Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Making Judgements, Part 3: My Criterion

Read Part 1 or Part 2.

My Own Criterion
In all of my living History presentations, I try to make a good presentation, whether that is an entire encampment, a personal presentation, or a small part of a larger whole. But what makes up a good presentation? I think a good presentation must include Accuracy, Empathy, and Education. And if you have high levels of all three, only then can you call your presentation an authentic representation of Living History.

I think accuracy is the biggest contention of the Living History world. To some people accuracy is everything, and to those folks if you do not have accuracy then you do not have anything. I think history is a puzzle composed of a thousand pieces, but for which we only have 1/3 of the pieces! I do think that striving for accuracy is important, but that sometimes certain details might be sacrificed for the whole picture.

At a museum where I was working in the gardens, there was a long term debate about the well in the back yard. There were records indicating a well, but the spot archaeological work had not found its location, so when the back yard was restored, a well was not included. In my opinion, a more accurate picture might have been achieved if a well had been included somewhere in the yard, even if it was not the original spot, as opposed to leaving it out altogether.

For me it is important to get the feel of a time and not just the look. You might have the best looking outfit, but for reenactors often the best part is putting that outfit on, moving around in it, and recreating tasks that a person wearing that outfit might have done. I recently attended a Living History Presentation where the person presenting was wearing a horrible version of a nineteenth century outfit. It was so modern it was really jarring. But her presentation really captured something of the person she was presenting, so that by the end I had forgiven her for the outfit. She definitely had the feel in her word choice, her tone of voice, her physicality which made it a fair presentation. It would have been really good presentation if she had had a more accurate outfit, but was decent without it.

If nothing is gained by your presentation then it looses its meaning for me. However, that does not mean the educational gains have to be huge. If I am learning something, then the presentation is a success, if I can teach something to other people, then the presentation is a success. If I have read something then I put that into practice or if I interact with someone else who teaches me something, then it is all good! But if I just get dressed up and wander around and no one’s knowledge is increased, then I’ve got to question the validity of that presentation.

In order to produce an authentic living history presentation, I think you must combine accuracy, education, and empathy. If you are accurate but there is no life behind your presentation then I am not convinced; if there are things that are obviously out of time and place I have trouble buying in; if neither you nor others gain anything from the presentation, again, I might question your motives. But a really great presentation can transport me, teach me, and make me feel, at least a little, like what it must have been like in a different time and place.

All that is what I believe makes a good presentation, but I don’t yet think I’ve answered the question about why I do it. I gain so many things beyond the search for the perfect Living History presentation. I make connections with other people who are kooky like me. I have friends all over the US because of reenacting and living history. I have fun doing it, dressing up and presenting life in times long past. And very occasionally I make money at it, though at this point that is a minor note in the overall experience.

Read this entry on entry page

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Making Judgements, Part 2: How Museums Do It

Read Part 1.

How do museums do it?
Obviously, most of us reenacting out here are not professionals, but professionals rate themselves all the time, in order to get grants, satisfy shareholders, attract consumers, make better products, so I was wondering if we can apply some learning from any sort of professional organizations to reenacting and living history. The first group that pops into mind is actually already included, at least in part, under the Living History umbrella and that is museums. I feel slightly qualified to talk about museums because I have worked at them and studied them in an academic setting. Heck, if I was still doing the school thing I could probably get a paper out of rating museums, but I’m not, so you blog readers are stuck with my ramblings. In fact, I’m going to throw in some terms that I’ve gleaned from my work in other not-for-profit fields that seem to apply to museums (thus, to Living History) as well.

Mission and Goals
Most business books for dummies start by making a big deal out of having some sort of statement of your goals. My Museums 101 course also started with a study of museum missions statements. It is good to write down or at least articulate your goals, what you are trying to do and, very briefly, why you are doing it. Since for most people LH is a hobby, very few of us do this individually, but it might be a good idea to ask ourselves, do we have goals we are trying to accomplish? LH Groups are more likely to have this sort of thing since having more people involved means you need to communicate more. How will a new recruit know whether or not they want to join unless you have something to tell them about the group?

Preservation and Education
Most museums have preservation and education as part of their mission statements. Children’s museums might only have education, and there are some history and art museums that might concentrate more on preservation, but most museums try to do both. It is my opinion that a Living History person or group should also try to do both, but in different ways than museums do it. Museums usually concentrate on preserving the artifacts of history, other than those concentrating on the last 100 years of history most reenactors can not afford actual artifacts, and are probably not as well set up as museums to care for those artifacts (I know there are exceptions to this rule, I’m speaking in huge broad generalizations here) but we do work to preserve the past by bringing it to life. For me, history has to be a part of why you are doing this, even if it is not the only part. I am also a big fan of education too. At least educating yourself and the other members of your group if you never plan on educating others, (but what a noble goal it is, to educate others!)

But how do museums judge their effectiveness? Well, most other nonprofits (a lot of businesses too) judge themselves by quantifying what they do, then comparing it to years past or to others in the same field. That is a really simple way to define benchmarking. There are entire industries out there dedicated to benchmarking, I’m no going to be able to do it justice in a few sentences, but I think it is a good thing to keep in mind as a LH participant we can up our goals or accomplishments into little chunks that can be measured. We can measure off our own numbers from years past, and many of us do this subconsciously or in passing conversation. It is also good to remember there are other folks/groups out there doing our same period, or reaching our same audiences. They may not be exactly the same, they might be in a different geographical area, have different types of participants, even be concentrating on a different time-period; but I bet if we break down what we are doing we can compare some if not all of the things that we do.

Audience satisfaction
For a museum this is the big one. How many people are coming through your front doors, how many visitors come back, how are you impacting the community that you are a part of? Museums spend a ton of time and money trying to figure this stuff out, and I think LH folks should not ignore it either. This can apply to those groups focused outward, did the public at the event seem to be having fun? Do they come back every year? Are you seeing more of the public at your event? Are they learning something? I think this applies equally to the inward focused reenactor: Are you having fun? Are you learning something? Is the hobby enriching your life?

I know that a lot of this might seem like more work than a hobby should take, but don’t we already take up tons of our vacation time, weekends and evenings working on our kit, our clothing and our next event? Maybe while you are hand-sewing your next undergarment you can take some time and think about this stuff, I think you’ll be amazed by what you learn.

Read Part 3.

Read this entry on entry page

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Making Judgements, Part 1: A Warning

It is part of human nature that we look at the world around us and judge the other people we come into contact with. We categorize, we stereotype, we rate based on our own series of merits. Over at the Living History Podcast Stephen and I are trying really hard to be inclusive, using the broadest definitions and giving air time to as many different voices as we can. Doing that feels good. It makes me believe that there might be a chance to form a community, that there are tons of other people out there that share the same things that I do. But we’re not all the same, and that is ok too.

But what if we want to categorize? There must be some judging we can do? Well, I do tend to make judgments about the other LH groups and individuals that I come into contact with, though I try to not make quick decisions based on a single meeting, and I try to take into account what the group is trying to accomplish, and not just my own criterion. But there, I’ve admitted it, I do judge.

Now I’m sure all my readers are on the edges of their computer chairs (or couches or whatever) to find out what my own judging criterion is… well, it is twofold: based on my own criterion for myself and the stuff I’ve learned working in the non-profit world, and is accompanied by a warning about hypocrisy. I’m sorry, I’m going to make you wait for later entries to hear about my judging criterion, I thought they deserved their own entries. Besides, I think the warning about hypocrisy might be more important.

The novel Diamond Age by Neal Stevenson may be one of my “must read” books. It is a good story, told well, that tackles some big topics like self-governance, education, and the control of technology. One of my favorite passages is about how, in a permissive age where everyone is allowed to name their own morals, the biggest sin is hypocrisy. If you say you are the most moral, then people will hold you to it. If you say you have no morals, but then it turns out you do, hypocrisy raises its ugly head and other people get to judge you on it. (It was much better said in Diamond age, I just don’t happen to have a copy on me right now.) It all goes back to the fact that we love to judge other people, and will do so based on what they profess themselves if we have no other means by which to do so. But running around calling other people hypocrites mostly reflects badly on the one doing the yelling as much as it does upon the person being judged. I take that very much to heart.

Part 2: How Museums Do It, Part 3: My Criterion.

Read this entry on entry page

Friday, April 9, 2010

Landsknechts and Teenagers

I am having an email conversation about a new landsknecht dress I’m going to make for a friend and I’ve been having a hard time describing the Landsknecht’s relationship to clothing. It has gotten me thinking about ways to describe all sorts of historical clothing distinctions that we lack today.

The clothes you wear every day say something about you to those sharing in the same culture. This is as true today as it is historically, but what has changed are the areas that our clothes demarcate, the distinctions one can gather by looking at a person’s clothes. Nowadays you can tell the difference between someone who is going to the office or going hiking based on their clothing, but the same person could go hiking on Sunday, then go to the office on Monday. Historically you are much more likely to tell someone’s class or their occupation based on their clothing and those distinctions are not going to change from day to day. So I’ve come up with different modern analogies to describe historical clothing distinctions.

When describing the differences between noble and peasant clothing in Medieval Europe I like to think about modern cars. Most cars have tons in common: 4 wheels, engine in the front, steering wheel, seats, windows etc. and most garments from a particular time and place in Medieval Europe are going to have some basic building blocks that are the same. But the difference between a brand-new luxury car and an old beater are pretty significant. Both upper-class clothes and luxury cars will be made out of different materials than your lower-class cousins. The luxury car comes with a lot of add-ons and the beater is more likely to be repaired and repaired until it just falls apart, the same holds true with medieval clothing. The analogy is not perfect, but it makes sense to me.

Now the Landsknecht are different. Landsknecht are the soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire from the early 16th Century. Most Landsknechte were the children of farmers or the second and third-born sons of merchants and artisans, but once they joined up they no longer dressed like their roots. There is not a set uniform, but they did have an incredibly distinct style of dressing that did not conform to the class structures that they came from. When thinking about describing the Landsknecht and their clothing it is important to think about the landsknecht in relationship to the other people in 16th Century Europe, they were feared and looked down on at the same time. They were not beholden to the same clothing rules as the rest of society, and they used this freedom to express something of the spirit of the landsknecht. What sort of modern analogy came to me? Teenagers!

Teenagers have a freedom of dress that children (their parents buy them clothes) and adults (we are expected to wear certain types of clothes) do not. Sumptuary laws, those laws that governed what a person could wear, did not apply to the landsknecht, so they wore what colors and styles they could get their hands on. Teenagers often do outlandish things: brightly colored hair, piercings, wild clothes, to differentiate themselves, and impress their peers. Landsnecht large brimmed hats full of ostrich feathers and puff and slashed clothing are often described as an intimidation tactic. If a Landsknecht does not die in battle but retires and returns to regular life, they are expected to give up their Landsknecht clothing, and go back to the more accepted, more conservative clothing styles. The same things happen to many teenagers when they get “real” jobs. I can totally picture the respectable townspeople when they saw the lines of pike approaching locking up their valuables and their daughters, the same as some modern parents would like to when a group of rowdy teens comes along. When I am at a stoplight and a car pulls up beside me that is blaring music, and racing the engine, and completely crammed with kids I just sigh and hope that our paths diverge soon, I can picture the respectable townsfolk of Europe doing the same thing.

Read this entry on entry page