Friends made and things learned

The last couple of posts to grace this little corner of the interwebs have been focused on conferences, both past and future.  They’ve gotten me reminiscing  about the many ALHFAM conferences that I’ve attended over the years and I started thinking about all the things I’ve learned and friends I’ve made as a result of being a part of this organization.

Above all else, I have enjoyed the openness and fellowship that you just can’t find at another organization’s annual (or regional) meetings.  The ability to do hands on activities and get behind the scenes peeks has been absolutely invaluable to my museum career and I look forward to having many more.

If you haven’t yet joined this wonderful group, perhaps it’s time!  You can find all the information you need here; in addition to checking out our new and spiffy website!!!

It’s only a matter of weeks before the great traveling road show that is the annual ALHFAM meeting takes place.  Until that time, enjoy some images from regional, national, and even some board meetings that I have enjoyed!

Gold star for anyone who can identify the locations below!!:)

What are some of your favorite ALHFAM memories?

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Caps and Boats and Lead Coffins: The ALHFAM Mid-Atlantic Region Conference in Review (and Photos!)

Wet attendees at The ALHFAM Mid-Atlantic region meeting April 1-2 at Historic St. Mary's City in Maryland.

Wet attendees at the ALHFAM Mid-Atlantic conference held April 1-2 at Historic St. Mary’s City in Maryland.

“I knew by mid-morning on Friday (in the deluge) that this was going to be the Mid-Atlantic ALHFAM conference that all others will be measured against for the next ten years. Because everyone who attended is going to be talking about it for at least that long – maybe longer. And those who didn’t attend, will wish they had.

Connie Unangst and Elyse Bennett work on ruffles during the "Making an 18th Century Cap" workshop

Connie Unangst and Elyse Bennett work on ruffles during the “Making an 18th Century Cap” workshop

Deanna Berkemeier gets a cap fitting at the 18th Century Cap workshop

Deanna Berkemeier gets a cap fitting at the 18th Century Cap workshop

HSMC is a beautiful, amazing site with inspiring attention to detail (hmmm, that concept of applying academic rigor and review to interpretive/education collections – wish more sites would do that) and talented, dedicated, incredibly helpful and welcoming staff, supported by a strong administration who GETS IT. It’s the full package. Plus, it’s a mecca for archaeology – those lead coffins!!

Tour of the HSMC archeology lab

Tour of the HSMC archeology lab

And the St. John’s site exhibition! The food was excellent, thanks to the college catering program, and provided delicious and inventive non-meat options. We had a chance to brainstorm ideas for the “currently under revision” student Science tour (and drop things from a balcony to learn about mass and gravity); tour the ship Dove with the boatswain’s (bosun’s) mate; see archaeologists at work in the lab and visit with some of the most highly-regarded archeologists in the country; check out staff fleshing a deer hide and preparing it for brain-tanning; and take a thoroughly adults-only themed tour – with several highly entertaining, participatory elements – of the Godiah Spray Plantation. And that was just Friday.

Susan McLellan Plaisted led the Hearth Cooking workshop

Susan McLellan Plaisted led the Hearth Cooking workshop and  . . .

Felicia Brooks in the hearth

. . . Felicia Brooks participated

Sam Pratt, HSMC site supervisor of the Woodland Indian Hamlet, giving a hide tanning demonstration

Sam Pratt, HSMC site supervisor of the Woodland Indian Hamlet, giving a hide tanning demonstration

Helena Cora Moran participating in the Early Sewing Machine workshop. Helena is also a volunteer at HSMC and helped set up and take down the machines for the workshop.

Helena Cora Moran participating in the Early Sewing Machine workshop. Helena is also a volunteer at HSMC and helped set up and take down the machines for the workshop.

The Dove

The Dove

The whole experience was wrapped in ALHFAM’s traditional collegiality and great networking, and served with well-presented, applicable sessions. Well done, and sincere thanks.

Carrie Fellows

Regional Co-Representative

Mid-Atlantic Region

Posted in ALHFAM, Regional Conference, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

ALHFAM Annual Meeting & Conference in Baton Rouge–REGISTER NOW!

Yee Haa! Another annual meeting.

Yee Haa! Another annual meeting.

Registration is now open for the 2016 ALHFAM Annual Meeting and Conference. Join like-minded people at the Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge, Louisiana from June 12-16. Sign up for the School of the Mule or a field trip to Angola (two of many offerings), visit museums and historic sites including the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, attend educational and entertaining sessions led by knowledgeable professionals, dine on Louisiana specialties, learn about interpretive techniques, and see old friends and make new ones.

Join our friendly group of living history and agricultural museum staff, volunteers, and fans. You’re bound to learn something and may even get your hands dirty doing it.

See you in Louisiana!

 

 

Posted in ALHFAM, Annual meeting | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is there “ . . . awkwardness in the pretense of the pretend . . . ?”

Dancer Betty Beh was a fierce pirate in 1929 and would have made a great museum interpreter. Image courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society

Dancer Betty Beh was a fierce pirate in 1929 and would have made a great museum interpreter. Image courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society

“How many of us have cringed, if ever so slightly, when we encountered a costumed, overzealous re-enactor performing a historic narrative . . .” –The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums.

Two weeks ago I shared some impressions on the book quoted above. In that blog I said, “Living history, with the exception of a small section on interpreters in period clothing (a future blog), is by and large left out of the book.” This is that future blog.

ALHFAM is the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (emphasis added). Given my deep interest in this organization and our members, and my overwhelming respect for the good work they do, it is not surprising that the short section on interpretation in period clothing stuck with me.

In an effort to spark discussion, I am sharing several quotes from the book on this subject, and some of my own thoughts (full disclosure: I have never done interpretation in period dress so I come to this topic as a museum visitor and a fairly well-versed colleague of my better dressed peers).

“There is awkwardness in the pretense of the pretend, especially if we are forced to participate in an imaginary world that is not of our making.”

“ . . . less seasoned visitors may find the pretend to be off-putting because it places them in the role of an other, confused and unwelcome.”

“ . . . period dress contributes to the construction of a fourth wall, removing yet another step from experiencing the house as a home.”

So, how many of us have: cringed, felt awkward, off-put, or removed? Why? In what contexts? Does it matter if the interpretation is first or third person?

My experiences with interpreters in period clothing have been by-and-large positive: with the exception of two. One was the cooper at a site who wasn’t interested in answering my questions until I asked one he thought was worthy (lesson: being a jerk isn’t time specific). The other was at a large site where first-person interpreters wander and interact with guests when not doing more formal presentations. I didn’t know who the interpreter was portraying and came upon him rather unexpectedly so wasn’t prepared to interact. He was kind, pleasant, and patient but I sort of fumbled around for questions and left feeling a bit deflated. Of course, an hour later I figured out who he was portraying and came up with a list of questions, but by then he had vanished.

One last quote from the book:

“However, the conceptual disconnect does not seem to carry through when the costumed docents are undertaking the actual tasks for which they are dressed. We have often experienced costumed docents cooking in HHM kitchens using historically accurate methods and tools, and found their conversation while at their work somehow comforting.”

The author posits that perhaps it’s because of our familiarity with their tasks (they’re cooking + we cook=common ground). There’s truth in this. I also wonder if it’s because when a “costumed docent” is performing a task the visitor doesn’t feel the full weight of the interpreter’s attention on them. There’s no pressure for the visitor to come up with questions; they can watch the activity at hand and stay quiet or ask questions, the choice is theirs. In a way, it gives the visitor control over the interaction.

Again, the book doesn’t strongly offer living history and/or costumed interpretation as a method to invigorate historic house museums. It also doesn’t differentiate between different types of interpretation (first, third, museum theater). Yet these techniques, when done well and thoughtfully, can bring life to a structure or site in most unique ways and leave visitors invigorated and wanting to learn more. When done poorly, they absolutely can leave visitors feeling awkward, put-off, and out of place.

The book is hesitant towards (not against) interpreters in period dress in historic houses. What do you think? What have your experiences been as a visitor? As an interpreter? What techniques do you (interpreters) use to break down barriers with visitors when you’re decked out in “work clothes?” How do you help guests figure out what is expected so your interactions don’t become stilted?

The ALHFAM website is a wonderful resource if you’re interested in learning more about living history and interpretation (in period clothing or not). Of special interest are the Professional Interest Groups for first person interpretation, historic apparel and textiles, historic skills and foodways, and interpretation and education.

I look forward to your comments.

–Deb Arenz

Posted in ALHFAM, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Draft Animal Training Scholarships

Calling all farmers (new, historic, museum, and aspiring)!

Learn how to use draft horses and oxen in your historic farming programing and to power your farms sustainably and productively.

ALHFAM Institutional member Tillers International (Michigan) is offering scholarships that will cover 60% of the tuition cost for many of their draft animal training sessions including:

Draft Horse Basics: April 5-8

Oxen Basics: June 20-24

Farming with Horses & Oxen: June 6-10 and August 22-16

Small Grain Harvesting: July Date TBA

Small Scale Haymaking: August Date TBA

For further information contact Tillers at: tillers@tillersinternational.org or 269-626-0223.

–Deb Arenz

Posted in ALHFAM | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums

Do guided tours of historic house museums make you want to curl up in a corner somewhere and nap? Image courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society

Do guided tours of historic house museums make you want to curl up in a corner somewhere and nap? Image courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society

I just finished reading An Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. This is not a review. Whether or not you agree with many of the ideas espoused, it is thought-provoking. I do unabashedly love the idea of the Anarchist tags. They are brilliant and should be carried around by anyone who cares about and visits museums of all types.

That out of the way, there are a few themes that run through the book that I think are worthy of thought/discussion and one is how they challenge the traditional operational (and I’ll say interpretive) model for Historic House Museums (HHMs).

The authors state that this model relies on “. . . guided tours, rooms in frozen tableaus, wooden or velvet barriers” and that it is no longer enough to sustain the many HHMs in this country that are already operating with limited budgets, staff, and visitation.

I agree.

Two quotes on this topic that spoke to me:

“Any family’s history is boring after two minutes; minutiae about the objects in the house are only interesting to hard core connoisseurs.”

“ . . . the docent provided unnecessarily detailed information on each and every piece of furniture, followed by an overview of the entire family genealogy.”

How would you feel if I invited you to my house for dinner and took you from room to room saying: “This brown leather couch was purchased in 2001 at the Nebraska Furniture Mart. It cost XXX dollars which today would amount to XXX dollars. It was manufactured in the blah province of China and shipped to the United States via . . . . blah, blah, blah . . . this chair belonged to my grandmother who, by the way, is a fifth generation blah, she got it from my great grandmother who was a third generation blah and was married to blah who was a blah, they had sixteen children whose names were . . . blah, blah, blah.” Chances are, you’d hate it and not want to come back. Why do we expect visitors to our HHMs to think similar information, albeit from a different time period with which they have no connection, would be interesting? (By the way, if this does sound interesting to you let me know and I’ll have you over.)

Generally, the people who come to my house—and likely yours—want to know and spend time with you. Your furniture and your family history is somewhat interesting, since it can help explain who you are, but it’s not the point of the visit.

Guided tours that treat visitors like genealogists and/or decorative art or architecture connoisseurs is the reason why I avoid them.

So, what options does the book suggest?

Here’s a few (paraphrased and filtered through this reader’s lens):

  • Explore the real-life and emotional experiences of the HHMs previous residents in programming: focus on people rather than stuff.
  • If you have a Period of Interpretation consider expanding it to include more/all of the house’s history up through today.
  • Relate the house to the current surrounding community. It is impossible to transport someone back in time and we all know the HHM doesn’t exist in a bubble. How has the use of the house, or the structure itself, changed to adapt to the neighborhood OR how has it stayed the same? Why?
  • Ask interpreters/guides to develop their own interpretive methodology and narratives based on abundant factual evidence and see where it goes. Give them the flexibility and knowledge to talk about many different stories perhaps dependent on visitor interest–which may actually include decorative arts. (Have any of you given or been on a tour that started with: What interests you about this place?)
  • Allow the visitor to wander as they like and have interpreters/guides there to answer questions as they arise.
  • Eliminate barriers and give visitors the opportunity to experience the house as it was meant to be used. Let them go through the daily motions of living if they desire.
  • Relate the history of the place to current events. Make comparisons that feel real to visitors.
  • Allow the house to be experienced through what would have been its daily and seasonal cycle of use.

Living history, with the exception of a small section on interpreters in period clothing (a future blog), is by and large left out of the book. It is focused on challenging the traditional methods of stand-alone HHMs that offer guided tours.

What about living history though? Can it be used to reinvigorate HHMs? Are we willing to loosen our preservation standards (another theme of the book) to truly turn HHMs into fully-functioning living history sites? Is this an alternative/complement to some of the ideas listed above? The book repeatedly uses contemporary art installations (in and outside of HHMs) as examples of ways to invigorate the museums. I wasn’t terribly keen on this. My thought was: “Why not  offer historic skills and experiences: living history?”

I recently visited the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm in Texas and had a fabulous time. No plexiglas, no barriers, chickens at my feet, interpreters in period dress going about their “chores,” (cooking, farmwork), no guided tours, no interpreters forcing information on me but very able to answer whatever questions I had. Perhaps a stand-alone, guided-tour HHM would benefit from adopting some of the features currently found at Sauer-Beckmann.

Smokehouse at the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm. Smelled great.

Sausage being preserved in lard at the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm. Didn't smell as great.

Sausage being preserved in lard at the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm. Didn’t smell as great.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I said, the book is thought-provoking whether you work/volunteer at HHMs, just visit them, or both. These are a few of my reactions. I’d love to hear your thoughts on my ramblings or the book itself.

–Deb Arenz

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in ALHFAM | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments

“Life in the Slow Lane, Still a Draw for Heritage Fans”

The article Life in the Slow Lane, Still a Draw for Heritage Fans appeared in the New York Times recently (and features a great image of the Frontier Culture Museum). ALHFAM President Tom Kelleher is quoted and our website it linked. It’s an interesting and short read. What do you think about the points raised?

–Deb Arenz

Posted in ALHFAM | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments