Sunday, April 28, 2013

Victorian Ensemble: Part 1

One of the things I love about working at Strawbery Banke museum, is the wide variety of history that I get to take advantage of. Last year I was an interpreter, a role-player, a museum teacher, and a demonstrator. All those are just titles, they do not cover the variety of time periods, stories, and themes I got to cover in just one year. I know I will have a ton of new adventures this year, a couple of which I’ve already started, even though the museum does not open until next week. The one I want to talk about today is the Victorian garden.

For the most part, the costumed role-players at SBM work inside one of the historical houses, but that is not the case with the Goodwin Roleplayer. The Goodwin mansion was moved to the grounds of the museum (unlike most of the houses which we built where they stand today) and when the house was brought in, the garden plans and diaries of Mrs. Goodwin were brought in too so the garden could be recreated. Today it is a full froofy Victorian confection, and as such it requires a lot of work. More work than two horticulturists with an entire museum to look after can accomplish. So the garden is also looked after by a roleplayer, usually playing Mrs. Goodwin in the later half of her life. I am not of an age to play Mrs. Goodwin, but she had grown daughters most of whom lived at home during various parts of their adult lives, and it is not inconceivable that they might have helped out in the garden.

I’m looking forward to spending some time outside both working in the garden, and roleplaying in the year 1870. Last year I roleplayed 1919 and 1777, this year I’m still doing both, but adding 1870 will be a particular challenge because I get to do more research and learn a lot more myself! So now I’m reading the book based on Mrs. Goodwin’s writings, and I’m looking at home manuals of the time, and I’m preparing my gardening clothes.

I admit, the clothes have been occupying much of my prep time. I have an Irish maid outfit that I made at various times, mostly many many years ago, but very little of it will transfer to the front of the house. I also cheat quite a bit on the underthings for the Irish maid, using a modern elastic-sided corset, and just about any skirt that will fit underneath as a petticoat. When I started the project I had two months to complete an outfit so I was determined to do it right, though most of that time was eaten up by my winter job and a fairly thorough overhaul of the sewing room.

Why am I making my own outfit and not having the museum provide me with one? First, because if the museum provided one it would not be ready until mid-June and I have to be in the garden on May 2nd. Second, while the museum would have paid me to make a dress, they were only willing to pay for the dress, and then they would have kept it. If I’m going to make the whole thing I’d like to own the dress that goes on top, and since I am not actually a professional level seamstress I am not confident enough in my own skills to have the museum own one of my pieces.

So there you have it, The first in an installment about my Victorian Ensemble. Stay tuned for further installments!

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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Book Review: Man of War By Charlie Schroeder

A few years ago at Reenactorfest after we gave one of our presentations a guy in normal clothes came up to Stephen and asked if his name was Steve. The guy was the younger brother of one of Stephen’s childhood friends, they had grown up in the same neighborhood. Charlie got his photos taken with all of us, and told us that he was writing a book on reenacting in America. My heart sank, I’ve read the travelogue/human guinea pig type book on reenacting in Europe: I Believe in Yesterday and it was less a book about reenacting than it was about a modern man’s failure to cope with the past as it is lived today. The first few chapters of Schroeder’s book were as bad as I feared, I had to drop the book twice before I got far enough in to if that the author started to find his reenactor footing, actually make connections with the folks he was spending time with and get over his culture shock. And his horrible over-use of personal description dependant on the reader knowing what pop culture celebs look like. Sorry Charlie, those of us who spend our time reenacting have limited patience for celebrity scandal of the week.

Because of his culture shock and lack of in-depth research before he started, Schroeder missed out on actually experiencing WWII and Civil War reenacting as most people experience it, but those are just the big ones that everyone does, right? He did seem to find his footing with Romans, and 18th Century reenacting, met some cool people, got hooked on history. But it was not until the final quarter of the book that I felt like Schroeder might actually be saying something about reenacting. He had finally gotten beyond saggy loaner breeches and firing weapons that could just as easily kill the person shooting as those on the other end.

The book’s premise is an incredibly artificial one, reenactors do not hop from one end of the country to the other trying a little of this and a little of that. They spend lifetimes researching, preparing, crafting, traveling and finally experiencing history. Yes, we all have loaner garb and love to have folks dress in our stuff, but usually it is with the hope that they will get hooked and want to get up their own kit and join in.  Schroeder actually does get his own kit, persona, and timeperiod in the final chapter, but he does not join a group, he makes his own reenactment by walking through LA in the footsteps of an early missionary. He goes out of the hobby like he went in, as an outsider looking for something sensational he can write about.

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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Endowments - Why am I here?

Going into a new setting with a new historical character I like to work out at least one scenario of why. Why is the historical person there? Why are they talking to all these strangers? Why should these people listen to the oddly dressed individual? I think in almost every case it is possible to come up with some circumstance where the historical person would talk with a group about themselves.

I was recently in a classroom as Mrs. Shaprio, her daughter goes to school and she wanted to tell all these girls and boys who might know her Mollie about her own childhood. That one was easy. When in colonial clothes at the museum I am usually Mary Stavers Frasier, the tavern keeper’s daughter. I show people around the tavern as if they were visitors from out of town who might need a meal or a bed, that one is also easy. My newest costumed venture for the museum is in those same clothes, but I am portraying the tavern keeper’s wife, and I am in a modern classroom not in the tavern. I struggled with this one for a while, then remembered the story that made the whole thing fall into place. Mr. Stavers went to jail in the early months of 1777 over the actions of a revolutionary mob and the reactions of his slave. A trial!

Trials reenacted in the classroom are a fairly well established teaching model, in fact the National Museum of American History (Smithsonian Institution) recently blogged about it here. Of course it helps if the students have some time to prepare, but even without specific preparation kids know about criminal trials, they are just as titillated by the crime stories as adults watching America’s Most Wanted. Controversy is always a good place to start, and it gives me a reason to over share and them a reason to ask questions. Win!

So that was how I started: My husband is in jail, he will go before the magistrates, but I will tell you what I saw (I was there) and the reasons why my husband needs to come home. I told them about the war for independence and why some of us do not believe going to war was a good idea. Why a drunken mob tried to pull down the sign at our tavern, and when the Stavers’ slave stopped the mob why Mr. Stavers was punished. I told them about all the different functions a tavern fulfils in our community, and gave them little sachets of dried mint to keep the bugs out of their luggage when they go traveling.

Last week the classroom visits were fantastic. The kids did not know a lot about the Revolutionary war, but they had been taught how to think so they made good connections and asked fantastic questions. I don’t hold high expectations of the next group of kids, but the museum has provided me with a lot of props and visual aides, and the juicy bits of the trial can usually keep their attention for at least a little while.

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Friday, April 5, 2013

Inhibition and Improvisation in Roleplaying

Sometimes, a series of seemingly unrelated events will all come together in my life in a way that shouts IMPORTANT to me. This happened not too long ago.

I was running late, so I was in the car at an unexpected time, only long enough to hear the opening of a radio program where the host talked about a recent study where they had a bunch of improvisational jazz musicians play improv jazz while receiving an MRI scan. Now the image of a pianist inside a MRI tube has been amusing me for close to a week, but that was not the remarkable part of the story. The MRIs showed the creativity centers of the brain all lit up, just like one would expect, but it also showed the part of the brain that self-censors with less activity. The inhibition parts of the brain shut down while someone trained in improvisation was plying their craft.

The study was done with jazz musicians, but I believe it could equally be applied to other types of improv artists, like actors and first-person roleplayers. What is that you say? First-person roleplayers are not actors? Well I think there is an element of acting involved as I explained here and if you don’t believe me check out the LH Bibliography because most of them agree with me too.

The day after I heard about the Jazz musicians I was participating in a role-player training where the training leader assured us that she would not make us play any of those “silly games” like the one with the “imaginary ball”.

I know exactly the one she is talking about: You all stand around in the circle and someone mimes holding a ball, they determine the size and shape, and get that across to everyone else through pantomime, by hefting the pretend ball, and gripping it, then throwing it to another person in the room who must change the size, shape, weight etc. of the pretend ball before pretend throwing it to someone else. If you let it, this activity can make you feel incredibly silly, that is the self-censoring part of your brain talking. If you are able to let it go and let your imagination discover the size and heft of the imaginary ball you are quieting your self-censor and letting the creativity and positivity parts of your brain activate.

I think Improvisation can be a masterful tool. It can help us get “into character” and better imagine life back then. It can help us find interesting ways to portray the facts and figures we’ve been researching. Most importantly, it can help us meet every single visitor from an open and inviting position, we don’t have to bore then with a pre-prepared story, we can have a conversation and make a real connection. All of these things are one thousand times harder if our self-censor is telling us: “you’re dressed funny, you don’t know all the facts, they might be offended if you say something like that!”

One of the things Stephen and I talk about every time we get in front of a group to talk about first-person is we say: “You are dressed funny, you will make an ass of yourself, it is okay.” Up until now I knew it to be true but could not tell you why. After reading the article about the jazz musicians I can say, “Your prefrontal cortex wants to get in the way here, but in this instance the creativity centers in your brain need to be in charge.”

When the trainer in the roleplaying session at Strawbery Banke said for the second time “we won’t be playing those silly games” with a wrinkle in her nose and a superior air I just had to speak up. I briefly told the group about the study on the brain, and that those games actually could help them get closer to the brain activity that will make them better role-players. I just pointed out the study, I did not belabor the point. I can only hope that a few of them heard what I had to say.

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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Museum Closing, Doors Opening

A few weeks ago now I heard about a museum closing its doors at the end of the year. Higgins Armory Museum is an incredibly unique institution, its founder collected medieval arms and armour, which he set up in a glass and steel structure on the top a hill in Worcester Massachusetts. When driving on the highway through Worcester you can see the helmet gargoyles on top of the grey building. I have friends who have worked there, studied there, even raised money for the institution. When I lived in Worcester I would go visit, and feel superior because I squired for a group of guys that fought in that stuff so I was familiar with the ways that all the suits of armor fit together. When I was putting together a kid's program on the middle ages I spent quite a bit of time (and money) in their gift shop, which contained all the latest in books for kids on the Middle Ages.

I will have to go visit a few more times before the end of the year and they close their doors, Anyone who wants to make a trip, drop me a line, I'll meet you there.

I am a bit surprised at this turn of events, though I have known for years that they were in financial hardship. They are not the only museum, my classes at Tufts in their Museum Studies Program inevitably bring up the sad state of museums at the moment. All non-profit institutions are feeling it, from education to healthcare. I am not too upset at the fate of Higgins though, because their collection is not being auctioned off, it is not being put into storage, it is going to be integrated into the Worcester Art Museum. So it will continue to be a unique part of Worcester, the quirky little city with the unpronounceable name. If the museum must close, and at this point I think more and more museums are going to face this sad reality, I am glad that Worcester Art is willing to take it on, and I hope they will be strengthened by the addition.

In my opinion, there are too many little museums out there. There are limited resources being put towards history, towards independent learning institutions, and those resources could be used more effectively if consolidated a bit. Maybe I've been brainwashed by corporate America. Maybe social media has dulled my senses, and the culture of suburbanization means I do not value my own community as much as I should, but the reality is that there are a ton of little historical societies and niche establishments out there that are on the brink of economic insolvency. Aren't we sometimes stronger as a team than as individuals?

I would love to see history be valued as a part of American Culture, and I'd love the history of everyday life, and ordinary people be just as well known as the history of wars and heroes. I think this could be a great opportunity for the Worcester Art Museum, I hope WAM and Worcester are able to take advantage of it.

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