Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Front Line Staff are Valuable

I would hazard to say that the front line staff are among the most valuable staff a museum or historic site can have. Not only do they work the cash registers, which bring in the money for the site, but they can make or break an experience for the visitor.

These staff members give the tours, talking about the artifacts in our collections. They tell the visitor why the site and its collection is important to the community's heritage and culture. Often times, as part of 'other duties', they assist curators in mounting exhibits, they keep things clean, including the toilets, they provide security for each other, the site, and the valuable collection.

And yet, they are often the lowest paid people on staff, if they are paid at all...

We need to start appreciating these folks better than we are currently. Paying them better would be nice, but not every site has a fabulous budget, in fact, many of our sites run on no budgets at all. We can work around this by providing better resources to the front line staff members to do their jobs better, maybe to even live their lives better.

 - Are your staff members university students? Apart from many government programs that you can apply to, to help pay them a wage for the summer, could working for the site earn them university credit?

- Do your staff wear historic costume? Do they show an interest in building and owning their own kit? You could run workshops during the winter months to help them build accurate pieces of clothing. Staff who have their own clothes take pride in those clothes. They learn how they were worn and why. They also tend to stick around as occasional volunteers after working for the site.

- Do you have the resources to help front line staff develop accurate and informative tours? Can you offer them time to research, other staff to help guide them in good directions? A librarian on staff can do wonders for the overall quality of knowledge production for the site. Developing good relationships with community librarians also helps, if you don't have a library on site. Schedule research trips to other sites in the community to see how other sites work, share resources.

- How do you engage the community? Are you sitting back, waiting for them to come to the site, either as a visitor or as a potential employee? Can you develop better methods of engagement with the communities, yes plural, in your area? Who are you missing from your community outreach? What stories aren't being told because of those missing community members?

- Finally, how do you develop a cadre of volunteers?

Recently, a group of living historians approached a small historic site with a solid interpretation plan and an offer to animate the site for a weekend. A group of hard working, dedicated volunteers put together a scenario of a Tailor and Bookbinder's shops in an over/under building. They gathered together all the things you would find in those environments, the living history interpreters not only knew the information that pertained to their chosen persona, they also intimately researched the site and the local community. Over the weekend event, the number of visitors rose significantly than during regular days opening. The visitors also stayed longer and were more engaged with the interpretation programming.
View of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Dominic Serres 1765, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia
I think it behoves a site and it's site director to develop these relationships. Better quality interpretation programing can come out of good working relationships with the community the site is surrounded by. Don't let the only time community members visit your site be when they have company in from out of town, and it's the 'touristy' thing to do. Give them reasons to be at the site all season long.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Interpretation: Setting a table, setting a scene

I grew up in a house where the kitchen table served as both work surface and dining table. Living in a Q (private married quarters), meant we lived quite closely, the house was small with no room for a separate dining room. My grandfather thought is was important that we learn proper table manners though, and at meal times, the table would be cleaned off and set with a table cloth and all the required dishware and cutlery. His reasoning, so that we would not embarrass ourselves if having to share a dinner table in a more polite setting. We learned how to hold all our cutlery in the European fashion, which fork to use with which course, and how to consume alcohol properly.

These skills have come in handy in my adult life, as I feel comfortable in any setting now, with any dining companion. Skills that have helped further a military career, as one of the main aspects of our social life at the moment is attending Mess functions on a monthly basis. Seeing that P can function in a very political setting has possibly paved the way for finishing out his career in a more favourable light. At this point, it is far more than just being able to do his primary job. He has to be able to socialize with the higher ups perfectly to be accepted into that social circle.

This has been a long standing requirement for higher ranks in the military for hundreds of years. Up until fairly recently, to obtain such ranks, your family bought them for you. Establishing the soldier in a social order not available to many. Proving that you could afford to live the expected lifestyle of the rank. In living history, I have used our modern experiences of growing up and living a military career to reflect how I interact in my role as a servant to officers. It has become second nature to me to set a table properly, how to interact with the men I am serving, how to blend in to the background and make things happen for them to do their jobs easier.

Recently, I was asked by a friend how far these niceties of class would extend? They were organizing an event at a house/workshop for business and trades people. Would these people have used a tablecloth? what sort of dishware would they have used? And it got us thinking about how much we take for granted in our cross-over modern and historical lives. Conversations around how dirty a work table could get, especially if it were the only table in a shared work and living space, how quickly it could become 'clean' enough for eating. I thought of the table in the soldier's barracks at Ticonderoga, and how dirty it has become through years of use and abuse, cleaning muskets, doing dirty soldier's chores, and how quickly a fresh tablecloth could clean it up enough for a meal.
Jack Sprat, c.1800. collections.museums-sheffield.org.uk
what a great cartoon of a well known subject matter. Working class, for sure, but with a tablecloth. There are enough historical images kicking about that backs up my thoughts that a work table could quickly become the dining table with a clean tablecloth. Now, I'm not terribly worried about the condition of the tablecloth for most instances. I'm not one to bring my best linen out into the field, but hand-me-down linens, maybe with a few small holes or stains, but clean, now there's the ticket for my working class or frontier officer's table. After all, we are not entertaining the King of England!

I have come to that conclusion by studying archaeological records of fortifications with British garrisons. Lynne Sussman, in her 1978 paper British Military Tableware, 1760-1830 states, "It has been possible, using the large samples from Fort Beausejour, New Brunswick, as well as evidence from other military sites, to select tea and dinner services that were used for regimental messes during the period 1760-1830" (p.93). Sussman notes that the common soldier may have been issued a tin plate and cup, or more likely would have been given an allowance to purchase said implements, and that they may have been simply wood (p93-94). The officer's mess, on the other hand, seems to have been fully equipped with cooking and dinner service, paid for by the officer's of the regiment, and style was often dictated by the highest ranking member, the Colonel. Cooking and dining services were purchased through factory wholesale warehouses and may have actually been 'seconds' of popular styles in the non military world. Finds include pieces of redware and stoneware, then as fashion shifted, creamware, pearlware, and transferware such as blue willow are featured in the historical archaeological record. Sussman also backs up my thoughts on class structure stating, "An officer in the British army was expected to maintain himself, in a style appropriate to an officer and a gentleman, at his own expense", she also notes that as far back as the eighteenth-century mess dues were collected, "graduated according to rank, for maintenance of the regimental mess. Most mess furnishings, including the tableware, were purchased collectively by the officers" (p.95). Similar to our modern mess structure, furnishing, and tableware. Sussman also notes an early form of 'regimental' tableware, at Fort Lennox, Quebec, creamware that bears the transfer printed insignia of the 13th Regiment of Foot (p.95), similar to our dinner service at our local mess, which sports the markings of the Canadian Armed Forces.

Lois Feister undertook a similar investigation at Crown Point New york and published her paper, Material Culture of the British Soldier at "His Majesty's Fort of Crown Point" on Lake Champlain New York, 1759-1783, in 1984. Feister's conclusions echo those of Sussman, bringing up potential difference in enlisted men and officer's dining accoutrements, stating "historians were confident of 'wooden trenchers; pewter spoons, knives, and forks; and horn cups as having been the primary personal items of culinary ware" (p124). Feister notes that, "one of the primary characteristics, however, of North American 18th-century domestic sites, even of apparently low economic status, is the presence of British manufactured earthenware, quoting Stanley South, 'from port town ruins to town house mansions to frontier forts and Indian villages have similar groups of ceramic types present at similar periods of time" (p124).

This tells me that no matter what, fashionibility was key no matter the economic class one found oneself in. You did your very best to present respectability given what you had at hand.

Feister goes on to explain how the archaeological evidence at Crown Point "contributed significant data toward a better understanding of the material culture of the British soldier in Colonial America" (p125). She explains how the barracks blocks were constructed and used, "revealing a standard of living at least comparable to that found on 18th-century domestic sites, despite the isolated location of this British fort", allowing even the common soldier to obtain "such domestic goods as were necessary for a way of life that went beyond the tin plate and mug" (p127).

Evidence reveals how the barracks rooms were used as well, noting "Mrs. Jane Ross's room in the soldier's barracks where she cooked food for the (mess of nine) soldiers. Her room being referred to as the 'mess room', indicating that it was customary to cook in the barracks rather than in a separate building" (p128). this backs up several theories that possibly, in regular eighteenth-century life, a single room with a fireplace could be inhabited by a whole family, undertaking all the daily taskings required to live a quality life.
The officer's had an even further separation of spaces, having a space set aside and referred to as the 'dining room', apart from sleeping quarters (p129). Archaeological findings of tableware included redware, creamware and some stoneware fragments appearing outside every barracks unit, suggesting widespread use. Porcelain teaware were found clustered behind the end of the third and into the fourth unit of the barracks block, suggesting occupation of higher status individuals, the officers (p129).

Feister goes on to explain that all activities of daily life occurred in every unit of the barracks, but that with the focus on certain types of finds, each unit may have been separated into dining and sleeping room activities (p131). I feel that just this brief exploration of daily life through food helps to substantiate my feelings of setting the table for dinner service. Closer examination of the historical record can help to determine items issued, purchased, and used by people in a given living situation, as well as the foods consumed, and how they were cooked and served. All of this can add to the overall interpretation of a given site, as it can break down barriers between the visiting public and the interpreter. All of us eat, many of us cook, and each of us knows what smells good! Conversations can be started based on very few sensory cues.


Feister, Lois M. "Material Culture of the British Soldier at 'His Majesty's Fort of Crown Point' on Lake Champlain, New Yory, 1759-1783." Journal of Field Archaeology, vol 11, No. 2 Summer (1984): 123-132.

Sussman, Lynne. "British Military Tableware, 1760-1830." Historical Archaeology, vol.12 (1978): 93-104.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Regency on a Shoe String: A New Frock

My American friends have been asking where I buy my fabrics. I am not much of a shopper, I really hate being out shopping for things, I tend to be the type that goes into a store with an idea, and quickly scan until I see it, buy it, then back home. We are royalty at doing Costco in under 15 minutes.
Shopping for fabric is a whole different ballgame though. I love me some fabric stores, and each one has a different personality. Fabricville is a chain store in eastern Canada. Also known as Fabricland in Ontario. It's laid out so new fabrics are at the front of the store, and they slowly move to the back of the store as new fabrics are brought in. They end up on the 'wall', heavily discounted, and this is where you can find the best pieces. The wall is usually a disaster area. Women root, throw bolts around, generally make an entire mess of it, and that's the fun. It also gave me a steady job to do each time I have worked there for money. If I wasn't on cash, or cutting, I was tidying. Not all of my paychecks went towards fabric, but I did drop a few dollars there over the years. Most times when I buy fabric, it tells me what it wants to be made into long before I leave the store, wall fabrics are different. I tend to buy the whole bolt of something if it is a 'good' fabric, sometimes I have bought whole collections of fabrics, which is why I ended up with several kinds of black linen with white stripes. If anything, they will make good linings.

So most of this project is made from stuff I have bought from the wall. I have spent no more than 3$/metre CDN on each piece. The two wools I will be using came from other project's leftovers, one even started life in my care from the 'free love bin' at NSCAD University, our version of the take one penny leave one penny bin. So a chunk of wool for free, yes, Yoink!
Linen Stripe on the left, wool check from the free love bin for the Spencer on the right
My new frock came from one of those three, maybe four different pieces of black with white stripe linen off the wall. I've given some of it away, but pulled out the pieces I had left and figured out I might have enough of one pattern of stripe for a frock, and the smaller piece of different stripe pattern I would use as lining for my Spencer.
Once my stays were bound off, and I got a paying client's project ready to send off in the mail, I started the new gown. I quickly draped a pattern for myself, but honestly, there is no harm in using one of the many good quality patterns out there on the market (*cough* Laughing Moon). I just didn't have one at hand, and didn't feel like buying one, and could do the project by cutting my own. Regency is not complicated. It's basically a nightgown.

I went on Pinterest and just started looking, looking at seam placement, and styles, and pulled up a few EXTANT garments to use as reference. It's important to not copy other reenactor's clothes when you are making new clothing for yourself. You don't know what corners they cut, or what they didn't see when they built their garments. Always go to the primary source if you can. You will learn something new every time you do, or at least I do...I use Pinterest a lot.
Here is my little fitted linen bodice that will become my lining for my gown
There are a lot of seams on this project that I whipped up on machine. I needed this to be a quick project too, as I have two clients waiting in the wings for new clothing themselves, so this project cannot take up a lot of my time. I have made the decision to do any seam that doesn't show by machine, and save my hand work for things that will show. There are also a couple of spots inside where I have used the serger to finish my seam allowances, in case this goes on to live in another home and I no longer have control over it's laundering.

I thought for sure I had taken more construction images, but I guess I was lazy. The fashion fabric was hand stitched to the linen bodice. The style is a bib front, with the lining buttoning at the centre front, and the bib buttoning at the front shoulder strap seams. The skirt is two and a half widths of fabric, with the half width being in the front, the two full widths are gathered into the back. I had wanted to have a pleat or two at the hem, like is fashionable for the period, used to hold the hem out from the body, but I just didn't have enough cloth. Instead, I put a ten inch wide hem facing on the skirt, using the same linen I lined the bodice in. This will have to do. Buttons are all from the button box, vintage shell buttons from last century sometime. The skirt comes to my ankles, good for walking around the farm in mud season, which in Nova Scotia starts in October, and goes until June. Plus, it will show off the sexy new boots Margaret Hubley is making for me.

I began on July 31st, took Saturday and Sunday off, and finished late yesterday. So in all, four days of easy work, afternoons only. In the morning, I have been writing my dissertation.

I started the Spencer today, and promise there will be more construction shots.

Friday, 26 July 2019

Regency on a Shoestring: Part One - Short Stays from the Scrap Bin

WILKIE, David; The Cottage Toilet; Wallace Collection, acc#P352; Oil on Panel, 30.1x38.4cm 
My plan over the next month or so is to make new, working class Regency era clothing for myself and possibly Pierre. The thought is, if I can do this project from my stash of fabrics, seriously on the cheap. I want to use pieces that I found on the discount wall at Fabricville, from scraps from other projects, and as quickly as I possibly can. Quickly, but also accurately as possible. I may be in the position of building a wardrobe again, and I want to show the site that this can be done cheaply and accurately, and that the interpretation staff can work in the clothes.

And because every good historical outfit begins with the foundations, I started by building new stays. I have been messing about with short stays for this period for a while now. My long line stays are lovely for standing looking pretty, for dancing as the most strenuous activity one could undertake. Friends who have acted as guinea pigs to my experimentation have needed working stays, one where they have the support and definition needed for the period, but also can do hard physical labour. Getting dressed by oneself is also a major issue. When I first noticed the above painting, I thought maybe the ladies were wearing a shorter version of an eighteenth-century stays style. And so, dug out my trusty, well fitting eighteenth-century stays and traced them off as a good starting point.
Front edge, top line, back edge all faintly traced off.

 Once I had the rough guide, I drew in my style lines and cut apart my new pattern. I would later slash into the top edge at the front to insert my bust gussets.
A rough draft
Pattern is flipped, so I would have clean lines to work with. The Centre back is extended to form a wrap around closing.
I cut all my pieces from scraps from the bin. Yes, scraps. From other projects. The 'fashion' layer wasn't even scrap from my bin, but from a friend's, so literally cost me nothing! The fashion layer is a linen stripe, interlined with unwashed factory cotton, the pink stripe is left over bits from my eighteenth-century work gown and will be used as a liner.
I wanted to have a light coloured outer layer so that I could wear any kind of gown fabric over it and the stays fabric wouldn't show through. The far right fabric is the striped linen fashion fabric. I used leftover thread from another project to sewing the bone channels. I picked the thread I had the most of, and that turned out to be pink.

Now, there is one thing that I have given up ever doing by hand ever again, and that's stitching bone channels. Never say never, right. That might come back to bite me in the arse later, but for now, I'm doing them by machine. I have a 'back stitch' stitch on my machine that unless you are nose to fabric, looks just like my hand stitched back stitch. The stitch is a giant thread suck though, so you need to have lots to start with.
 Here you can see my bone channels all stitched, and my bust gussets stitched in place. I use nylon zip ties for boning. I find they more closely resemble actual whalebone than anything I have seen. I use the 1/4" wide ones, and trim to length with heavy duty scissors. I stitch my gussets in by hand for better control and a nice finish. I can do them by machine, but it's fussy. Doing them by hand is so much easier and quicker. I added cotton twill tapes to the back extensions, long enough to tie in front of my body, under the bust.

I already have two good working shifts, so threw one on and had a quick fitting. Fitting notes: Bust gussets were too big, the centre front line was too floppy, and I needed shoulder straps for support. I also added a buttonhole to slide the under flap's tie through so I could tie it nicely in the front.

I spent the rest of the afternoon cutting a busk for the centre front edge and stitching in a twill tape pocket for it. Then I fixed the gusset issue, cut shoulder straps and stitched those on, and finally, started to lay in the lining. All that is left now is to finish stitching the lining in, binding them off, and working four eyelets to the shoulder straps.

I was really not happy with how floppy the front was, and so will likely add busks to any set of stays that I make with bust gussets. I find when you slash into that top edge, the edge just gets too floppy all around. The busk will keep the front firmly in place between the breasts, and I should have the right silhouette of boobs (separate) on a platter. The bottom edge of these stays are tabbed to allow for more room over the body, and to prevent a hard bottom edge. I was also able to have the ties sit over the stays, right under the bustline, which I wouldn't have been able to keep in place with modern reproduction short stays patterns. Having the ties slip down on to my body as I work would drive me mad, as I have a thing for tight ties around my body. Waistbands are the devil's work.

I will finish these tomorrow, then back to men's wear for a bit...I still have actual paid work to do.

Thursday, 18 July 2019

When did we start equating Working Class with Homelessness?

There seems to be a disconnect in how we actually live, and our perceptions of what class we hang out in. Most of us are working class people. Plain and simple. The actual middle class pay more in taxes every year than many of us earn, and that's with ridiculous tax breaks. The truly wealthy, the 1% are making more money each year than many of us can even comprehend.

OK, so now that I have established that we are, for the most part working class, how do you see yourself in your daily life? Do you get up every day, bathe, put on clean, relatively new clothing, and go out and work your job every day? Do you sometimes, but not really all that often, get dirty, really dirty in your daily life? I know in my life, the most I get dirty is my hands, even when I'm in the garden. I might need to take a bit of care with my fingernails at the end of the day, but that's about it.

So when we look at a historical interpreter who is wearing accurately constructed clothing, that fits well, and is in decent repair, why is it we place that interpreter in a higher class than they actually are? I work in the eighteenth century mostly. My wardrobe consists of gowns and petticoats for the most part. I do own a bedgown that is well tailored to my body that I wear for warmth over my gown like a cardigan. I work in my gowns. If I'm going to be getting really dirty, I might take my gown off for a minute to do the job, and then put it back on again...maybe. I just don't get that dirty, and can't be arsed dressing and re-dressing throughout the day, so I just stay in my gown.

I've been confused by other interpreters for being a different class because I am wearing all my proper clothes. Or for being a different culture because I am wearing a sacque backed gown when all the other women are wearing jackets.

Nope. I am the same as them, a working class woman, going about her day. I may be much older, or just wearing a different fashionable style. Today, all women don't go about their day in exactly the same kind of outfit. We each have our own personal style within the fashion of our era.

This morning on one of the 'show us your impressions' pages on facebook, a man posted his interpretation of a 1830s farmer. He was perfect in my eyes. I hope to one day dress my staff as well as this man was. People kept putting him in a much higher class level though, mainly due to his clothes actually fitting, and he was wearing all of his clothes, and wasn't looking destitute.

There is a huge difference between working class and homelessness.

We have to start dressing out our interpreters in properly constructed and well fitted clothing. We need to teach them that the fit will make the clothing more comfortable, that natural fibres are a beautiful thing! We need to teach them to wear all their layers and pieces and accoutrements so that they actually look like the people we are trying to represent.
One size does not fit all. We need wardrobe staff who are trained to create and fit the interpreters. Who know how to do research on the extant garments in our museum collections. We need to value those wardrobe people we do have on staff as much as we value the curators, and archaeologists, and historians. We are historians too, and the work we do is as valuable as getting the paint chemistry correct in our historic buildings, the artifacts cleaned and researched properly, or the names and dates on the labels correct.

Last week I got to see quite a few costumed interpreters. I felt an overwhelming need to fix every single one of them, even the better ones needed to have their clothing taken in a great deal to actually fit. I will be writing about this subject over the next month or so for the dissertation. Trying to situate my research into the greater interpretation conversation. I will also be constructing a couple of pieces for two gentlemen who are very much within the scope of working class interpretation, as well as an outfit for myself to wear to an 1820s museum site in the Fall.

A couple of groups for you to check out...
Living History ~ show us your impression
Womens Living History ~ Show us your impressions
Historical Interp Playas!

There are others, and not every impression is perfect, but the people who post in these groups are trying really hard to make themselves look the very best they can.
Not homeless, nor am I upper class, just a working class woman going about her day circa 1776

Friday, 12 July 2019

News from the shoe

Just after my last post, I got a midnight message from our favourite Boxer breeder in Nova Scotia asking if I could take a repossessed puppy. She was driving to New Brunswick to take two dogs, one of hers, one from a sister breeder in Ontario, from a home that was breaking up. We quickly made the choice to meet her in NB and take her dog home with us, sight unseen. We had no idea what to expect, neither did she, but we arrived to find a healthy dog, albeit untrained. He took to Pierre right away, big relief, I was worried he might be afraid of men, and I'd have to do all the rehabilitation on my own. This is a photo of the three of us, shortly after our breeder drove off in the other direction with the female puppy to send home to Ontario. I think he might like us. His name is Beer, Dutch for Bear. His birth name from the breeder. He likes the cats, and is mostly trained now. He is a smart boy and may one day soon be able to walk off leash.

So our lives have been dealing with house training, and puppy rehab, but also car issues...and finally a research trip.

My trip had been planned for months. I was ready to go back in April, right after passing my proposal defense. Museum schedules and our own life kept pushing things around though. Finally I decided to fly down to Nova Scotia, and Pierre booked my ticket, so I was going, whether everything was ready for my trip or not!
I landed in Nova Scotia on Tuesday the 2nd of July, and Lacey Bean picked me up at the airport and drove me to Bear River, my headquarters for the week, the home of friends Jenny and Jayar. Jenny is my research assistant extraordinaire. She has edited most of my work on this PhD, and knows how to road trip well. We packed coolers and the car on Wednesday morning and headed off to our first museum on Wednesday morning.

The Museums by the Sea in Shelburne, Nova Scotia are jointly run by the Nova Scotia Museum and the Shelburne County Historical Society. If you ever get to go to NS and are a fan of the eighteenth-century, you need to visit this town. The waterfront district is as close to as it was in the 1780s as humanly possible in 2019. The museum site takes up a full block with the Ross-Thompson House and Storehouse along with other buildings that house the modern Historical Society museum exhibits and collections.
I knew there were menswear pieces from the last quarter of the eighteenth-century at Ross-Thompson, mostly because friends have taken photos, but also through my own visits there. There are three separate menswear outfits, one complete ditto suit in green corded silk, one frock coat and matching waistcoat in brown and polychrome striped silk, and one silk satin frockcoat that used to be the colour of turmeric. When I saw the striped suit of clothes in the flesh, I was vibrating, and so started with that one.

This suit doesn't look like much in this photo, but OH. MY. GODDESS! It is impressive! The stripes of polychrome are in three shades of green, another couple shades of pink, and blue threads in a narrow fat quarter inch silk satin woven stripe. This alternates with twill woven stripes of gold coloured silk threads. There are death head buttons in the polychrome colours over a horn button mold in a six spoke style. The buttons on the waistcoat are also polychrome, four spoke style over a wooden mold. These pieces took me until Thursday noon to finish drafting. We took lots of photos. These will all be in my dissertation along with patterns and construction notes. The week went up from there as we found more hidden treasures in the pieces. I finished the first batch of work at the Ross-Thompson house Saturday morning. The rest of the morning, we took photos of things I want to look at more closely the next time I am down, hopefully in October. Three different pair of shoes and a man's leather pocketbook are in the collection of the Historical Museum that will need a day or so of detailed notes, measurements, and photos. But they will have to wait until the museum closes for the season.

We stopped in to visit the Barrington museums (another Nova Scotia Museum site) on the way back to Bear River. No costume pieces really, but good information from our friend Sam who is the director there. And hey, any time we get to visit friends in the system is a good excuse to stop the car for an hour or so.

Sunday, Jenny was being filmed for the CBC TV show Still Standing. The episode will air in the Fall of 2021. It is exciting to see her Millinery business featured on a national broadcast. I hope it will be good publicity for her. She is an amazing hatmaker and milliner. She is my go-to for trims and frills when clothes require them. I am a cutter first and foremost. I don't usually do decoration.

Monday, we had planned to meet up with the Bean again at Ross Farm museum in New Ross Nova Scotia. No relation to Ross-Thompson, but another site in the Nova Scotia Museum system. The farm is the only working farm within the system, and was founded by a Loyalist soldier at about the same time my own family's land claim/grant was being finalized in Pictou county. The site is interpreted at 1820, but costumed interpreters! In working class clothing! It was supposed to just be a wander around to see how things are done through the dissertation lens. I had an opportunity land in my lap to see things up close and behind the scenes though, as the site is also looking for a new costumer, their current one is looking to retire in the next two years. We sat and had a good chat with their new Site Director, and I was asked to come back on Wednesday to meet the costumer, let her meet me, and for everyone to get to know each other a bit better. I am on board with their, "could be up to two years" timeframe for employment. I am also perfectly fine with the seasonal aspect of the job. Hey, if it means we get to go home to NS, and I get to work in my field at a really cool site, I could work this job into retirement. I have no illusions of grandeur for after finalizing my PhD. I could very easily go back to working at Atlantic Fabrics or Fabricville!

The thing that really hit home this week was the lack of a good working budget for all of the sites I visited. The NSM is trying to make-do across the board with nothing. It is no wonder that sites can't hire actual trained historical costumers. They really can't afford to hire summer students to be interpreters. They certainly, often, can't afford the site director's (very low) salaries. The second thing that many were frustrated with were situations where they just didn't have the expertise to be able to put up beautiful and accurate exhibits, again, lack of staff. There is a small curatorial staff in Halifax, that are trying to bring a massive system into the 21st century that was broken when it was first developed. The pubic also doesn't fully understand how museums should work, and so donate tonnes of things to the sites that may have no actual provenance or use to the museum. Just because it's old, doesn't mean a museum can use it, or has the means to store it properly. Keep your auction finds in your private collections unless you know and can relay the backstory of the item to be donated. Also, the museum isn't your Salvation Army drop-off point for housewares you no longer need. Most of the stuff donated to the Ross-Thompson house to be used in their costume interpretation was garbage. Polyester drapes and housewares that have no use for making historic costume, if they had anyone to sew said garments.
This week could also be summed up by interpreters and living historians asking me if their clothes were accurate, and me having to reply 'no', but that I understood why, for many, various reasons, but not limited to no money and no trained staff.
This next week will be finishing Pierre's sexy full gaiters and a neck roller for his French Canadian impression for Fort Ti's Montcalm's Cross event next weekend, and trying to finish a ditto suit to send home to George for a fitting before August. Then it's on to other contracts, writing a chapter for the dissertation, and some new modern clothes for me.

Busy Grrrl is Busy.

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Never assume your visiting public won't notice

Several conversations over the past week have left me scratching my head. I'm not always harping about museum practices in Nova Scotia, that system is just the focus of my dissertation, and so it may seem that I only have my sights set in that direction.

No, I realize there's a lack of funding to hire museum professionals across the board, worldwide.

This post will be about assumptions, it will look at an example in Nova Scotia, but also at bigger sites in other parts of the world, sites that should be doing things better, simply because they have larger operating budgets. But no, they still have outdated exhibits like the rest of us, assumptions were made, people in positions thought the visiting public wouldn't notice, or wouldn't know better.

I'll start with the site closest to home, one where I was asked to do outreach programming, a museum in my home community. This site spent a goodly sum of money on a 'make work' project to employ folks in my hometown. They built a replica of the ship Hector that brought one of the first waves of Scottish settlers to my community. Did I mention, they spent a lot of money on this project? Only they missed the mark and neglected to hire a ship builder to oversee the whole project. They hired carpenters who normally build houses. So the replica Hector has no Wheel, no Steering Mechanism of any kind. The hull was also filled with concrete as ballast. The ship looks great from the jetty, from the pub next door, but don't look too closely. She's also rotting due to the concrete being poured wet, and so trapping moisture in the hull, effectively rotting her out from outside and within.

Any sailor of any kind, even a passenger like me notices the lack of steering. Every movie of any tall ship of any kind has featured one scene with someone at the wheel...
J Graves, artist

But this isn't the only instance of a replica shipbuilding project not thought all the way through.

The second conversation centred around a gown at the Met. There were serious conversations about how beautiful the textile is that the gown is made of, but then the subject shifted to the mounting itself. What is going on with the front of the gown? Obvious to some of us, the mannikin is too small for the gown, and the wrong shape. Instead of padding it out properly, the fronts are just overlapped. This means that the fashionable silhouette of the gown is lost. The prow shape of the last decades of the 18th century is missing in favour of more of a third quarter 18th century shape that was more upright, more suited to the stomacher front gowns of 1775. The fabric of the gown is also more in line with the really late 18th century, not the 1770s that the shape is trying to be. The Met has missed out on telling the story of the shifting fashions in the decades that finish out the 18th century proper. This mannikin alone causes the viewer to be misled. To my eye, it looks like the mannikin is playing dress-up, akin to wearing a 'hippy' costume at Halloween, instead of what hippies actually looked like in the late 1960s. This causes museum interpreters and living history people to also get finer aspects of dress incorrect. They look to sites such as the Met as an authority. If only there was money to remount these artifacts properly, on properly supported mounts and retake the images to replace the ones found online. Eventually this image might get replaced, but I'm not holding out hope that it will be any time soon.

The third conversation is happening right this minute. A friend is in the UK and took a photo and tagged a bunch of us on social media. The site is Fort George in Scotland, the setting is a barrack room in 1760. I would put the exhibit staging to the mid 1980s. The first thing I noticed wrong was the way the female figure was dressed. A single petticoat, shift, and a knitted shawl. The look is very "mid 1980s rev war reenactor", in fact, several of the ladies in my very first living history unit dressed this way up until the early 1990s when I started handing out bedgowns as fast as I could get them made. Unfortunately, many women still dress this poorly in living history groups...I suspect because of sites like this being seen as an authority. It's heartbreaking because we know better.

Other things are wrong with the scene at Fort George. There's not a properly made bed in the entire room, despite being set up as a lived-in barrack room. The beds were the second thing I noticed, with their pool-noodle sized bolsters which would do nothing to support the head. No blankets, no sheets, no pillows. There are people in the room, but no real living material culture. It's almost as if they just stepped inside this empty room to make lunch and clean a musket. What material culture that is there, is really wrong, like the very modern broom and mop propped up against the back window, circa 1930. This space could be fixed easily and cheaply. Make it an empty barrack room, one vacated by troops. Remove the mannikins, yes, all of them, even the military guys. Remove the household material culture, especially the 20th century broom and mop. Replace the pool noodles with properly sized bolsters (seriously, a preparator could do this project in a day or so) and set the beds up military style for the next company of men who will come in and inhabit the space. Bedding folded like little soldiers on the beds, ready for inspection. Because it would be inspected...militaries have routines that date back to the Roman era.

The thing is, with the dawn of the internet, the public IS becoming far more educated on historical details. If they don't know what is going on in a space or with an exhibit, they are talking about it on social media. We need to do better. We need to be hiring folks who have a clue and can update these exhibits. A well paid site director is only as good as their exhibits. We need to be critical of high salaries of site directors when the budget for exhibit planning and maintenance takes a hit.

Let's demand these sites that we view as authorities step up their game. We need them to be better than Hollywood, and right now, they are lagging behind.
King's Own Royal Regiment Museum photo