Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Stuff of History

At Marching Through Time we ran into a gentleman who is legendary among our crew. Back in 2007 Reenactorfest held an East Coast conference in Gettysburg. It was not terribly successful in terms of attendance, but we had a good time and met a bunch of new people that don’t attend the event out in Chicago. While we were there  all the ladies were seduced by a charming chap in a gold wool coat and green wool jacket (from an Irish regiment, you know.) He offered us chocolate cigarettes out of an antique silver cigarette case and asked us to dance one by one and could he dance! We also found out that he was a singer and played the bagpipes. We’ve talked gushingly about him ever since.

The thing about indoor conferences, is that you don’t really get to see the elaborate set-ups that can accompany a reenactor’s presentation, so all we got to experience was the dashing uniform and charming manners. That is not the case at outdoor events that showcase entire encampments! We ran into Mick again at Marching Through Time (Julie told us he’d been there the year before) and this time we got to see Mick’s full encampment set-up. Mick and a mate of his had a lovely tent set-up portraying the life of an officer in the British campaigns in Africa in the 1880s. While being as charming as ever Mick was delighted to show off the amazing campaign furniture: mahogany beds, and clever folding tables, ostentatious candle holders and lovely sets for mixing drinks. The most amazing stuff that they showed us were the antique items that they had. An extraordinarily well preserved shaving kit, some incredibly effective ice chests, even some of their uniform pieces!

At first I was a bit jealous of the amazing things that are still available to a reenactor who is portraying a time less than 150 in the past, but then I thought about the wear and tear even the best preserved items must go through when they are packed in cars and carted around to outdoor weekend-long events. It is not just the wear and tear, this year at MTT the Vietnam camp went up in smoke. Their Vietnam era tent caught fire and was quickly reduced to ashes, many of the historical items inside were damaged too. There is a good eyewitness account of the blaze here. I heard that the leader was devastated at the loss, and I totally can not blame him. But the fact is, if you bring items to outdoor events, there is a good chance they are going to be damaged, if not irreparably.

I have had a rule for the past five years: any item that I bring with me to any sort of living history venue, I have to be ok if it does not come back home, or at least does not come back home in the same shape it left in. Pottery gets broken, clothing gets ripped, mold and mildew get into everything. Items walk off, they get damaged in transit, they get lost for months at a time. This is not to say that I would not bring nice things with me, but I just make sure I would not be broken-hearted if I never saw it again, and would not be sad it if became a little bruised and banged up in the Living History process. This is all coming from direct experience, and in our case applies only to recreated objects, but what of the folks bringing historical objects out to play?

I am museum trained. That does not mean that I think every item over 50 years old should be locked away in a climate controlled vault. In fact, I think that if the public does not have access to the stuff of history it will cease to have meaning, and we as a society will be much poorer for it. I guess if the objects exist in a quantity that makes them easy to find and affordable to replace, then it is a good thing that they are used as they were originally meant to be used. I'm not sure I could ever do it unless I was assured of the item's survival in the longer term. There are tons of items out there that deserve preserving, and sometimes that means not using the items, just caring for them in ways that will make them last for generations to come.

I’m not going to make a fuss, I’m not even going to bring it up at the next event where there is some old, gorgeous object being subjected to the weather and sticky fingered handling. But I did want to mention it here, and reaffirm that I will stick with reproductions.

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