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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