After having visited about 200 museums and historic sites I have come up with a new recreational sport for those interested in the past, history, heritage, genealogy, technology, social, cultural, geographical, archeological, &c., sport museuming.
If I am going to a particular area, I do research on their history, make notes and prepare my itinerary, strategy and plan of attack. While I realize that in most cases I have more knowledge than the docents, volunteers and in some cases the hired staff. I do not however ever do anything to put them down or make them feel bad about the experience. I enjoy visiting museums and deal with the infuriation of inaccurate labels, incorrect dates and of course in my case mislabeled wood species. In most cases it is well taken when someone can contribute to the knowledge base and I do it as graciously as possible. Some are offended but so be it, it is the history, facts, first hand accounts, original sources are what is important. By doing this I have got consulting contracts on the spot and spent a few hours telling them exactly what they had and got paid for doing so. Sometimes it pays to go to museums.
Here is an interesting example. Back in 1976 I traveled across the country with my father after my mother passed away. I drove us to Indiana to visit my sister and her children then to fly on to Washington D.C. for a visit to the Smithsonian. We stopped at every marker along the way and even went 200 miles out of the way to visit The Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron Nebraska, a great museum by the way.
We stopped at an historic site that had some open air kiosks exhibits of its history, including the North American Fur Trade. I was walking around and an interpreter, dressed up somewhat came over to where I was standing looking at the Mountain Man exhibit. (I use the word ‘exhibit’ rather than ‘display’, museums ‘exhibit’, stores ‘display – also interpreters wear historic clothing, clowns wear ‘costumes’.) His interest was the fur trade, he was smoking a kaolin pipe with some Kinnikinic, had on a blanket coat and fur felt hat. He commented on his particular artifact in the case, a broken fragment of a Hudson Bay Company ‘target’ pattern clay pipe. A green gray color with a round cylinder bowl and stem, a distinctive chin and a target or bulls-eye on each side makes this clay smoking pipe distinctive.
He went on and on about it and I began to smile. In my pocket full of “People of the Long House” Kinnikinic, was a near perfect original Hudson Bay Co. target pipe with a reed stem. I had purchased it a couple of years earlier along with a couple of dozen other old clay pipes and wasn’t in it more than $10.00.
I asked to borrow his pipe tool, a hand forged piece he kept in his hat band. I pulled the pipe from my pocket and began to clean my pipe. He continued talking for a while then looked down as I tapped out the dottle. His eyes got wide open as did his mouth. I handed it to him and told him not to drop it. He could not believe what had just happened. He called other interpreters over and went on and on, thanking me over and over again. Sometimes it pays to go to museums.
Now my interest is woodworking so that is a lot of my focus. Here is one of my greatest complaints about museums, historic sites, relic halls, etc.; it is that an object will be identified as ‘wood’. Well now I can eliminate animals and minerals. Gymnosperm, angiosperm, cycad? The usual answer is ‘what?’ My response that was my question.
‘What kind of wood is it?’
We don’t know.
I do. Now I either have irritated them in which case I drop it or they are interested and they ask questions. Some take notes, turn on recorders or cameras. I have even had all of the workers assemble to listen to what I have to say and answer questions.
Now this does require that you know what you are talking about, facts are facts, history bears that out, don’t venture beyond your field of expertise. It is perfectly acceptable to say ‘I don’t know’, although I don’t say that often, oh now that sounds bad.
My whole theory is that if you are going to do history, either with static or living history you are obliged to do it exactly right. Or it is wrong. I like to hold peoples and institutions feet to the fire when it comes to history. And I would expect the same thing of me when I am interpreting in a living history museum, which I do.
Now there are some places where you will visit that are doing it exactly right and to the best of their ability are honestly portraying the past. Without a modern mind-set that always wants to do history one better doesn’t understand it is not our job to do it ‘better’ than they did in earlier times. It is not our job to improve upon the past; it is our job to portray the past as it was.
‘Nobody will know the difference.’ ‘Most people wouldn’t notice that.’ ‘Nobody cares.’ Well I would like to inform all of those people who say that, I will visit your museum and I will know the difference, I will notice that and I DO care. I will bring it to your attention, the administration and the board of directors and the public. Burr under the saddle, ring a bell?
I am easy on local relic halls that are largely volunteers and have little budget for professional museum staff. I gladly offer to help them improve their collection in terms of both labeling and conservation and preservation. Most are happy to receive help and it can be our way of paying back to those ‘free’ museums and even those that have an entrance fee.
Now I almost always try to get in free, professional courtesy and all, nod, nod, wink, wink. I am surprised at how often when I show up dressed like those inside how easy it is to achieve entrance without those entry fees. This can sometimes lead to members of the administration accompanying you on the tour, in living history settings this can be a distraction and may want to be avoided.
Certain sites I will gladly pay to get in, sort of incognito, then blend in and enjoy your visit. This gives you a good idea of how the interpretation happens. Knowing someone from another museum can put the staff on their toes, which does lead to great interpretation and entertainment but it can also give you a ‘clean’ version.
A lot is to be said of the ‘blue tour’. All museums, living history museums, reenactments and the like all have ‘their story’. This is what you don’t hear on the regular tour, this is the real dirt on the place. Some may be folklore but it is always fun to get the good stuff on what was going on in the past.
As far as how sites are interpreted that depends on the particular situation. At times I enjoy taking my time endlessly looking into glass cases at inanimate objects and appreciating the preservation of our historical cultural past. These self interpreted sites can contain errors worthy of note and notification of those in charge. At other times a living history museum can provide an immersion process that really gets you into the past. Walk through the gates and step into the past. When it is done properly it is by far the penultimate museum experience. When people can be confused as to which century they are in, great things have been accomplished.
There are times when history just stops you in your tracks. On that visit to Washington D.C., I was in search of shoe buckles, had a new pair of lanchet shoes and needed buckles. At that time there were few suppliers so I was looking at ‘costume’ shops to try and find a set. Not having any luck I was walking down a street, looking at the steel and concrete structures of the city. I was looking down at the cement sidewalk as I walked when I noticed a set of wooden stairs. I stopped and looked up, Fords Theater; I spun around and across the street the original house that Abraham Lincoln was taken after he was shot and where he expired. Neither were open at the time the theater being under renovation. But I didn’t need to go in either edifice as I stood there the history and dark story of the event was the historical experience.
The modern world faded and in my mine the drama and chaos filled the streets with a stunned crowd pushing for answers. With the recent unpleasantness between the States having ended and with the promise of peace, made this event a national and international tragedy.
Because I was familiar with the history of the place it was unnecessary for even a marker to delineate what happened on this spot. No need for an interpreter as I was self-interpreting the site, but it would have been nice to tour both of these structures, being there in the street between these two structures whose only connections was the night of the performance of ‘Our American Cousin’ attended by President Lincoln.
I knew Booth carried a single shot pistol made by Derringer in Philadelphia and after his jump from the presidential box to the stage, caught his spur in the bunting and broke an ankle as he crashed to the stage. A shocked audience heard the words sic simper tyrannous (death to tyrants) as the assassin flees. Slavery, secession, the War fleshed out the events in my mind as I stood quietly on sacred ground. I was only there for about 10 minutes, would have spent more time had either building been open, but it was a significant ten minutes.
After 30 years I have learned much more about what was going on at the time in our country and the world and the memory of my visit to Ford’s Theater gives place to that history. I must visit again and get the tour inside
This works both ways; the ethereal history that is learned at school, from books and study gives some form, content and background to the events of the past. The location or physical site gives that form shape, adds content and fixes the background with visual, tactile verification. Visiting a site first can cause us to round out our understanding by reading and studying the written record. The chronicles of the past can inspire us to go out of our way (well out of some peoples way) to visit the actual location of the original events. The visual or tactile visit can help focus and correlate historic information in our minds. It is easier to remember if you can ‘picture’ it in your head. This puts learning in context with location.
Some sites can not be visited as they no longer exist, perhaps a marker about what was there and some may be underwater or their exact location unknown. All we may have is the recorded history that we can get from books and study. It is nice when we can put the two together to have the whole experience.
One interesting, intriguing and challenging aspect of this sport is looking at models and dioramas in various museums and to find the anachronism that is invariably put in these diminutive exhibits by most builders. This will be very subtle and some may have gone unnoticed since they were installed. You have to look closely, a clever builder will sometimes hide the object in plain sight, and others will secret it away but none the less still visible from some point. Modern soda pop and beer cans are a favorite, I have seen a beer can in a midden pile of an Anasazi cliff dwelling and a soda pop can in the reeds in the water of a pre-Columbian Midwest fishing scene.
Souvenirs from my excursions into the past include photographs of artifacts. I have several photographs of an object in an exhibit case while holding the exact artifact I own in front of the case. These are usually small objects such as wick trimmers and tools. These are also more at local museums where I can take my artifact back to take the photograph of both objects. I have done a few larger objects and this usually requires permission from the museum staff. Because this is unusual and an opportunity for the curators and historians to examine an other matching artifact, they usually go along with this curious request.
FARB, FARBY and DEFARB are new words that apply to historic reenactments and were derived from someone commenting about inappropriate materials, tools, techniques used in a traditional setting, ‘far be it for me to say that is wrong.’ And to defarb is to remove the offending anachronism and render the item correct to the period. This applies to objects, sites, individuals and depictions of historic events.
A magazine cover art depicting mid nineteenth century American military carrying World War II European bolt action rifles. Or the classic Revolutionary War epic with a soldier firing a bizarre Hollywood 44-70 trap door Springfield ‘Flintlock”. It might be more subtle such as an 1870’s tooth pattern cross cut log saw in a motion picture set in the 1830’s.
To get the children involved give them a challenge before going to the museum. Have them make a list and fill out the names of things they see that correspond to the alphabet from A to Z. A scavenger hunt to find objects that can be expected at various locations. Have the kids spot historic markers, stop and have them read them out loud.
While at historic sites and at museums tell the children not to touch anything unless they are encouraged to do so. Respect the places as part of our heritage and encourage the children to hold it in reverence and honor what they are seeing. The personal involvement and hands-on participation will give the children a much better idea of what the past was all about. It is not all entertainment, sometimes it is educational and sometimes it is life changing. A unique experience at a museum, historic site, living history location can forever change the course of young minds.