How to Live History

A wonderful and wise blog post from longtime ALHFAM member Mary Seelhorst. Let’s all honor our colleague and friend Blake Hayes by following Mary’s advice . . .–Deb Arenz


I returned home last night from the party held in memory of Blake Hayes in Cherry Valley, New York. This post is a bit unusual in that it’s written for colleagues in the museum field, the line of work to which Blake dedicated his life—especially members of the Association for Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM).

I met Blake at ALHFAM’s annual conference in 1986. We got married and were together 15 years before we moved on personally, but we remained engaged professionally and as friends. (Don’t worry, Blake and his wife Lorraine and me and my husband Tony all get along!)

His memorial party was an amazing event, with his friends from childhood, high school and college, his immediate family, adopted family, extended family (I think there were even in-laws of in-laws there!), “ex-family” (still regarded as family), professional colleagues, neighbors, local and regional friends, kids who grew up around him and brought their own kids, ALHFAM colleagues, Jell-O shots (which no one understood except the ALHFAMers), pets, meats, and music.

I heard Katie Boardman, one of Blake’s partners at the Cherry Valley Group, say that the comments and tributes to Blake “broke the ALHFAM-L,” a professional listserv normally used for questions and comments about museum matters. I think they also broke Facebook. After not checking my inbox for three days, I discovered literally hundreds of unread emails, nearly all Facebook notifications, ALHFAM-L summaries or personal messages about Blake.

This electronic outpouring, however, made me realize that as much of a tech enthusiast as he was, Blake didn’t need social media. He was social in the old-fashioned way—in person. He met, called, welcomed, taught, partied, shared time and stories, food and drink. Even when he was arguing his point of view passionately, it wasn’t personal. Even when he couldn’t type or walk any more, he talked. As his family reported, it was when he stopped talking that they knew the end was near.

Almost the only thing he didn’t share widely was news of his illness.

While we miss and remember and treasure all of our departed ALHFAM colleagues, I think it was Blake’s extremely social nature and long-term, deep commitment to ALHFAM that has made him so profoundly missed by all of us. Wherever Blake was, the party was. But when the party was over, valuable teaching and learning and doing occurred, informed and enhanced by personal relationships. Blake’s life is a reminder that opinionated doesn’t have to mean obnoxious.

As Dr. Takuji Doi, a long-departed ALHFAM colleague from Japan, once said after observing the flow of the annual meeting: “The difference between Japan and America: In Japan, make big decision, get drunk. In America, get drunk, make big decision!”

We need to continue to tell all of ALHFAM’s stories, the jokes, and the memories. And as much as possible we need to do it in person. There is no real substitute that can perpetuate our history. Maintaining the folklore of this organization and of your sites depends on you.

So go to your regional meetings, or those of other regions. Attend the annual conference whenever you can. Show up for your local history-related events. Gather with colleagues after hours for meals. Do it in memory of all our dearly departed, do it for yourself, and do it for the next generation.

Telling stories is, after all, the essence of history.

I recently came across something that, to me at least, seems to embody Blake’s professional and personal philosophy. It’s the last paragraph of Will and Ariel Durant’s book, The Lessons of History, published in 1968 (the year Blake graduated from high school).

To those of us who study history not merely as a warning reminder of man’s follies and crimes, but also as an encouraging remembrance of generative souls, the past ceases to be a depressing chamber of horrors; it becomes a celestial city, a spacious county of the mind, wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers still live and speak, teach and carve and sing. The historian will not mourn because he can see no meaning in human existence except that which man puts into it; let it be our pride that we ourselves may put meaning into our lives, and sometimes a significance that transcends death. If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our lasting life.

May Blake live long in that spacious country of our minds, building and organizing, cooking and joking, helping and sharing. With much love always, ms

(See the original post on Mary’s blog here)




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Beginner’s Mind, Drinking It In

[This is a guest post by ALHFAM member and co-chair of the Programming, Interpretation and Education Professional interest Group (PIE PIG), Lauren Muney]

For anyone who has frequently attended, or even never attended an ALHFAM conference, it’s easy to forget the many reasons these conference events are held: to learn more about our work bringing history to life, to learn new skills in workshops, to meet old friends and make new friends, to share in laughter or to connect with compassion. We have regional meetings and we have “national” meetings, which are often held in Canada as well as the USA, and often have international participants.


Kathleen Wall, culinarian from Plimoth Plantation, meets Executive chef/owner John Folse of White Oak Plantation. 

ALHFAM 2016 just closed its doors. Louisiana State University’s Rural Life Museum, was host site —and mother, father, aunt, uncle, friend, teacher, and tour-guide rolled into one. There were generous tours, exciting workshops, amazing session locations, and dedicated volunteers.

The staff and docents acted tirelessly (although we know they were very tired!), offering us more food than we could eat, more drink than would could accept, and all the while giving us warm smiles and cheer. We even were treated by most museums for free entrance, and the Presidential Banquet, cajun-inspired delicious dishes, and location was donated: famous White Oak Plantation  and its more famous owner/chef, John Folse.

This brings me to the subject:

ALHFAM meetings are not just about old buildings, battle sites, “who did what to whom”, townball, plowing contests, and stuffing information into our heads and notebooks.

ALHFAM is about understanding one another. Not just a little bit; but understanding in a deeper way, a way that comes from connecting together all that we are experiencing from our hosts, the views out our window, the ground (or, in the case of Louisiana, the swamp) under our feet, and the past, the personalities and regionalisms that create this mixed-up North American culture.


Sugar Cane crop at West Baton Rouge [living history] museum. Sugar cane is a labor intensive crop with deep ties to enslaved and low-paid workers.

In Baton Rouge as well as in New Orleans, and all the small visits around the region, we caught just a little whiff of what makes the heartbeat of the Louisiana people and this Creole, Cajun, Deep-South place. We experienced the sultry  (that means ‘hot and sticky’) nights and even hotter and stickier days.

We started to understand why the pace of life might be slower down there, with different ways of moving through the heat and the sun, and the ubiquitous water everywhere. In this place where the history includes so many languages, based on the movements of the French, Spanish, and mixed-race peoples moving through, settling down, and moving again. We learned — in unflinching detail— about slavery’s swath through the culture and the pain it caused. We learned about the iconic politics which rose and fell, affecting generations during and after.


RLM docents and volunteers cooked and served the ALHFAMily delicious, regional and well-filled plates of foods.

But mostly we felt the care and attention of the Louisiana people, embodied by the generosity and the kindness of the volunteers at the Rural Life Museum (RLM) and the other sites and activities we visited. The unceasingly big hearts and passion that brings over 100 people to hand-make meals and serve to us, one attendee at a time, heaping plates of food that symbolized their love, care, and attention to both ALHFAM and to the RLM.

Here was the biggest lesson we could learn: that the Deep South may struggle with harsh weather conditions, culture clashes, and even the wildness that comes with yearly Mardi Gras (a wild party which started in 1699 and has now grown to an elaborate set of parades, costumes and rituals — but varies between urban New Orleans to the rural Creole country parishes) – but we all come back to the deep heart of love and hospitality.

We so deeply need ALHFAM.


Mosquito cloth on a slave bed, which begs the visitor to think about slavery as well as living conditions in this wet and adventurous region.

We need to see not only our own history which we probably repeat daily, weekly, monthly – day in and day out, but we need to see how every half lives. We need to visit all these regions and areas hosted by our ALHFAMily.

We need to be shaken. We need to be heart-warmed. We need to be surprised. We need to be made uncomfortable [as much as we love comfort].

We deserve to be humbled by examples like the great strength of character and will which push Louisianans through the terrible hurricanes that regularly devastate the region, especially the worst ones that took away life, property, and hope.

We need to be loved by our new mothers and aunties and uncles. We need to taste new foods, we need to see new (old) buildings and lands.

We need to connect with our distant “cousins” of the ALHFAMily.


A view from the [wet] ground, Rural Life Museum, Baton Rouge, LA. What conditions did our foreparents encounter? How did they succeed?

We need to connect to those places different from us. People in the North need to interact with the slow South, while leisurely Southern people might be curious by what makes the North so quick. We need to sweat or freeze. We need to cross sandy soil, rocky earth, or swampy mess.

We in ALHFAM can be an odd bunch: academics, historians, material culture specialists, culinary experts, farmers, livestock carers, volunteers, retired hobbyists, reenactors, vendors, artists, front-line interpreters, exhibit specialists, administrators, managers, and more. We are experts  – or need to seem like experts. We spend more time in one location more often than another.


With all of our research and focus, we can often think we know everything – or we think we have done it all already.


From the “Great Keelboat Adventure” pre-conference workshop – ‘experiential archeology ‘ through the waterways of Baton Rouge. Created by the Early Arkansaw Reenactors Association.

And yet,
then we can come to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA, and we find out that we know nothing. We can taste the humidity and sip the julep (metaphorically speaking).

We can, in essence, see the world anew again – with beginner’s eyes. We can remember that with each place we visit — whether a regional meeting or annual meeting — we can be like a beginner again, taking-in the culture and learning to love. 

Unsettling as it may be to be a beginner at anything, being a beginner is the deepest way to understand a subject.

Drink your subject in, like you’ve never done so before.

See you in 2017 at ALHFAM Annual Meeting June 9-12, with host site Genesee Country Village and Museum in Mumford NY.


Rural Life Museum, Baton Rouge, LA


Lauren Muney is a demonstrating interpreting artisan, creating freehand-scissored portraits for visitors and guests at museums, events, corporate and social events across North America, in all time periods. Her work can be seen at her website, She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. All photos by Lauren Muney, 2016.

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ALHFAM 2016: School of the Mule

Enjoy the guest post below by School of the Mule participant Cody Joliff. Also look for videos of the workshop on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter using #ALHFAM16. The videos will also be up on soon.


School of the Mule at ALHFAM 2016 was a fun learning experience. We had attended other equine classes and workshops in the past that mostly focused on harness and driving of draft horses but not the entire care of the animal. School of the Mule was very extensive with great instructors. Melvin Wheat is a volunteer at Rural Life Museum and an avid hostler or mule driver. His assistant was Claud Brock who has lots of experience with equine as well.


The day started off with preparing the mules for work. Gus and Fred got their mane and tails trimmed. The mane serves no purpose and get caught in the collar and the headstall and can irritate the animal when working. Then we floated the teeth. As mules eat, they grind down the inside of their teeth and the outside edge becomes razor sharp from the calcium deposits. We checked their teeth then ground them down to where they were flat and could grind up their food. Next the hooves were cleaned and trimmed. Next we harnessed and drove the mules both ground driving and driving a farm wagon around the grounds.

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School of the Mule gave participants a real understanding of how mules operate and how to care for them. Personally I really enjoy the classes even when I worked at a site that will never have mules. Almost all of us interpret a time period when horses or mules are the basic power for transportation so everyone should be familiar. I found I could better interpret how harness, plows and wagons worked after attending the classes. When touring people through the museum and historic site I could explain vividly what the experience is like. You can’t understand from just reading a book or diary. I hope if you’re not familiar with historic use mules you’ll take a workshop in the future.

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ALHFAM 2016 Day 2: Sessions, Meetings, and The Auction

Karen Clancy was the happy winner of the birch bark basket made by Del Taylor

Karen Clancy was the happy winner of the birch bark basket made by Del Taylor


POOP (President of our Past) Pete Watson models an ASK tshirt. ASK is the ALHFAM Skills and Knowledge database and allows members to search thousands of ALHFAM resources easily by keyword.

Marie-Sophie Desaulniers does her best Vanna White holding up a beautiful framed original of the new logo that was hand it by silhouette artist Lauren Muney

Marie-Sophie Desaulniers does her best Vanna White holding up a beautiful framed original of the new logo that was hand cut by silhouette artist Lauren Muney

Day two of the conference was spent at the Rural Life Museum on the campus of Louisiana State University. Educational sessions were held, as were Professional Interest Group (PIG) meetings, and regional meetings. The day was capped off by the annual auction where funds were raised to support the organization and an overall good time was had by all. There was a certain smoking jacket wearing, earstand performing auctioneer who we kept with us in spirit. Enjoy the photos!

I won this beautiful posset pot made by Mike Fox of Old Salem. I'd provide a link to information about posset pots but I'm on a bus on the way to our day in New Orleans so you'll have to do your own research.

I won this beautiful posset pot made by Mike Fox of Old Salem. I’d provide a link to information about posset pots but I’m on a bus on the way to our day in New Orleans so you’ll have to do your own research.

Heidi Glatfelter Schlag tells a group about the great features of our new website

Heidi Glatfelter Schlag tells a group about the great features of our new website

Julian and Kelly hold up signs for the regional meetings. High praise for Julian's multitasking.

Julian and Kelly hold up signs for the regional meetings. High praise for Julian’s multitasking.

Mick Woodcock leading the Western region meeting.

Mick Woodcock leading the Western region meeting.

coming next…a guest post about the School of the Mule.

–Deb Arenz

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ALHFAM 2016 . . . Ready, Set, GO!

Ron Kley gallantly drags a ferry by rope across the water so Jane Radcliffe can disembark on the other side. ALHFAM members: always willing to go the extra mile.

Ron Kley gallantly drags a ferry by rope across the water so Jane Radcliffe can disembark on the other side. ALHFAM members: always willing to go the extra mile.

The 2016 ALHFAM conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana has just started and it’s already shaping up to be amazing. Many workshops and tours were offered today and, sadly, since I’m only one person, I can just report on mine. I went on the Acadiana tour and visited Vermilionville (a living history site), toured through the Atchafalaya basin, learned about Cajun and Creole culture, and before 1pm had listened to live zydeco music (with the best washboard player I have ever seen), eaten andouille sausage and okra, learned to dance, and watched the making of pecan candies. By the end of the day, we’d even seen a gator. The day was capped off by seeing old friends and colleagues and meeting new ones at the Smoked, Salted, and Pickled reception. Enjoy the pictures . . . more to come tomorrow! OR, in the meantime, check out other posts on social media using #ALHFAM16

Gator sighting at a Nature Conservancy site in the Atchafalaya basin. Crappy photo but it was exciting so I had to get a shot.

Gator sighting at a Nature Conservancy site in the Atchafalaya basin. Crappy photo but it was exciting so I had to get a shot.

Susan Reckseidler takes a traditional Creole dancing lesson, complete with live accordion music

Susan Reckseidler takes a traditional Creole dancing lesson, complete with live accordion music

Pecan candy demonstration at Vermilionville. Smelled divine!

Pecan candy demonstration at Vermilionville. Smelled divine! We were lucky to visit on Creole culture day when lots of special programming was happening.

  • Kimberly and Linda from Texas. Linda is a first time attendee and received a fellowship to come. We're happy to have her.

    Kimberly and Linda from Texas. Linda is a first time attendee and received a fellowship to come. We’re happy to have her.

    No ALHFAM conference would be complete without music. Mary Seelhorst is on the fiddle once again.

    No ALHFAM conference would be complete without music. Mary Seelhorst is on the fiddle once again.

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How to Eat Crawfish


The ALHFAM Annual Meeting and Conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana starts Sunday. I can’t wait! ALHFAM annual conferences offer many opportunities to learn about living history and historic agriculture, keep abreast of trends in the field, forge professional connections, and reconnect with friends. On top of all the good stuff an annual conference offers, we have the added attraction of soaking up some famous Louisiana hospitality, history, food, and culture. A good time will be had by all.

I plan to post daily during the conference so those not in attendance can live vicariously through the blog (sadly I haven’t discovered any scratch and sniff–or taste–blog technology), so keep watching.

In the meantime, enjoy this “How to Eat Crawfish” video from the Louisiana Office of Tourism.

See you in Baton Rouge!

–Deb Arenz

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Canned Programming for Museums: Healthy?

Free Fritos (or witnessing a Fritos free for all--imagine!) could certainly draw an audience. So can "canned programming." Image courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society

Free Fritos (or witnessing a Fritos “free for all”–imagine!) would certainly draw an audience. So can “canned programming.” Image courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society

I recently read an article on the benefits of collections-based research. The author stated the following: “A canned program* performs a social function. It brings together members and visitors for an enjoyable experience, adds to attendance figures, and may promote repeat visitation. It is often educational, and at its best truly thought provoking. But its benefits are often illusory. Perhaps the organization has advanced its mission . . . However, another museum, public library, or social club will offer the same program in a few weeks. Thus, the program has done little to distinguish the organization that hosted it in the minds of the attendees, much less garner support for the museum and its collections.”

(*I had never heard the term “canned program” before but it appears to mean programs-for-hire carried out by non-staff for a fee.)

The article goes on to argue that canned programming doesn’t directly connect to the host museum’s collections and, therefore, doesn’t present opportunities to emphasize the significance of the collections (central to their purpose) to audiences.

The author calls on museums to take measures to ensure that scholarly research and cataloging of collections continue and to use the information gathered in these endeavors to inform programming.

I can’t argue with that! Programming based on solid research and thorough investigation of a museum’s collection would serve to educate the public on the unique history that museum holds and potentially translate into financial support for preservation (and other) efforts.

I think canned programming can do that as well.

Admittedly, the museums I’ve worked in have not relied heavily on outside programming. When they have, however, I’ve thought it’s worked quite well. Generally, it’s gone something like this:

  1. We have a collection of Buffalo Bill items and put them on exhibit
  2. We hire a scholar/living history practitioner to do a program on Buffalo Bill
  3. Audiences come to enjoy the presentation/exhibit and learn something about the topic AND our collections

The independent museum professionals/historical interpreters I’ve known have, by and large, been extremely dedicated to their craft and are often far more knowledgeable about their subject matter than others. I’ve also found that they are mostly thrilled when a museum has collections that tie into their efforts and welcome opportunities to emphasize the importance of these items.

Perhaps my experiences represent a programmatic sweet spot: outside professional comes in to do programming that supports the collections/mission of the museum, audiences get something new and exciting, stretched-thin staff get help attracting audiences, and everyone is happy.

But those are only my experiences. I’d like to hear about yours.

Have you been to or worked at a museum that relied heavily on outside programs and, if so, how did that affect the museum (positively or negatively)?

Does your museum have rules on when it is appropriate to use “canned programs?”

If you are an independent professional who provides these programs, how do you prepare to work with museums and what represents a positive experience for you?

–Deb Arenz




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