Monday, June 20, 2011

When Myth, Fact and the Average Citizen Collide

When I heard the news about Sarah Palin getting her facts wrong about Paul Revere I heard it first from a history blog. Since I don’t watch TV, I missed most of the major hype, and read about the scandal at a much more sedate pace. It struck me even in that first reading, that while the whole story she was telling was not accurate, there were bits of fact, and bits of myth mixed up together in a way that fit into her own narrative, and it struck me that she is not all that different from the normal tourists who get the tour, and that maybe it was partially the fault of the tour guide.

The person who gave the tour, Vicar Stephen T. Ayres, has since responded here and I was right about the Palin entourage being very similar to the average tourist, “They didn't strike me as very different from the 500,000 other visitors we see each year” and even the vicar himself wonders,   “Perhaps it was too much information in too short a period of time to digest properly.”

The average citizen/tourist gets their history from a variety of sources: schooling when they are young, stories they heard growing up, media portrayals (books, news, event cartoons) and, if we are lucky, visits to historic sites where they hear from trained tour guides or enthusiastic volunteers. But the average person can only absorb so much information at a time. Add to that the fact that while that information is being absorbed, it is being processed into what the person already knows, it is being fit into a larger narrative constructed over a lifetime. When talking to the public in Living History settings I often worry about how much of what I am saying will be heard the way I mean it to be heard.

What can we do about this? Those of us who want to educate the public, and hope to better people’s understanding of life in different times and places? We can keep our narratives simple, we can mention the myths and the well known facts, and most importantly (in my opinion) we can ask questions. While most folks might be embarrassed to be asked to give a history lesson before we start our own, we can ask specific questions, ask what the visitors are interested in, ask for their own list of facts, then we can fit our talk in around those points, and into their current narrative, into the vocab words they have absorbed at various points in their lives. Hopefully in the process we will improve the accuracy and deepen the understanding of everyone we talk to.

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Monday, June 13, 2011

Second -Class Citizen

I feel really lucky that as a female interested in Living History, all of my first experiences with Living History were very egalitarian. My first experience was in the classroom where everyone was included, no matter what, my second was at a museum where a wide variety of stories were told, and women filled a variety of roles, including leadership ones. At the renaissance faire I did not feel like a second class citizen: wenches have power, female sword slingers are sexy, and often everyone is ruled over by a queen. It has only been recently that I’ve attended the more usual type of reenactment dominated by battles, soldiers and a much more gender segregated feeling. I must say, I don’t like it one bit.

I don’t mind cooking, I like making our camp cozy and tidy, I have no interest in shooting guns or swinging swords, but I don’t like to be left on the sidelines. I don’t like knowing that in order to start up a revolutionary war unit we have to have seven male members, female members do not count. I’d like to get more involved in local 18th Century Living History. Does anybody out there know of any less gender biased 18th C events (preferably late summer) in the New Hampshire or Northern Massachusetts region?

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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Breaking News: People are Human

A few days ago on the way home from work I was (as usual) listening to NPR. They were playing an interview with an Egyptian protester who is visiting the US and right at the end the host, Michelle Norris asked if he had learned anything during his time in New York that he will take back to Egypt. And this is how he answered:
"Well, I - and this was a very short time. I'm leaving on Wednesday, so I haven't had much time to get any insight. But I was in New York last month, actually when Osama bin Laden was assassinated. And I got a very deep insight because if I was in Egypt while this was happening and I opened the news, and I saw, you know, Americans dancing, celebrating this death and like this feeling the news all the time, so I would have been really annoyed.
But I was here in New York, and I realized there are these other people who were, you know, hit by the terrorist attack that this guy caused, and they weren't actually celebrating the death. Media was overblowing it completely.
People were going about their lives. And there many that didn't feel it was that significant. They feel that, you know, there's a lost sense of justice, people I talked to in the streets and so on. And so I don't know how to say that the insight was that the Americans are, you know, more human than the image we have of them, or New Yorkers at least."

Whole transcript here.

That last bit at the end struck me. The insight he came away with was that New Yorkers are human too. They have their daily lives, their worries, their mixed feelings, the same as people in Egypt.

When we set up our encampment at public venues, when we dress up go into schools, when we strike up conversations with ordinary folks, one of the things we are trying to do is show modern folks that the people back then, though living different lives, were human too. As Hanne I occasionally complain about life on the road with my husband the soldier, about the weather or the cookfire etc. because I am not only teaching facts about Hanne’s life, I am trying to get across that she is human and far from perfect, but possibly a bit easier to connect with (‘cause who doesn’t complain about the weather?)

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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Book Review: The Building of The Green Valley

Is there a living history enthusiast out there who has not wished they could have their own historical manor house, castle, farm, village, etc.? Stuart Peachey has a 17th century farm, and wrote a book about the experience. The Building of The Green Valley: A Reconstruction of an Early 17th Century Rural Landscape (By Stuart Peachey, 2006, Heritage Publications) is not a really polished book, but it is a pleasant read, and for all of us history junkies it like reading our fantasies come to fruition. Stuart Peachey has been reenacting since the late 1970s and not too long into his reenacting career came into a bit of a windfall and with a group of friends bought some land in Wales on which there was the ruins of a17th century farm.

They bought it in order to have a place to do living history and reenactments and to that end they set about restoring the land, buildings, gardens, and fields to how it looked in the 17th century. The book is mostly a chronicle of the work that went into restoring the farm (or farms, really) and a chronicle of those people who invested a large part of their lives into the farm. The later chapters are guides to the research, animals, plants and infrastructure that went into the project (should one wish to attempt something like this one's self.)

One of the things that I noticed about the book is that someone (possibly Peachy himself) kept very good track of every person that contributed labor to the project. The main section of the book chronicles from 1987 until 2003 when the farm was complete enough to be used as the site for a reality TV show. All the work that was done on the site was done by volunteers. Hundreds of volunteers over more than a decade, and sometimes it seems like Peachey names them all by name. This can get a little tedious, but it also illustrates the fact that "the valley" project was very much a community project. The is politics, and personalities, there is real life. But still the project moved forward.

 And throughout the project  not a single person profited monetarily from the restoration. Everyone was content with the fact that they were building up a really cool historical setting. All the events held on the site were done with the intention to educate and possibly further invest in the site. The whole thing was done with very little money but a ton of labor. And a ton of historical research.

There is not very much info in the book on life in the 17th century, that is not the point of the book. But the amount of work that went into researching the buildings, their uses, the types of plants and animals re-introduced to the valley, and the people who lived and worked there all comes through in the stories and pictures. The book left me wanting fairly badly to visit the valley, especially during a living history event, but even more (and more dangerously) it gave me faith that a project like theirs is achievable. With enough goodwill and sweat equity, it is possible to have your own living history farm. Read this entry on entry page