Going Stale – It happens to the best of us

This is a challenge that every interpreter faces. The terror of being ‘out there’ has fallen off; we know our duties, our route, and the information. We’ve learned to story-tell, guide and demonstrate. We can handle the crowds and that one guest with all the tricky questions. But what we can’t know is coming is…repetition.

It strikes unknowingly as interpreters are just starting to gain confidence – we think at first, hey I know this one! Or, yes, I’ve got this tour route down pat! But soon it starts to creep up – oh gosh, don’t they know that already? I just answered that question not 30 seconds ago. I’ve seen that tree 30 times today alone. I feel like a robot!

And soon, you sound like a robot, too.

staute trevor2

You get so good at anticipating their questions. It becomes monotonous. Boring. Stale. How then can you take back that thrill of engagement?

Firstly, acknowledge that you will have to repeat information a lot. Period. No getting around it! It is part of what we do as interpreters. What you can do is control how you share that information.

So, secondly, ask yourself how you can change up your delivery of this information. Can you flesh it out? Change your tone of voice? Can you answer theatrically, or add humour somehow? Can you add an interesting tidbit? Can you change the route of your tour, even slightly? Can you learn something new to add? If you work with others, can you take turns or alternate?

Third, find that passion again that brought you to interpretation. Why are you working at your site? What do you get to see or do there that sparks your interest? Remember that feeling you got from a rewarding guest visitor or tour group that really got what you were saying.Now I remember

And finally, remember that there is a person on the other side of that question or tour that really wants to know the answer or hear your story. Maybe it’s their very first visit, maybe they have come especially to your site, or maybe they just discovered it. Maybe they are a repeat customer and just love this place and want to come again and again. All are deserving of a better reply than a robot can give – and interpreters are defiantly not robots.

As we head out to our interpretive roles this season, let’s promise ourselves to stay fresh and fight against going stale, for our own sanity and for the betterment of our visitors!

Submitted by Kelsey Ross, Public Programming Assistant, Heritage Park Historical Village, Calgary Canada

Posted in Agricultural Museum, ALHFAM, interpretation, Living History, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

To Arms, To Arms… the Media are Coming!

By David Makowsky, Ukranian Cultural Heritage Village

Journalists have a tremendous influence in shaping a visitor’s decisions on what to include on their “must do” list. In today’s digital age, a photo or article conveying a museum’s story can raise the public awareness of the institution. The return on investment can be tremendous. For example, every dollar that a museum spends in hosting a media visit generates at least $30 back in terms of unpaid editorial media coverage.[1]

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Like a first date, historical interpreters only have one chance to make the right first and lasting impression. Done right, the relationship between the museum and the journalist can extend the reach of the potential audience and generate visitation to the museum.

An essential element in successful media relations at living history museums is that historical interpreters understand who the media’s audience is. The Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, other living history museums, as well as attractions across Canada, have benefited from research conducted by the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC)[2] to develop a spectrum of traveler type personas. There are nine Explorer Quotient (EQ) personas with a description listing each type of traveler, what they seek when then travel and the type of activities that would interest them. The CTC website has a quiz that individuals can take to discover what traveler type they are.

When the journalist arrives at the museum, historical interpreters must remember that they are storytellers who want the museum’s stories to stand above the other events happening in the day. They should present themselves and their historic environment like an outline to an interesting book. The introduction should be a summary of their activities through one or two sentences to hook the journalist and his audience to the rest of the story. Where possible, introduce interesting characters and drama that elicit an emotional response; perhaps the museum is celebrating an anniversary or special event that can be highlighted in the information conveyed. Invite the journalist to participate in a historical activity; however, ensure that this type of learning or experiential opportunity can also be available for the journalist’s audiences who visit the museum as well. The historical interpreter should also provide a brief conclusion at the end, summarizing in one or two sentences how this activity or historic environment is intertwined in the fabric of the museum’s theme. This concise approach is often different from the dialogue that occurs with visitors. Therefore, historical interpreters should practice delivering key points in one or two sentences to make their final thoughts quotable in print, audio or digital formats. If conversations with visitors are like essays, then communication with media is the multiple-choice exam.


Positive media relations is an increasingly important tool for a living history museum to use to convey what it preserves, protects and presents to audiences around the world. Often times, there is only one opportunity to give the right first impression to the visiting journalist. When both sides are prepared to embrace the media visit, this experience can be a lot of fun for all!

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared as: David Makowsky, “To Arms, To Arms… the Media are Coming!” in Carol Kennis Lopez, ed., Proceedings of the 2012 ALHFAM Conference & Annual Meeting, 64-72.

ALHFAM members can access the full text of this article and thousands more though the A.S.K. database. Not a member? Join today!

[1] Helena Katz, Travel Alberta Media Relations Workbook (Fort Smith: Katz Communications). [Publication no longer available]

[2] This is now Destination Canada.

Posted in Administration, ALHFAM, Living History, Living History Museum, Proceedings, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What are you doing?

by Tom Kelleher, Old Sturbridge Village & Past President, ALHFAM

“I am setting hooks to capture your interest and imagination!”

I have been a costumed historical interpreter for a long time now, and have enjoyed visiting living history museums since I was a child. For many decades the best sites strove for ever-greater historical authenticity. They refined their costuming and material culture, including crops, livestock, tools and techniques to reflect a specific time and place instead of the more loosely defined “past” that once seemed to suffice. What kind of cows should they have? Did people really process flax or make brooms in that time and place? Dedicated interpreters went beyond those details to delve into emerging scholarship about the societies and economies of the people they portrayed, be it in first or third person. They tried to give a taste of the issues and concerns of the day. That was a big step beyond the nostalgic, idealized and sanitized past that living history sites had, and some still, depicted. Still, it often seemed like history for history’s sake.

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What of the visitors? We must always keep in mind that the guest is the reason we do what we do. We certainly strive to be friendly and welcoming. Some of the best sites once invited guests to take on the role of anthropologists and learn what they could about the bygone civilizations portrayed. Yet even for the visitor who put in that extra effort, their role was still rather passive: a consumer of history. Just as for a long time static museums pretended that lifting a panel or pushing a button to reveal an answer was an interactive exhibit, much “interactive” living history often did not go much beyond politely telling visitors about the task at hand or tacitly forcing them to ask, “What are you doing?” More recently the best interpreters invite guests to “help” or “try it,” to give some a multi-sensory and more memorable personal experience.

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That is great, but task-oriented living history is no longer enough. For one thing, people, even interpreters and visitors, are much more than what they do, or are doing, at an observed instant in time. And since many interpreters are often making something… well, MAKING is increasingly an alien concept for modern people, beyond the mere novelty of making something “by hand.” Those are two of many themes that I would argue we need to better explore with our guests, to give them not only a better understanding of the past but of their present. A task at hand is not an end itself. And much of what costumed interpreters should be doing is setting hooks to start a conversation.

Today, and moving forward, we need to give visitors more than accurate recreations, immersive or otherwise. For our sites and history itself to remain relevant, we need to more explicitly help visitors make connections between the past and their own world. Throughout history, people have had to cope with challenges. How we do it is the eternal question.

As practitioners of living history, we are teachers of casual learners, so we need to go in with flexible learning objectives and an arsenal of possible means to achieve those objectives—lesson plans if you will. What will capture their interest and imagination, and how can we leave them with more of a take-away than “most people worked hard in the past” or some specific but really irrelevant factoid about a particular process? What will make their time with us more memorable or, dare we hope, meaningful? What topics are relevant in both the time portrayed and today?

Corn talk (2)We need to have real dialog with our guests, without putting them on the spot. of course. That means a give-and-take, and listening to them, not just verbally but carefully observing the visual clues they present to us, then adjusting our responses accordingly. We are interacting with unique individuals, not presenting historical facts to nameless masses of people hoping some facts will be recalled at some future date. Our carefully researched artifacts, clothing, and demonstrations of farming crafts and trades can no longer be seen as ends in themselves, but as pedagogical tools: hooks to start meaningful conversations about the past and the present.


Posted in Agricultural Museum, ALHFAM, Education, Historic Agriculture, Historic Farming, Living History, Living History Museum, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Myth of Our Organic Past


By Jochen Welsch, Old Sturbridge Village

Visitors to Old Sturbridge Village routinely ask if, and usually assume, that early nineteenth-century farmers were “organic.” Most look perplexed when we answer that no, early nineteenth-century farmers were not organic. The public assumes that agricultural history and organic farming go hand in hand. This reveals a basic misunderstanding of both our agricultural past and of organic agriculture in general.

History is often imbued with more than a touch of romanticism and nostalgia for what once was. The problem is that what we think once was, in fact rarely existed. No, despite what we want to believe, our agricultural forebears were not organic. To understand this we need only examine the historical record found in town tax valuations, state and federal census data, and in an assortment of farmers’ daybooks, account books, and letters.

Organic and early American agriculture need not be mutually exclusive — many early techniques are appropriate to organics. It is wrong, however, to define one with the other, or to use the terms interchangeably. The introduction to the NOFA/Mass Certification Standards begins with a quote from Wendell Berry’s The Gift of Good Land that suggests why this should be so:

“An organic farm, properly speaking, is not one that uses certain methods and substances and avoids others; it is a farm whose structure is formed in imitation of the structure of a natural system that has the integrity, the independence, and the benign dependence of an organism.”

According to this criterion, few, if any, early nineteenth-century farms could be classified as organic. This is so primarily for what these farmers didn’t do rather than what they did. Some of the more obvious omissions were a near total absence of cover crops, effective or beneficial rotations, and most glaring of all, manure and soil management.

The key to any system calling itself organic is the establishment and maintenance of a healthy, viable, and productive soil. Simply avoiding the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, or other caustic compounds (something our forebears did not do!) does not make a farmer organic, as that alone cannot maintain the soil’s fertility over even a short period time. Of all the criteria one needs to call oneself organic, feeding the soil is perhaps the most important. And more than anything, it is the one thing our eighteenth- and nineteenth-century farmers failed to do or, in many cases, did not do well enough.

They themselves recognized that fact. Manure management was among the most discussed and debated topics in the early agricultural press. Yet only a small percentage of farmers subscribed to such journals and fewer still incorporated what they read into everyday practice.

Even the best farmers, given the extensive nature of their farms and the comparatively small number of stock they could maintain, would not have enough manure to fertilize all their fields adequately. While the difference might have been made up through the use of cover crops and green manure, this was not a common practice at the time. It required an additional expense in labor, equipment, and seed. What crop rotations were practiced barely allowed the land to regain its fertility.

Although criticisms of such poor management practices filled the pages of many an agricultural journal, they apparently had little impact. Most farmers found it cheaper to buy more land when yields no longer met their expectations. This practice, as well as the zeal with which many farmers tried to acquire more land and tend to ever larger herds of livestock, was also roundly condemned by the day’s reformers.

If all this sounds familiar, it should. These criticisms parallel many of those leveled at conventional agriculture today. Yet somehow we have chosen to ignore the destruction our forebears wrought throughout North America. While the damage done prior to the development and widespread adoption of petroleum and chemical-based fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides is, in comparison to what has occurred in the last fifty years, small, we cannot easily write off the effects of the agricultural system created by our forebears in the first three centuries of European settlement of North America. Their agriculture was neither sustainable nor organic.

We should be careful not to judge the past through our own set of values. That would be both presumptuous and shallow. We must not, however, confuse the myths of the past that we so readily create for ourselves, with the historical record available for our examination. More often than not the images contradict each other. Keep that in mind next time you hear anyone speak of our organic past.

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared as: Jochen Welsch, “The Myth of Our Organic Past,” in Susan A. Hanson and Lucia Stanton, ed., Proceedings of the 1992 ALHFAM Conference & Annual Meeting, 50-53.

ALHFAM members can access the full text of this article and thousands more though the A.S.K. database. Not a member? Join today!


Posted in Agricultural Museum, ALHFAM, Farm Museum, growing food, Historic Agriculture, Historic Farming, Living History, Proceedings, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Philosophy in Raising and Butchering Livestock

By Barbara Corson, Department of Agriculture, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

Most people feel some discomfort when confronted with the idea of killing an animal that they know as an individual. There are different ways of dealing with the discomfort, including trying not to think about it and buying the meat once it is not recognizable as an animal anymore; or discounting animals’ interests (“it’s PIG for gawds sake! Why would you feel bad about killing a PIG?”); or becoming a vegetarian and going to great lengths to avoid using any animal products. None of these solutions works for me.


The answer I have come up with (so far) is to remember that all living things die and are “recycled” in some way. Whether you are talking about an oak tree, a deer, a human being or a domestic sheep, the question is not “will it die?” but “how will it die, and when, and why?”

I believe there is a covenant between humans and domestic animals that is thousands of years old. The agreement is not “live with me and I will see that you never die.” Rather, the agreement is “Live with me, and I will do my best to protect you from painful injury, debilitating disease, and a slow, messy death. Live with me and you will have a better life and a better death than you would have in the wild. In return for my care, you will give me food, fiber, power, fertilizer and a unique kind of companionship that human society cannot duplicate.”

Of course, even if you agree that such a covenant exists, it is clear that we humans have not always upheld our side of the bargain, any more than we always honor our other commitments as individuals, to our families, communities and environment, etc. For me, these failures to attain the ideal do not destroy the validity of the concept. In my study of history, it seems to me that many of the skills of our agrarian past developed out of an attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to work with and care for the animals that have made civilization possible. In the past 75 years, technology has seemingly rendered many of these skills obsolete, yet I believe they are still valuable and worth preserving for aesthetic as well as practical reasons. So I hope to see more interested people learning and teaching each other about animal skills from our agrarian past and incorporating these skills into our present lives. Perhaps we can create a future in which humans honor our responsibilities to animals better than we ever have in the past!

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared as: Barbara Corson, “Animal Handling 101,” in Debra Reid, ed., Proceedings of the 2003 Conference & Annual Meeting, 151-159.

ALHFAM members can access the full text of this article and thousands more though the A.S.K. database. Not a member? Join today!

Posted in Agricultural Museum, ALHFAM, Farm Museum, Historic Agriculture, Historic Farming, Living History, Living History Museum, Proceedings, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The Threshing Crew

Threshing Rig at Heritage Park

Today’s guest blogger is Ross Gould who contributed a post about the walking plough in September. Thanks Ross for sharing your stories!

As an eleven year volunteer at Heritage Park in Calgary, and a farmer for 18 years in an earlier life, my favourite venue to interpret is the farm machinery shed. There are many stories that can be told, like the one about the “walking plow” I blogged about in September, but I have a special story that I tell when a couple visits the shed. It is for the lady in the couple.

I start by explaining that the threshing machine, and the steam engine to power it, were very expensive in 1915. They would cost as much as a house, which means that most of the homestead farmers on a 160 or 320 acre farm could not afford a threshing rig of their own. As a result, a group of neighbours would jointly purchase a rig and then help to harvest each others’ crop each fall.

I explain to the couple that the full threshing crew could often contain from 15 to 20 men. There were 6 to 8 teams and drivers to bring the stooks [a group of sheaves of grain stood on end in a field] to the machine and probably 4 to 6 “field pitchers” to help load the wagons. There were also 2 “spike pitchers,” to help unload the wagons at the machine, and another 3 to 5 to run the machine and steam engine and haul away the grain.

I then explain that, when that threshing crew pulled into my mother’s yard every fall, her kitchen and dining table became a restaurant for all those hungry men. She would have to provide the noon meal, an afternoon lunch, and sometimes supper. Not only that, because the crew went from farm to farm in the community, it became a matter of pride for the lady of the house to prepare the best meals. And finally, at the end of the threshing season, the crew knew who provided the best meals – and who didn’t.

A typical menu would include roast beef, roast pork, ham, hamburger or sausage, home-raised, of course.  Vegetables were potatoes (sometimes scalloped), turnips, carrots or possibly peas, all from our farm garden.  And pies for desert could be apple, cherry or peach, or often saskatoon berry, picked in the summer on our farm.  My mother often canned as many as 150 quarts of saskatoons each summer.  It seemed that we had canned saskatoons every other night all winter, and it came to be too much of a good thing. The pies were a necessity and most often what the farm wife was scored on by the threshing crew.

When I finish the story I almost always get a smile, or even a laugh, from the ladies. They understand very well how the lady of the house felt about maintaining her status in the community.

Posted in Agricultural Museum, ALHFAM, Farm Museum, food, Historic Agriculture, Historic Farming, Living History, Living History Museum, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rendezvous in Time

The Story of Sainte-Marie among the Hurons Part 1

It seems fitting to have a gathering of living history and museum professionals visit Sainte-Marie among the Hurons in Midland Ontario Canada in June 2019 for the annual ALHFAM conference and annual meeting. Just as in days of old, we bring together groups of people for one common goal: To experience and learn from one another and share our common interests and expertise in the world of museums, living history sites and farms, be they small or large.

Sainte Marie was founded in 1639, 380 years ago, on the shores of Georgian Bay, and it became known by the French Jesuits who founded it as “A small piece of France in the wilderness.” At its peak it housed within its palisaded walls a grand total of 66 French men, many of whom were laborers with little to no education and a very small chance for a good life in France.


The New World was chosen by these men for many different reasons, including the opportunities for adventure and a better life. However, the most important reason was a very strong belief that the French Jesuits were doing a holy deed by being among the Huron Indians, teaching them a very different belief system. Through their conviction they built a wooden fortress in which the Jesuits could feel safe and in which each could call home.

But the story starts much earlier. In 1609 adventurer Samuel de Champlain, the first European to explore central Ontario, found himself in the land of the Wendat peoples, a confederacy of five tribes that numbered near thirty thousand by Champlain’s reckoning.


Champlain was able to form alliances with the Wendat, Montagnais and the Algonquin peoples, who eventually would help to win major battles against the Mohawk.

Champlain made many trips across the Atlantic and soon brought four Recollet priests– an order of the Franciscans–to the territories, and they began the missionary chapter of this story.


One of the best-known of the Jesuits to come to this part of Canada was Jean de Brebeuf. Born in Normandy France in 1593, Brebeuf first came to Canada in 1625, where he worked with the Wendat for the rest of his life until his death in 1649.


It was Brebeuf who was able to create and write a French/Wendat lexicon for the use of other Jesuits in their work of bringing Catholicism to the Wendat people.

Brebeuf and the Jesuits spent untold hours writing what was and is known as the Relations, a form of diary, that was sent back to France. In these narratives are found a great resource for the ethnography of the Huron/Wendat peoples. Without these diaries we would not have the wealth of information that we do today.

Through the many trials and tribulations that were experienced by both the French and Wendat, there are many exceptional stories of life in New France. Robert le Coq, the first donné – a volunteer who signed a contract to work as a business agent for the Jesuits in return for food, shelter and clothing—kept the mission supplied with everything needed to run it. Robert accepted many gifts of fur from the Wendat and in turn took these goods to Quebec to barter for everything from iron for the forge to linens for clothing.

Robert made many trips to and from Sainte-Marie to Quebec for supplies, and it was on one of these journeys that a very dramatic event took place. Traveling with a group of Wendat from Quebec, Robert became ill with smallpox, and they left him for a dead on a small island. As his body became covered with sores and pustules, he managed to find shelter there, and he eventually recovered. Not long after his recovery, a flotilla of Wendat came by the island, he convinced them of his identity, and he made his way back to Sainte-Marie. Imagine the surprise of the Jesuits, his colleagues, and those living at the mission who, having mourned his death, saw him miraculously reappear among them!

The mission headquarters in 1639 was the center of French life in the New World. Not only did the Wendat visit in large numbers, but the northern tribes also came to Sainte-Marie to trade with them. These northern tribes used the location as their temporary residence because its location was close to the vast majority of Wendat villages in the area, making trade much easier.

As buildings at Sainte-Marie began to rise, so too did the French population, including a cook, a farmer, a blacksmith and a carpenter. Jesuits, donnés, paid workers, soldiers and a number of young boys in their early teens lived at Sainte-Marie. The Jesuit priests could be found at various villages of the Wendat on any given day, conducting services and teaching/preaching Catholicism with the help of various donnés.


Stay tuned for more!

Contributed by Del Taylor, 2019 ALHFAM Annual Meeting Conference Chair



Posted in Agricultural Museum, ALHFAM, Annual meeting, Living History, Living History Museum, Uncategorized | Leave a comment