Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Vacation for my Role-Playing Soul

Stephen and I spent this past weekend down in Williamsburg, VA at a retreat for role-players sponsored by the Association of Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums. The FPIPN conference runs every-other year, Stephen and I have attended the past three. They have each been very different, but good and are a great chance to re-charge, and renew our energy.

This year we presented two talks: one we entitled “Get Real” about connecting our audiences to the past by portraying real people: using the emotions, conflicts, life issues that all humans face. The other talk was a long session (two hours) where Stephen and I did a version of the LH Triangle I presented at Strawbery Banke last fall.  Unfortunately doing so many presentations of our own meant that we missed out on attending many other people’s presentations, ah well.  Our talks went over fairly well, and most excitingly, there were two folks there who asked if we go out and do trainings at other museums. The answer is most definitely yes!

One of the joys of this year’s conference was that it took place a little later in the year, and was held in a location far enough south, to be a nice break from the winter. We left NH covered in 2 feet of snow, and found Virginia to be full of songbirds, and spring shoots, 20 degrees warmer, and pleasant enough to sit outside to eat our lunches. We took afternoon walks, Stephen had a morning run, we left our coats in the car and just walked around in sweaters. Turns out I really needed a couple of days in the sun.

Even better than the break from the weather, was the company. The population of people as obsessed with the highest level of Living History Interpretation as me is very small. It was wonderful to spend a weekend with other folks who worry about how to present prejudices of the past (it would be false to leave them out, but alienating a visitor can shut down learning) and how to get beyond our own modern mind-set to give a truer impression of life in the past. We got to tell some of our funny stories, and hear the funny stories of other folks. I was a grumpy-puss at the fancy dinner on Saturday night, but I did enjoy listening to other people’s conversations. There was also a great moment where one of the participants got up and sang a tavern song with a chorus that he taught us all (actually Stephen and I knew that one already) and inspired other people to get up and sing. I sang a bit of a Yiddish tune since I was presenting Mrs. Shapiro and Stephen sang Finnegan’s Wake since he was there as George Rose.

I always wish these things could be twice as long. So that we could talk to more of the participants, attend more of the talks, see more of each other’s work. We also did not get a chance to visit Colonial Williamsburg during open hours. We were in CW’s training facility, but on Saturday we did not get out until most of the museum buildings were closed, and on Sunday Stephen had a flight to catch. Now I guess we have an excuse to go back.

What a nice re-charge.

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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Not Universally Accessible

We just got some feedback on the Christmas program here at the museum, it is feedback that I have heard before, on an issue that I have struggled with for many years: universal access for those of all levels of mobility. As a historic site, one must travel the roads and paths to get to the historic buildings, all of which are entered by going up stairs. We have retro-fitted some buildings with ramps, but entrances are not the only problems: getting around inside the buildings can be tough, and just getting to the buildings from the visitor center can be a challenge.

The busiest day of this year’s Christmas program was also the most problematic in terms of visitors navigating our site. The weekend before we had received a foot and a half of snow, then on Tuesday we got another 8 inches. All that had been cleared off the paths, but Friday and Saturday were warm and the light mist had been melting the snow all day. Since it was fairly cold, the ground was mostly frozen, forcing the snow melt on to our nicely shoveled paths and either re-freezing in to ice slicks, or mixing with just enough thawed ground to cause massive mud puddles. The grounds were totally a mess. I wore my rubber boots and muddled through, but those visitors who had dressed up in fancy shoes, or had mobility issues were having trouble on the grounds.

What could we do about this particular situation? We were certainly salting and sanding the icy patches, pushing back the snow, but even with a dedicated grounds crew there was not a lot we could do about the mud puddles. The water was not being absorbed into the frozen ground, and in order to soak up all that water we would have needed to invest in a couple tons of sand or gravel, or possibly several industrial vacuum cleaners. Do they make vacuum cleaners that suck up mud puddles?

So short term we could not do anything about the rough walking conditions, but that does not mean we can not improve for the future. So what are some of the long term solutions? The easiest and most cost effective solution to weather conditions on roads is to pave them: wooden walkways, cobblestones, concrete, asphalt. All of these would significantly reduce the mobility issues of our modern visitors. However, we are a historic site and none of those methods of paving can be documented for the time when most of our houses were built, which is the late 1700s early 1800s. At that time the roads were dirt, so that is what we have: dirt. By having piles of snow and mud puddles in December we are giving visitors a taste of winter in times past, and all the limits that go with it.

So yes, a number of elderly visitors and those with mobility issues do have trouble navigating our grounds in bad weather, even if nothing is falling from the sky at the moment that they come through. From a modern perspective that is totally unfair. I think universal access is an incredibly worthy goal and I do try, in my own little way, to work towards universal access for people of all abilities. But I am also a historian and can tell you, folks with disabilities did not really get to enjoy the “good old days.” Aside from the stigma a differently-abled person had to endure, in the time before electricity there were no elevators, no electric wheel chairs; heck, all those muddy paths were dark and even more treacherous before the cheap modern light bulb. What happened when older folks were no longer able to walk all that well? They certainly did not expect to go out with the grandkids to a nine-acre site in the middle of the winter and expect to walk around for several hours. But just because they were excluded in the past does not give us permission to exclude people today. BUT we don’t want to give up on presenting history, that is what we do!

I know there are people out there in the museum world doing wonderful work on universal access, but I have found very little of it on historic settings. If a reader has any insight, please share. I’d love to put more brains to work on this.

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