Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Sensory Overload: a Living Historian Steps back in Time

My timing was off on the way to class this evening. I entered the metro just as the wall of end of day travellers hit the top of the stairs. I stopped next to the wall and waited for them to pass, but it was too late, I was already feeling the effects. The grey was closing in. I’m getting a migraine.

It’s early morning, the day is cool so far, and really bright.  The harbour smells fresh, so the tide must have just come in. The waterfront is quiet, people walking to work, walking their dogs. I go into the locker-room and get dressed for the day. I am working in the Robertson’s Store, Ship Chandlery for the day. It will be quiet too, separated from the museum and yet an integral piece of the history of the waterfront. It actually existed, closed in the early twentieth-century, and fully donated to the museum. I am wearing the clothing of the early Great War. My corset is snug, but not constricting. It is not what is annoying about the outfit, not what is oppressive about the period. It gives my body a smooth appearance and supports my clothing, that is all. I have to take baby steps when I am dressed in this period’s clothes. My stride is restricted, I am wearing a hobbled skirt.  The hem at my ankles is very narrow, I have no kick pleat. I prepare for my day. I take the hand crank out and lower the awning on the front of the store so that it stays somewhat cool inside on this August day. I am careful not to raise my hands too far over my head, so that I’m not having to readjust my blouse when I am finished. Take my time. At the end of the day, Pierre notes that my eau du rope cologne is especially strong, that I must have been working in the store. He loves the scent of hemp rope and floor oil that permeates my skin and hair on a warm day. He is a sailor after all.

It has been a long day. It is September 11th, and all hands are in costume. We have several cruise ships in the harbour. One of the boys runs down the demi-ditch and skids to a halt just shy of my door. He runs back in, feather bonnet askew. Have you heard, he yells. The Trade centre has been bombed. And just as quickly, he disappears out my door again. I’m not usually in costume, just special events and in the off season. At the Citadel, I am in charge of looking after about a hundred other people in historical dress.  Today though, I was dressed in the half hour and on the parade square. Dressing so quickly, my stays aren’t quite sitting right, I think I missed an eyelet or something. Ugh, I’ll deal. These tourists don’t know yet, what has happened to their country. I grab the box of tissues and bring it upstairs. In Victorian dress, I am large and imposing. Much like the soldiers, we stand out in the crowd of tourists pouring through the sally port.

Again, early morning. I lay in bed listening to the fog horn in the distance. The guys have the fire started, despite the damp, and are making coffee. I am going to learn how to make lace today. We are in my favourite place on earth, Louisbourg. I get up and slowly get dressed. My stays are a bit more constricting in the eighteenth-century than they are in other time periods, they hug a bit tighter. I have full range of movement in my eighteenth-century clothing though, and I stand in ballet’s first position. I am straight, my shoulder blades are slightly pulled back, my arms rest on my side hoops, palms up. My hoops have a sprung reed though, and its point digs into my leg when I wear them. I must remember to put my extra petticoat on first, to keep that point from nagging me. I have to concentrate today.

This time of year is sometimes lonely for a living historian. We need to deal with modern life far too much. Museum work is often seasonal, living history in the summer, for the tourists, mending and research in the winter months to prepare for new programing next summer. Little things will take you back to the moments of history, Le Fumoir at the grocery store, smoking hams for the customers, stitching eyelets on your new waistcoat, thinking of Christmas presents that you really should get started on so that they are finished in time to mail out. Living history, for me, is all about the senses. The smell of wood smoke, the scuff of hobnailed shoes on gravel streets. The click, clack of the loom as it creates the cloth, the young man practicing tin whistle outside the window, the sound of the noon gun, or hourly chime of the bells at the church. The senses are an intimate part of how I understand history, the way my body moves in the different period’s clothing, how what is first expected, is not the oppressive thing about what I’m wearing. When I am stressed in my modern life, it helps to imagine those fragments of sense to get me through the day. It really is too bad that someone hasn’t actually made Eau du Rope, or Eau du Woodsmoke perfume, I bet it would be a hit amoungst living historians

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