now? I was never able to learn much more about her than my initial research revealed, but I thought a lot about her, and think about her still. Martha Wheelwright has become one of my personal ghosts.

Oh the things I would ask her if there really was a ghost tide. I’ll leave out a soul cake tomorrow just in case.

Photo of Alena (not in costume) and Nate Shumway at Wheelwright house, 1999, photo by Don Shumway. Read this entry on entry page

Monday, October 27, 2008

In-Class Visits a "Poor" Substitute

Recently the Boston Globe wrote an article about how high gas prices and economic downturns are affecting field trips. Needless to say, field trips are on the decline, kids are stuck in their classrooms and museums are feeling the pinch. The article briefly mentions an alternative, that I think gets short shrift and deserves a little more attention.

In-class visits, are on the rise at Old Sturbridge Village according to the Boston Globe, and that is good news for Autumn Tree Productions and other groups that may not have a physical location, but provide an interactive history experience for school groups.

How does an In-school visit differ from a field trip? Well the obvious one is that the kids never leave the building. In relation to history classes, it means usually a visit from a costumed character talking about life in their own time period. Often they bring props for the students to handle, and give demonstrations of the way things were done. Many museums offer in-class services, Plimoth Plantation has different programs for different age groups, Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Mass will bring swords and armor into the classroom, even science museums like the Museum of Science in Boston, Mass have programs. There are also groups not affiliated with a museum who do in-class visits, local reenactment groups will often come to visit, though the risk with amateur groups is in accuracy and appropriateness of material presented. There are a great number of unaffiliated people presenting specific historical characters or time periods that will visit a school for a reasonable fee.

Of course something is lost when the student can not see the architecture, walk the grounds, and experience all that a museum has to offer. There is no doubt that a field trip can be more immersive and very stimulating. However a class visit can be very personal, and geared towards the specific audience, and covering very specific topics that a teacher or student may ask about whereas it can be hard for a teacher to guarantee that in the rush of the field trip, their students are actually absorbing the facts and lessons that the teacher had in mind when she let her class loose in the museum galleries or historic house. When the students get to have a back and forth discussion with a medieval monk who is sitting there in front of them, it is much easier to maintain focus on life in the monastery than it is when the kids travel through an exhibit at their own pace and in their own order.

Another advantage can be timing. Is your local museum putting up a spring exhibit on local involvement in the civil war while the classroom schedule covers that unit in the fall? Is the particular day that your class can get free already booked up at the museum? A visit to the classroom often is easier to schedule around a class’ needs than an entire exhibit installation is.

Teachers, please do not be discouraged by the high price of buses, and the inconvenience of disrupting an entire day’s routine. There are a lot of us out there working tirelessly to bring to your school a taste of the past that will spark your students’ appetite for history!

Photos of Autumn Tree Productions offerings at schools in Newington, CT. Photos by Alena Shumway. Read this entry on entry page

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Experiencing History

There are many ways to experience history: through books, movies or documentaries, museums or historically significant places, historical reenactments. There are many of us out there who are engaged in history: as scholars and teachers, enthusiasts and hobbyists, through our jobs or our lives, passively or actively. This blog hopes to bring together the diverse and sometimes conflicting communities who are engaged in studying/teaching/bringing to life, the wonderful subject of History! Read this entry on entry page