Romanticizing the Past?

Yarn I made during a drop spindle workshop at the Texas Living History Association meeting. Not terribly pretty. I will need many hours to get good at it.
Yarn I made during a drop spindle workshop at the Texas Living History Association meeting. Not terribly pretty. I will need many hours to get good at it.

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?

Please share.

–Deb Arenz

4 thoughts on “Romanticizing the Past?”

  1. One of the problems with many (too many) experiential opportunities offered to site visitors is that they are “fun,” when, in the reality of time, place and circumstances that we’re trying to represent, the same activity would have been drudgery. Of course we want our visitors to have an enjoyable experience but, out of respect for the history that we’re tryhing to communicate, we might want to rethink activities that are perceived as fun. Maybe just an additional minute or two of the same activity would be enough to underscore the reality that while a novel experience can be fun, an hour, a day, or a lifetime of the same task would have been anything but.

  2. A few years ago a summer intern at city hall was tasked with a straight typing job but there was no computer available for her to use. After some searching they dug up an old electric typewriter for her to use. They had to teach her how to use it but she had a great time and kept asking for jobs on the typewriter all summer. She said the machine was “cute.” Perspectives.

  3. Deb, I certainly didn’t intend to speak FOR the Minnesota Historical Society’s Oliver H. Kelley Farm today, as my experience there was more than 25 years ago now. (Good grief!) The site is in the midst of significant expansion as an agricultural museum, but I believe that the living history program is still consistent with our original interpretive approaches. In my earlier post, I was certainly not contesting the value of hands-on learning. I think that experiential interpretation, such as plowing with oxen is exceptionally effective. It makes so much more of an impact on visitors than simply “telling” someone about it. The experience often leads to emotional learning, which can be more lasting and more attitude and behavior-altering than simple cognitive learning. But the important point I was trying to make is that it is not enough by itself. The “fun” of hands-on learning has to be leavened with additional interpretation–some telling–of the difficulties and drudgery of plowing with oxen and then caring for them, feeding, watering, and clearing manure after the field work is done–sometimes in freezing cold. You can understand more about historical life by doing it for a moment, but it doesn’t replicate a real-life experience, and I think sometimes people mistake it for that.

  4. For me, learning historic (pre-petroleum) skills IS “fun” but more than that, the learning is valuable because it demonstrates that it is theoretically at least possible to live a decent life without relying on fossil fuels. Such a life does require a community though… and “there’s the rub” as Hamlet said. Community has always been hard to come by. In ancient Rome, some people lived well thanks to the work of slaves. By some estimates the average American (or European) has “slaves, too” : we each use about 200,000 calories of energy per day, most of it coming from fossil fuels. in the absence of fossil fuels or slavery, a decent life with food, clothing, shelter, tools and the arts could (in theory) be provided by the joyful labor of other humans.
    you may say I’m a dreamer ….

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