Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Cluck Cluck

About a month ago now I received an email, sent to all members of the SBM educational staff asking if anyone had any interest learning more about chickens, with the possibility of the museum starting a livestock program.

Strawbery Banke does not currently have a livestock program. Some of the tenants who rent apartments at the museum have dogs, there is a local cat named JD that considers the museum his territory, and there is a woodchuck that has taken up residence under the carpentry building (he has reduced Mrs. Shapiro's turnips to stalks.) but no deliberate programs. There is historical evidence of livestock in residence, I have heard stories of Mrs. Shapiro's chickens as well as the chickens raised behind the WWII Corner store. And I imagine with more research we could find plenty more evidence spanning the earlier centuries as well.

But Portsmouth is a small city, and SBM is right in the downtown area, so there is a lot of regulation zoning, and historical commissions in between SBM and a livestock program.

I'm sure you've figured it out by now, I answered the email. I was given the opportunity to attend a lovely workshop on backyard chicken farming at Hancock Shaker Village. Alysa came with me, so we got to tour the village in a freezing cold downpour. We were saved from misery by the adorable baby animals filling up the barn. Alysa fed the calfs and kids all afternoon while I learned all about chicken care.

But caring for chickens is not the only consideration in a museum setting. I reported on the workshop but only in brief because I did not feel like a chicken care report was needed. In the meantime, I've gone back to school.

Yup, I did not have quite enough on my plate, so I enrolled in a master's level course on museum evaluation. So far I am finding it fascinating and overwhelming at the same time. I am really enjoying learning about social research methods, as well as keeping up to date on the museum world. For the class our big project will be an evaluation of our own. Preferably at a museum with which we are affiliated. Guess what I chose to do mine on?

One of the questions I have about hosting chickens at SBM is the impact on visitors, so I mentioned in class the possibility of doing a visitor survey about chickens, and the professor thought it would be a great idea. We even used chickens at Strawbery Banke for a program theory mapping activity.

I let my boss know I'd be willing to put in some more hours to write up a study on the feasabity of a livestock program at SBM and that I'd like to do a visitor survey for my class as part of it. I got the okay late last week and now I've started slowly gathering my resources for a full out study. I must say I'm pretty excited at the prospect of engaging in a big study like this, and I'm just as interested to see what I will learn!
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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Immigration + role playing = love

My first role playing experience was playing an Irish immigrant in high school, and ever since then I've been interested in immigration history as well as living history.

This spring I've had the opportunity to combine my loves of role playing and immigration with my love of teaching. I teach groups of kids about immigration while they learn to be role players. I am one of the museum teachers who lead Strawbery Banke's "Becoming Americans" program for school groups. Each member of the class receives facts about a person who immigrated to the United States and lived in the puddle dock neighborhood, they get some personal information and some historical info plus a costume piece to get them into character. Some kids play characters who were related, some African slaves, all range in time period from Revolutionary America through the early 20th Century.

When each kid has a general understanding of their character's history we leave the classroom and hit the grounds of the museum to walk in the footsteps of those who had come before.

Each student is asked leading questions and presents in the first person, then they give us a "tour" of their house. In some of the houses the participants meet one of the museum roleplayers, who will treat the kids as their relatives. It is both nerve wracking for the kids and thrilling.

At the end of the workshop I tell the kids that many years ago I portrayed Lizzy Sullivan, and that I want them to think back on the real people they portrayed as they study history.

The school I had for my first workshop back in May was fantastic. They were studying immigration at school so they understood a lot of the key concepts already. I only had one reluctant role player, and once I had explained that he did not have to participate if he did not want to he decided that it was not so bad after all.

Since then I have lead groups of 4th, 5th, even 2nd graders. I don't have to work hard to make it fun because I think it is so much fun. I even got a whole group of kids to chug-chug like a train as we made our way across the grounds. But I also make sure the kids are learning. Historical facts, all about timelines, and about the emotional struggles of immigrating.

Yesterday I got my first real comment on an evaluation form other than "The kids loved it!" The teacher had seen one leader in the morning then me in the afternoon. She liked the fact that the other leader talked about occupations with the kids and made sure they all knew what their historical person did as a job. I admit, I take a much looser approach to occupations, and talk about them on the museum grounds if I talk about them at all. This brings up a fundamental difference between my golals for my classes and those that concentrate on facts. The teacher wanted her students to have a longer list of facts about the people they were portraying, I was looking more for a personal connection to history in general, and an understanding that things change over time.

I guess that is one of the reasons I'll take my job in an informal learning environment over classroom teaching every time. I admire teachers, I adore museum work. Read this entry on entry page

Wednesday, June 6, 2012


When all dressed up and portraying a historical character confronted with members of the public, it is a good idea to have a little bit of monologue explaining who, what and when you are. It helps your audience have time to look around, also to let them know some important facts (never assume your audience knows anything.) A short monologue can ground them, but I also find it helpful to get me in the mood for sharing information. I am actually a very shy person, and sometimes I need a reason to open my mouth and be outgoing just as much as the audience needs to figure out what is going on.

Now by monologue, I don’t mean something long and boring. The old Strawbery Banke rule for tour guides was that your introduction to the history could not be more than two minutes long. I think that is too long for a beginning introduction before you toss focus back to your visitors and find out what they are interested in. I generally like my introductory monologues to be roughly three sentences in length and either end with a question or some other type of conversation starter that the people you are conversing with can latch on to.

A few months ago at the FPIPN retreat, Ron Carnegie, who is George Washington at Colonial Williamsburg started his talk with a pet peeve that he called the “Wikipedia method” of first-person interpretation: Where the presenter sounds less like a real person talking to other real people and sounds more like the entry in a dry encyclopedia. “Hi, my name is ____ I was born on March 18th in a small town outside ____. When I was 18 we moved to ___ where I was to meet my future ____.” Just a list of dry facts. I actually recently heard this done. Not quite as badly as all that but the person really did say: “my name is ­­____ this is my house and the year is ______.”

It sounds so fake! Most people don’t really talk like that. I’ve thought back over some of the times I’ve had to introduce myself to people, to groups, and there are definitely ways to introduce yourself and the historical setting that are much less awkward. One of my fellow Mrs. Shaprios at Strawbery Banke has a basic introduction that sounds like this: “Hello, my name is Mrs. Shaprio, welcome to my home. My husband and I purchased this house 10 years ago in 1909.” I think this is a fairly brilliant way to get the date across. Easy math, that also tells you something about the character and her social status. Sometimes she even adds: "That was just a few months after our daughter Molly was born." More info, not a lot of fuss. As Mrs. Shapiro I often endow people as potential renters since the Shapiros rented the third floor, it gives me an excuse to talk about the house, and a reason to invite them to look around the rest of the house.

This spring Stephen and I spent 4 weekends at the Robin Hood Springtime Festival mostly with Stephen working Saturdays and me working Sundays. I usually arrived tired, and proceeded to spend the day getting progressively more exhausted. Couple that with the small attendance, and I don't feel like I ever really got into the swing of an opening monologue about my 12th Century character: Rose I got good at explaining about the encampment, the tent, food and herbal medicine, but I don't feel like I really found Rose and her relationship to all these strange people she meets when the lord is on the march. I guess that is a good excuse to find other places to set up our 12th Century encampment.

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