Wednesday, December 24, 2014

That random collection of digits

The average American does not know dates.

I was talking with a retired Literature professor about volunteering at the museum and learning how to hearth cook. I mentioned that we use recipes from the late 18th Century, and his response was to ask if we were making pemmican and other Native American meals. By 1770 (what I meant by the later 18th C.) there were very few Native Americans left in Downtown Portsmouth, there had been English settlers here for over 120 years.

The museum was hiring an outside group, dancers specifically, for some shows and the organizer was effusive about his wonderful costumes. First he said they were just like Currier and Ives, then he mentioned “A Christmas Carol” then went on to talk about “vintage dress”. I had to ask if he was talking 1840s when Currier and Ives started  and when a Christmas Carol was first printed, or 1900s which is when Currier and Ives ended and what is usually considered vintage. He had no idea. When I got to see his costumes they actually were pretty good renditions of the 1860s Currier & Ives prints, it was just the concept of dates and names for separate eras that he had no interest in.

I gave a tour of the museum to a kid just out of college where he had majored in history. I mentioned that Ichabod Goodwin was governor of the state just at the beginning of the Civil War, but that we show his house how it looked in 1870. The kid asked if it was a colonial house.

Maybe it is just the way that I use dates and events, names of time periods versus names of styles. I like to think I’m not a bad history educator. It does say to me that when introducing some to a historical concept, giving a date: as set of numbers strung together to indicate a time in history, or giving an era whether it is Colonial or Victorian can be totally ineffective as a method of grounding your audience.

Here is a challenge to you all: How can you give your audience an anchor from which to understand you without using dates or era name?


  1. I've had this problem many times as a docent/history fanatic, too. Most people just lump anything before the 1940s into "ye olde times," with no semblance of even large markers in history like the Renaissance! I think the best thing is to give people as much detail as possible, and differentiate one moment in the past from others ("This home was built in 1870, 10 years after the Civil War ended. At the time, industrial manufacture was still at its height etc. etc.) I think that if you're using an era name, you should define it, too, to create a greater sense of understanding. I think it is much easier for art or fashion history buffs to memorize and understand the "separation" of dates because of how we remember distinct moments in fashion history.

  2. I teach history to middle school kids and always put things within a technology and war context. I also always mention the age of the country, amount of time post settlement and physical growth. It seems to work.

  3. In my work, people tend to lump any and every thing together as "colonial," whether it's the 1830s or the 1770s! They don't seem to realize that history has depth, and that specific events happened throughout time: this one came before that one; these came after those; others are from a whole n'other century; and so on. It takes patience...and set 'em straight. And even then...ahh, well...!

  4. This is a really good topic!

    I like to reference historical events or persons with which the visitor is already familiar with and use that as a reference point. I was talking with my 8 year old niece at dinner just a couple of weeks ago about living history and she was wondering "how soon" (a.k.a. what's the most modern period) do people re-enact. She knew our main interpretive period was the 18th century but was interested in maybe doing other times, too, because she saw a WWII ad at the museum. It was too far away from the 18th century to connect to anything there, but after some discussion I found she had just learned about the Titanic at school. Perfect. We connected the start of the Great War to just two years after the Titanic sank, and then WWII shortly after that. To give her more perspective, she had recently returned from her Grandma's house. We explained how Grandma's mom was just about my niece's age when WWII started.

    By connecting the new information to prior knowledge the new info is more meaningful to the brain and can be "sorted" more appropriately. We can also help the learner "re-sort" information that has been somewhat botched in the original act of storing/filing. To do that, though, we often have to find out where the person is at to start and jump off from there. Annnnd... end of unintentional education diatribe. =P I feel like I just spewed out a bunch of garbledy gook from one of my old education textbooks- but I've actually had a lot of success with this approach. Dates are great for us scholars, but in the grand scheme of things I think there's an argument to be made that we're more likely to remember chronology of events in a general sense than in specific dates/eras. =D