Last week I blogged about my ALHFAM plow match experience and how it allowed me to experience an “artifact” in a new and thought-provoking way. I believe these experiences help museum professionals interpret the past. The knowledge we gain when we try our hand at a historic skill, using appropriate tools, far surpasses anything we could read in a book. Not surprisingly, this is an idea that ALHFAM members hold dear.
One comment on the blog has me thinking about something I didn’t address: romanticizing the past. The comment:
We used to say at the Kelley Farm that people would forget what we said about plowing with oxen, but they would never forget what it was like to walk behind a team and guide the plow. I think that is true. But the experience of making a round with a team and plow is so different from what the farm experience was really like and invites romanticism. We always impressed on people that a team of oxen could generally plow 1 acre of land in 10 hours. It usually took a plowman and a teamster to do the job, so 20 “man hours.” Multiply that by the number of plow-down acreage, say 40 acres, not unusual in mid-19th century when oxen were plentiful. That’s 800 man-hours. Now plow that round again and think about doing it for 10 hours a day for 40 days. Then you are ready to harrow it a few times before planting.
I applaud the staff at Kelley Farm for keeping things real. I found it interesting that “making a round with a team and plow” invited romanticism for some of their visitors. For me, personally, “doing” the work relieves me of romantic notions. Using a horse-drawn plow was thrilling because I’ve seen so many, and put them on exhibit, but never had the chance to use one. It changed my understanding of the object and the process. The act of plowing, though, was difficult and not something I’d want to do regularly as a way to feed and support my family.
Similarly, I recently attended a workshop and learned to spin using a drop spindle. It’s fun and I’ve done some at home since then. However, I have the luxury of doing this as a hobby. If this process were a necessary part of my life it would quickly become drudgery.
When I undertake these types of activities it reinforces for me why our ancestors often readily, enthusiastically, embraced technological advances. My great-grandparents and grandparents didn’t spin or plow with draft animals or use a wood burning cookstove when I knew them. They knew it was hard work and abandoned it as soon as they were financially able. Even now, my husband, who grew up on a ranch in Oklahoma where they commonly grew or raised all the food on their table, laughs at people who pay money to pick apples in orchards (including me)–“why would I pay someone to do chores!” There’s no romance in it for him. It’s just work.
So, for me, using historic skills and tools reinforces how much work “living” was (and still is for many people around the globe) and diminishes romantic ideals; but what about others? How has learning these skills affected your view of past realities? Do you front-line staff find that sharing these skills with the public makes them long for “simpler days” or makes them realize those days weren’t really so simple? How do you handle these concepts?