Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Learning Through Movement

I am a big supporter of alternate methods of learning, especially when it comes to learning history. Lectures, static exhibits, and books have their place but I’m just tickled that my job allows me to think out of the box and plan for all the different ways people can learn history.

In my role as Manager of Special Events I’m in charge of the celebrations surrounding the 4th of July. When I came in to this position, July 4th was the only event that did not make money for the museum. It was a scattered sort of event, with dozens of random activities, the event needed a serious streamlining. Back in March I talked on this blog about some of the problems, and my first thought about making the event more cohesive. I did not get a full reenactor’s timeline off the ground this year, though having a few more reenactors join us, and a few more time periods represented was a really good start.

What I did manage to do was add two opportunities for folks to get up, move around, and connect to history by using their bodies: a swing dance for adults on Friday night, and an Old Fashioned Field Day for kids on Saturday the 4th. This post is about Friday’s dance, the next one will be about Saturday.

When stumping for the reenactor’s timeline I approached one of the active members of Portsmouth’s vintage community, and asked if he would get a picnic together for the 4th as part of the timeline. He wasn’t very interested in that, but suggested to me that Portsmouth did not have any swing dances, and that we might be ripe for a dance instead. After Adam told me there was nowhere to swing dance on the seacoast I did some research to ascertain if that was true. The only stuff I could find was a dance club at the University of New Hampshire (The Hepcats) and a defunct group on Facebook. I emailed the local dance studios, some of them sometimes offer swing lessons. Boston has a huge swing community, and we’re not that far away. I know they swing in Lowell, and in Manchester NH. Hmm.

Several months after Adam suggested SBM host a swing dance the new head of role-players here at the museum came up to me and asked if, as the events person, I could add a swing dance to one of my events. Well two different people asking for it, and enough interest in vintage outings in the area and no one else doing it, this swing dance was looking more likely.

It took a lot more than just that, The July 4th event went through several more incarnations: we almost hosted a strawberry festival, pancake breakfast, Barbeque, the curatorial team really wanted a pony (I’m not kidding.) but by the time we made it to June the dance was one of the only parts still standing. We scheduled it for Friday night, July 3rd, the same night as the Portsmouth Fireworks. I hired a big band, a tent with a dance floor, and a network of people to get the word out. We made posters, and I did a lot of posting on Facebook. I was so worried that no one would attend that I comped in a couple of dancers on the understanding that they would stay on the dance floor and drag out reluctant attendees too. I got a couple willing to do a dance lesson in the hour before the band played, and asked for their advice on hosting a dance (provide hand sanitizer and breath mints.)

We sold tickets online in advance, but sales were slow. I was a nervous wreck in the afternoon leading up to the dance with the usual July 4th stuff still scheduled to happen the next day, plus the dance was so brand new. The band arrived in plenty of time, the dance instructors, and plenty of SBM employees and volunteers showed up to help out. I supplied pizza to all the volunteers and employees who had agreed to work late (we all missed dinner because of the dance) and the first attendees started to arrive before we’d all finished our first slice. By the time the lesson was well under way the dance floor I’d ordered was nice and crowded.

Folks of all ages, abilities fill the dance floor at Strawbery Banke on July 3rd.

The crowd was swinging and the band was hopping at Strawbery Banke on July 3rd.

And people danced! The lesson was noisy with enthusiasm, and once the band started up people stayed on the dance floor. The dancers I’d invited did a great job of drawing people out who were reluctant, those that had taken part in the lesson tried out their moves. We attracted some more experienced folks as well including quite a few HepCats from UNH who were still around for the summer. A few attendees were even in their vintage best. I only made it out on the dance floor once, but I was so thrilled that everyone else seemed to be having a good time. When the dance ended just as dusk was falling, many folks made a point of coming up to me and telling me that I had to do it again next year.

My volunteers, the SB employees, and I cleaned up fast since it was late, and the tent would be used again first thing in the morning. The band cleared out quickly too and we almost managed to get everything done before the Portsmouth town fireworks started. We all went out on to the lawn to watch the display, which showed rather well over the trees. It was a lovely end to a successful evening, even if we all got stuck in fireworks traffic on the way home.

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Monday, July 6, 2015

Variety in Living History

There is no one Living History Experience
Last month we had a lovely variety of LH experiences, and I’ve been reminded again how there is no such thing as a typical reenactment, if you keep your eyes peeled and your mind open.

Medieval Talk Show: A small group of us went to visit a middle school down in Connecticut, where we got to sit down with the kids, and they could ask us anything. Anything! And we would answer in period from our own experiences. How many people get to interview someone from the past? It was also great for us because we never know what they are going to ask, so it is a chance for us to think about parts of daily life we have never thought about before.

Guild Day: A week later we went back to the same school, but this time brought the whole guild, our tents and encampment furnishings, even Percy came for the day. The students divided up into groups and visited each “station” for a few minutes. Kristina and I talked about families living on the march, and the difference between soldier’s life and noble’s life. While we were talking as fast as we possibly could, we looked after both Percy and Lilly, a very well behaved 3 year old, the child of two other guild members. Both kids were looking adorable in their historical clothes, and were close to stealing our show, but in a good way.  It was hot as heck that day, so I brought out a big copper basin and filled it with water, then gave the kids a few bowls and spoons. They splashed happily while Kris and I talked and talked. I wish we had gotten some photos, but I have not seen any yet.

Workshop: The next day everyone assembled at our house for a workshop in chopping wood. Okay, we did only a little splitting firewood, it was more about making tent pegs, and using natural forks to make spits, carving out some wooden mallets, generally playing with twigs and branches. This one was not in costume or in character, but it was so important to me, because it increased my knowledge about stuff that our characters would have known about. Just like today people know the difference between a sedan and a station wagon, folks in most time periods would have known the difference between oak and maple.

Immersive Overnight: From the workshop we climbed into our 16th Century clothes and marched out into the unknown. We spent the night in the woods in back of our house out of sight of civilization and completely in character. We had no modern amenities: the cell phones, flashlights, coolers, everything stayed at the house. Stephen had written up a scenario for us to follow: we were routed after a battle and had met up, us women and a very few of the soldiers, and were looking for a safe place to spend the night before making our way back to the lines in the morning. This was a completely new thing for us, we usually drive in to a site with a car full of stuff (in this case we only took what we could carry) and we usually drop character when the public leaves. It was hot, it was nerve wracking, and Percy was teething, but we made it through and I think we all learned a lot. I would definitely do it again, though probably not the day after an event.
Getting ready for an Immersive Overnight

How to attach stuff to your Frau.

Percy and I get ready to head into the woods.

Armory day: As if there was not enough from the week before, the next Friday we drove out to Western Mass. Percy and I spent Friday visiting a college friend of mine, then on Saturday while Stephen was being a mud beggar at the Mutton and Mead Renaissance Festival we went to Springfield Mass, to the Springfield Armory, a museum run by the National Park Service. They were having an “Armory Day” timeline event and I wanted to check it out sine I am hoping to host one next year. I wore my 1930s denim slacks from Wearing History, and a cute blouse the fits in the first half of the 20th Century. I put my hair in a kerchief, and Percy in a button down and pair of “railroad” overalls. I don’t think we got a single photo of the two of us. We walked around to the different encampments, played in the grass, drank orange soda and ate a hot dog (the Boy Scouts were selling lunch) and were mostly ignored by the reenactors. I got a few ideas of what not to do: call it a timeline of munitions if only the Civil War Guys are firing, hire a dance troupe to “interpret” a certain historical time period; and a few more of what to do: invite the Signal Corps, the 1812 Marine, Boy Scouts.

Renfaire: Sunday found Percy and I washing up in the guild’s encampment at Mutton and Mead. It was a very different experience not being in charge. Stephen was there, but not in camp, he was being paid to be a mud beggar. I was only there on Sunday so I stayed out of the planning. The camp looked different, there was no set schedule, we all did our own things and interacted, I mostly watched Percy and tried not to droop in the massive humidity. I got to spend time with two of our camp’s new members and we all got asked a lot of really good questions. Western Mass is like that: a lot of very intelligent people, many of whom work at the local colleges, or went to those colleges and never left the area. They were happy to get some info, ask follow-up questions, understand the whys and wherefores of life with a marching army. Plus, I got to see a lot of people who used to work the Vermont Renaissance Faire, which is the one where I got my start and where Stephen and I met. So it was old-home day, with all the renfaire trappings, and a chance to dress up and educate the public.

Seriously, a lot of variety of Living History in a short amount of time.

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Monday, May 4, 2015

Clothing the Renaissance Child: It Takes a Guild...

I feel like I need to apologize because I have had so little time to sew, craft and create historical stuff. What I can do is profusely thank all the wonderful people in my life who are making it possible for me to continue reenacting and participating in Living History as a family.

A few weeks ago Stephen, Percy and I went out to Ft Wayne, Indiana to a “Pike & Shot era” LH event. It roughly covers the 1500s through 1600, maybe a bit beyond. There are so few of us who do this time that we travel long distances to get a group of any size. This was my third year are the event (read about 2013 here) but the first year with Percy. We’ve been doing this long enough that Stephen and I have a fairly well established kit (i.e. our clothes, eating gear, bedding, personal items) but Percy had grown out of the stuff he wore at faire this past fall, and now needs toys and solid food, and shoes… he needs his own kit! I never would have had the energy to assemble a full (if very small) kit for another person, but lucky we have a guild full of friends who all chipped in without us even asking.

Some of the clothes made by my guild mates for little Landsknecht

Tom and Amanda have a daughter who is about 4 years old now, who has been participating with us since she was born. Amanda made all the clothes for her daughter Lilly, and has since passed them down to us so Percy can wear them. Once Percy has grown out of them, we’ll pass them along to the next baby in our group. Tom and Amanda also gave us a lovely baby shower gift of a wooden box full of historical tidbits: a horn bowl and spoon, hand hemmed linen cloths for baby messes, a bag of marbles for when he is older, cloth covered pacifiers for when he is tired. Such a thoughtful gift, I am still discovering all the useful things packed into that box.

Along with the hand-me-down clothes was a fleece hood that Brittney made for Lilly. There was also a pair of little shoes that Brittney had gotten, slashed up the toes, and added little puffs of fabric to make baby-sized kumal shoes! Brittney and Marc had also given us a lovely little bowl they bought on their honeymoon in England.

Percy is rich in eating gear. Rhiannon, a newer member of our group, had gone to a paint-your-own pottery place and done up a lovely little bowl with historic motifs. We all think it is amazing but she was not as happy with the design, so she gave it to Percy; if he bangs it up or breaks it she does not mind. He was given a wooden spoon by my mother, and he was given a lovely reproduction pewter one (lead-free of course) that our friend Julie bought. She ordered the spoon hoping it would be one she could use, only it turned out to be a miniature spoon, way too small for an adult, but perfect for Percy! Rhiannon and Julie also helped out by allowing me to make repairs to my shirt during a recent sewing session: they amused Percy while I stitched furiously, and when he needed mommy time they picked up my shirt and finished the seams while I bounced or fed him.

Bowls and spoons, toys for tots.
My main concern for the weekend was toys to keep him amused. Amanda had given him some wooden beads to teeth on, and all the bowls and spoons are great fun, but he likes rattles. There are quite a few rattles in renaissance portraits, even one surviving silver one! I cannot afford to get Percy a silver rattle, but I did go out and buy little silver bells. I went to a hardware store and got a turned wood stair baluster that Stephen chopped down. Then I attached the bells to it using jump rings and staples. I was really pleased with the way it turned out, until I went to Pier One and found a red painted wand of bells that was much nicer than the one I had created. Ah well, now he has options.

I added a few other things to his kit, a wooden ball, a linen sling to carry him around, a wool blanket to wrap him up, a little ceramic pot of diaper cream. Plus all his modern diapers, bottles, wipes etc.. I packed it all in a pack basket that mom had given me many years ago, so I could sling it on my shoulder and carry it around the fort; if he needed a toy or a change I would have it all with me whether I was in our room, the yard, or the infirmary.

Percy did great all weekend long. The folks at the event were super welcoming, and all my guild folks took turns playing with Percy when I needed to run around for a bit. He played with the other baby in attendance, and smiled at everyone who came to visit. He napped through the firing of guns, but woke when the drum called everyone to muster. I am really lucky with my healthy, happy baby, and I am so thankful for my generous, helpful guildmates.
Percy makes friends at Fort Wayne
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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Good First Impression

I’ve brought this up before, but I’ve been thinking about it again. Upon meeting someone we only get a short time to make a first impression. As someone educating about a different time and place the first impression is doubly important. Here are the things that I consider important in a LH introduction:
1.    Something about the time period you are representing
2.    Something about the person you are portraying
3.    Something to engage your audience
I like to try to do all that in just a few short sentences.

When using first-person interpretation we have to be clever to get the most important information out there since we are talking from the long-ago, to an audience of modern individuals. It is a challenge, but a good one. Even when using third-person it is important to avoid giving just a name and a date. Most people don’t have the historical knowledge to put dates into any kind of context. Event smart people who should know dates often don’t. and names have a fairly low educational factor.

So what does a good introduction sound like? Stephen delivered one of my favorites here at the museum with his 1870s coachman character, it went something like:
“Welcome to the kitchen! I hope you don't mind if I don't stand, Mr. Goodwin gave us the evening off. We’re having a bit of a party to celebrate Christmas eve, and to celebrate that we’re one year further away from that dreadful war.”

I love this intro because although in this particular iteration the character is unnamed and the date is not given, there is so much an audience member can get from the intro:
1.    The speaker is an employee, and a fairly formal one (usually they stand when a guest arrives)
2.    He has identified the place: the kitchen of the home owned by Mr. Goodwin
3.    The day itself is something special: a party of Christmas eve, and at the end of a war.
4.    Because he does not specify the war, he has left an opening for his audience to ask. Though they could ask any number of questions based on his statement, the one hanging in the room is: “what war is that?” which can lead to quite a good discussion about the era, about the character, about the audience member’s own experience of war.
"George Rose" chats with a visitor in the kitchen at Goodwin House
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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Getting Restless

Things are gearing up here for opening day at the museum. The seasonal staff have been in training all week, getting reacquainted with us full-timers, learning about the new programs, and introducing new staff members. The costumes are coming back out, the cook stoves are being fired up, the houses have been aired out and dusted off. I am so jealous of those who are stepping back into the shoes, cracking open the cookbooks, and greeting the houses once again.
I love my job, it is so much fun to bring special days to the museum; but I miss actually acting out the daily tasks, and portraying the fabulous women of this neighborhood. I did get into costume last weekend at a very cool reenactment, but it has only slightly diminished the pangs as I see the aprons and skirts go whisking by.

I think I need to plan a tea party for May, so I can get dressed up. The renfaires seem very far away.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Next Era

When browsing around the internet I came across this Dream Regency Wardrobe. There are way too many pieces to this wardrobe for me, but oh goodness wouldn’t I like a dream wardrobe full of historical clothes! Actually, I do have a closet full of historical clothes, but they represent eras from the 12th Century through 1945. And the itch has struck me again, I think I need to take up a new time period!

What with a baby, job, house, and the eras I already play in I probably do not need another time period, but remember the link that started this crazy train of thought is about dreams, and my current daydream is about the next era that I would undertake, if I were to undertake another era. But which one? Well there would have to be local events at which I could take part, and it would be a bonus if I could bring Percy along. There would need to be something about the era that I was interested in researching. Oh and the outfit. Is there a specific outfit that I would like to re-create?

Here are my three top choices of the moment:

1812: Proper Young Lady
Oh how I would love to reenact the era of Jane Austen. The crisp white dresses, the romance, the dancing! And I could take part in the Regency Ladies' Wedgie Society! But really, I’m not a young lady any more, and Jane is so far across the pond. How does the era stack up against my list?
Events: There is an awesome, if somewhat early (year 1800) event that takes place down in Providence RI called: What Cheer Day. I’m not sure I’m up to their standards, and it is very far, but I do dream of taking part one day. Commonwealth Vintage Dancers do have a Regency dance weekend, I’m busy that weekend this year, but maybe next year.
Research: The museum where I work has a house furnished to the late 18teens, I could certainly start there. I might even continue just looking at Portsmouth history during that time, there is a rich history that involves African Americans, neighborhood fires, the start of industry, and the blossoming of the neighborhood known as Puddle Pock.
Outfit: I actually already have a few dresses and spencers that could go in this time, but I’ve really always wanted to make a military inspired wool pelisse. I love the long lines, and the warm look in the face of all the flimsy cotton!

1912: Suffragette
Cast off the shackles of yesterday! But seriously, we’re still fighting these battles, and what better way for a reenactor feminist to do so than by honoring the suffragettes of our past? That and I’ve wanted an early 1900s suit forever.
Events: Well, now that the anniversary of the titanic is past, I don’t actually know of any events where I could wear this. Maybe just out to tea? A few years ago a friend hosted a fancy tea in Concord, MA, and a few years before that we went to dress-up tea on Cape Cod. Maybe it is time for me to host one not too far from our new house.
Research: I am intrigued by the time right before World War One. I even have a couple of books on this era just waiting to be read. I wonder when I’ll have time to read a whole book.
Outfit: Did I mention that I already have the design picked out? I’ve wanted a traveling or walking suit for a very long time. I think they are elegant, yet practical, and I think the style would fit my frame so well. Oh, and I already bought the fabric, it is a white wool with red pinstripes. Oh, how I want to make this!

1920s Leisure Life
Oh the dancing, the picnics, the croquet! Actually this time appeals less to me than some of the others, but there are plenty of events, right in my area.
Events: This one is very event heavy. Last year we attended the “Jazz-Age Lawn Party” down in Ipswitch Mass, and now I find there is a similar one here on the seacoast of NH that involves a boat ride out to the islands, and a picnic by the old hotel. Blankets on the lawn on a summer afternoon are perfect places for toddlers, I think these sorts of events fit the family for this summer.
Research: I think what most interest me about the 20s is the dance. I’d love to learn the Charleston, foxtrot, and I bet I could learn a lot about daily life by studying dance trends.
Outfit: Last year I just bought some stuff from TJ Maxx to attend our first event, but I would be way too embarrassed to do that two years in a row! Besides, one of my favorite bloggers shared this post about a new pattern she tried. It is a modern pattern, but from a very retro company and looks like I could easily make a few modifications to make it even more twenties, but still be able to wear it out and about an no one would know it was not a modern dress. Plus I have a lovely pink and green striped linen in my stash that is just begging for a dress like this.

So while I'm not sure any of these project will get done this year, a gal can dream, right?

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Visual Thinking Strategies

Back in November I attended the New England Museum Association's conference in Boston. I still have mixed feelings about the conference, mostly because November is so busy with my job, and spending two days away from the office seemed like a waste of valuable time. The conference was so crowded I did not get to attend as many sessions as I wanted to, and some of the ones I did attend were not too useful for me in my current position. What I did get out of it was a chance to connect with people who do what I do, and that is what makes the trip worth it. It also really makes me want to host the FPIPN conference in Portsmouth next spring.

One of the sessions I did attend was on Visual Thinking Strategies. Although I was unaware of the term as it was meant in the session, I have inadvertently been teaching using VTS since I was in college. Thinking back on it, someone must have taught it to me, just never used the term. I'm not sure if it was my parents while they dragged me to museum after museum or if it was in college classes on art history or museums but someone must have used visual thinking strategies on me. The session at the conference basically went through the kid's program at one of the mill museums in Northern Mass. They showed photographs of child mill workers from the early 20th Century and asked the kids what they think about the photo and why, then showed them modern photos of child labor around the world, and did the same. While the presenters were walking us museum folks through their kids program I was flashing back to an experience just out of college when I put together and ran a summer camp.

I was working at Historic Northampton, the director had given me a chance right out of college and I was so overwhelmed. But I did manage to put together a one week summer program for kids teaching about life in the year 1875. Every morning when the kids arrived we all hunkered down on the carpet in the tiny classroom behind the gallery, and I would bring out a stack of images: photos of New York and Boston in the 1870s one day, greeting cards the next, advertisements the next. We would look at the images and I would ask the kids what they thought about the kids in the photos, about the products advertised, about what things were considered beautiful, or cool or … My questions were much more leading than the actual VTS questions, which are just: “What is going on in this picture?” and “What makes you say that?” but we used the images to spark some really good discussions. The kids did not have to know a lot of history going in to the discussion, they just had to look at the image and they could take part.

Last week we were talking about a new summer camp program here at the museum that would focus on food. We brought up food in art and in advertising, and wondered how to incorporate that into the camp program, well that is easy! Giving a kid an image and asking them what is going on in the picture can be a fantastic way to establish a shared vocabulary, a jumping off point, a reference for all the other crafts, recipes, garden tours that take place over the week. I don’t get a lot of chances to work directly with visitors any more,  but sitting in on the camp planning session was a lot of fun, and reminded me how much I like visual thinking strategies. Read this entry on entry page

Monday, March 2, 2015

A Reenactor's Timeline

A few of the groups (I'm in there in the middle) at the LHA's 25th timeline event in 2011
I've attended a few LH events that are "timeline events" where groups representing a number of different historical eras/cultures set up encampments, hold demos, participate in fashion shows, and more. For those of us who portray an era that is a little less common, sometimes timeline events are the only events where were get to interact with other people who do living history. Military History Fest is not called a timeline, but it has all the elements, and we've been attending that one (this past February being the only exception) since it started. When we were just starting out with Das Geld Fahnlein we drove all the way to Maryland to participate in a timeline event with another Landsknecht unit, and a few years later tracked down a small timeline event in the middle of Vermont. We've event thought of hosting our own for a while, but getting something new off the ground can be quite difficult.

Winter in the office is when I plan all SBM's events for the next year: get feedback on last year, take a good look at the way we have done things in the past, and think about making changes for the upcoming seasons. Many of the events that I oversee are very established with key elements that work well, and only need minor changes every year: Halloween is about safe trick-or-treat, Christmas is about holiday stories, music and decorations, but July 4th has always seemed a bit unfocussed. We have a big naturalization ceremony in the morning to welcome new citizens to the United States, but as fun as it is to attend, most visitors (or potential visitors) don't think of a naturalization ceremony as a good reason to come to a museum on a day usually devoted to parades and barbeques. This past month I've taken a look at all the elements we've included in our July 4th celebrations: food vendors, craft sellers, kids games, reenactor encampments, garden crafts, special tours, readings of the Declaration, a kid's bike parade, cupcake walk, the list of random bits and pieces went on and on with very little to unify them other than the color scheme. So I took off the list any bits that fit in with other events we already host: we have two food-related events, and a big craft event in the fall. Those bits that had little to do with history like the non-historic kid’s games and cupcake walk I tossed out. Then I looked at the list of things I had left and picked out my favorite parts. The bike parade is a huge hit and I love parades of all shapes and sizes, garden crafts fit so well into the museum’s mission and everyone has fun taking a bit of the museum home, and then there are the reenactors.

Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time will know that I feel very strongly that Living History is a great way to engage with the past, and reenactors do just that, they themselves engage with the past, and help others to do so as well. In 2014 there were three different reenactment groups that participated in SBM’s July 4th festivities: one portraying 1740, one 1865, and one 1943. In year’s past there have been even more: a 1770s doctor, some 1914 folks. Then there are our normal costumed roleplayers who are inside the historic houses representing 1777, 1870, 1907, and 1919. Then there are the Junior Roleplayers who all come out on July 4th and bring to life the buildings and lanes that are usually so static. Once I looked at the event through the lens of my own interests, I discovered that I already had a reenactor’s timeline in the making, with many reasons to cement the theme.

Why a reenactor’s timeline? Strawbery Banke already shows change over time with houses interpreted from 1690 to 1950, so we are well set-up to host multiple time periods. Our houses represent some eras that are less commonly reenacted (not just the ones during major wars) so I’m hoping to attract reenactors who portray some of the less common personas. Strawbery Banke Museum is known to a lot of local reenactment groups, many of whom had told me they would like to be more involved here. Since I do some reenacting on my own I have connections in the reenactment community that I can utilize to get more people involved. Even more exciting to me, I plan on actively looking for groups or individuals that have non-military impressions. We show daily life here on the seacoast, I’ll welcome military reenactors but I want to showcase all sorts of history. There is a fairly active vintage community on the seacoast that I hope to engage; they love history and live locally, but many of them do not visit SBM. One of our staff members has a Model-A Ford which he will bring, and he has promised to bring out a few of his antique car buddies too. I’m excited to get some Native American groups involved, and hopefully some of the fantastic African American LH presenters that are in the area.

I’m gearing up by contacting as many local, or not so local, museums and historic sites that host reenactment events, so I can ask them questions, and hopefully make some professional contacts. I’m reaching out to folks in the LH community that I’ve never worked with before. I’m making a list of all the timeline events in New England, and finding those with interesting, not necessarily military, displays to enrich those that come out to visit SBM on the 4th of July.

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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Book Review: The Same Ax, Twice

Same Axe Twice: Restoration and Renewal in a Throwaway Age, by Howard Mansfield was recommended to me by a colleague at the museum. This book is not just a look at history, it is specifically how we use history, recreate history, honor it, and interact with it today. Every chapter is a series of vignettes of different historical reenactments and recreations: the first airplane, people who make their own telescopes, Civil War Battle reenactments, and more. It turns out there are a ton of really diverse ways that modern Americans are interacting with the past. Mansfield talks about how we here in New England have been interacting with the past since the Victorian era with the invention of “Old Home Days” as a means of cultural celebration and mourning the loss of family members moving away from their local roots.

Mansfield is from New Hampshire, and writing with an incredibly local perspective. This is particularly interesting to me, having grown up here a lot of the villages and towns are familiar. The history of this region is something I grew up with. I think the book would still be interesting to folks outside of the state who enjoy regional sociological studies, but that could just be me. As someone who has both consumed the tourism of the region, as well as worked in the tourism field here, I agree that nostalgia is a part of our touristic appeal. Nostalgia is an odd concept, but one that is important when discussing how people view history, and in this case, New Hampshire history. A few years ago I tried to read “The Past is a foreign country” by David Lowenthall and I admit I did not get very far in that book before I had to return it to the library. “Same Axe” reminds me of Lowenthall’s book, in a smaller format.

I found the whole to be fairly melancholy: guys reviving old engines are described as puttering among the exhaust and nostalgia. American progress is described as a sad state of affairs. After a section on the Nevada atomic test sites Mansfield concludes: “American places are but a moment’s bright flash, followed by long, confused memories.”

But the diversity of history presented and the amount of connections that people were making to the past was inspiring for someone like me who often wonders if I am alone in my obsession with change over time.

Howard Mansfield has written a number of other books on history, I’ve also been told I have to read “In the Memory House” and any number of his other books. I think I’ll wait until a sunny day though, just in case they are as mopey as “Same Axe.”
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Friday, January 23, 2015

Book Review: Past into Present

Is there a book for what I do? For creating, improving, and learning about first-person historical characters? Yes, there is one: Past into Present: Effective Techniques for First-Person Historical Interpretation by Stacy F. Roth. Published in 1998, Roth undertakes to record techniques of first person interpretation as practiced at a number of museums around the US. She looks specifically at interactive interpretation: those where the LH interpreter has conversations with the visitor as opposed to museum theatre, where there is a more set script, and the visitor is more an audience than a participant. In the book, Roth covers the basics like: establishing a vocabulary, the places where first person interpretation is practiced, pros and cons from a practitioner and audience perspective. She goes in depth on how different people at different sites create their interpretations, connect with the public, and deal with different types of audiences.

The book reads less like a how-to and more like an academic dissertation, so it can be difficult to dig pertinent info out of wordy paragraphs for those who are looking for an intorduction. But for those of us of a studious mindset there is plenty to sink your teeth into. The appendixes contain both a glossary of terms, which is very necessary in this field, and a list of “character development” topics that can spur on a beginner, or add depth to an established character.

Roth was not the first person to write about Living History, that distinction goes to Jay Anderson. And there have been books published since, but Roth has not been surpassed, Past into Present is the place to start, and is where we need to return in order to up our art.

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Series Review: Tales From the Green Valley

After reading The Building of the Green Valley back in 2011 I finally watched the TV series this past month while recovering from minor surgery. What a lovely series. Stephen and I watched it on YouTube, we devoured all 12 episodes in just a few sittings.

The premise: 5 history experts spend a year on a 16th century farm, doing all the things a farm family would do around the year 1620. Each episode represents a month in the year, and starting in September they wear the clothes, plow fields, eat meals, make and use tools, care for livestock, the whole thing. This is not like the reality shows that put “average folks” in historical circumstances, the two women and three men who participate are archaeologists, historians or experts of some sort. We are not subjected to any personality drama, just lovely scenery of Western England, beautifully restored buildings and landscapes, and enthusiastic experimental archaeology.

I am not an expert in 16th Century farming, so they certainly could have made choices that were less than accurate that I missed; but with that caveat, it all felt really good to me. I thought all the activities portrayed on the show: laundry, thatching, land clearing, charcoal burning, haying, cheese making, hog butchery, etc. gave a really good feel both for those who knew nothing about the history, and those of us who strive for accuracy in our own presentations. I definitely learned a bunch. I did not know that much about thatching, or that there was such a thing as a ceramic still for medicine making. In every episode there were times when I would sigh with longing over a besom broom, a lovely landscape, or something else in the show.

Watching Tales from the Green Valley was a really nice way to spend some cold January evenings dreaming about the upcoming reenacting season.

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