[This is a guest post by ALHFAM member and co-chair of the Programming, Interpretation and Education Professional interest Group (PIE PIG), Lauren Muney]
For anyone who has frequently attended, or even never attended an ALHFAM conference, it’s easy to forget the many reasons these conference events are held: to learn more about our work bringing history to life, to learn new skills in workshops, to meet old friends and make new friends, to share in laughter or to connect with compassion. We have regional meetings and we have “national” meetings, which are often held in Canada as well as the USA, and often have international participants.
ALHFAM 2016 just closed its doors. Louisiana State University’s Rural Life Museum, was host site —and mother, father, aunt, uncle, friend, teacher, and tour-guide rolled into one. There were generous tours, exciting workshops, amazing session locations, and dedicated volunteers.
The staff and docents acted tirelessly (although we know they were very tired!), offering us more food than we could eat, more drink than would could accept, and all the while giving us warm smiles and cheer. We even were treated by most museums for free entrance, and the Presidential Banquet, cajun-inspired delicious dishes, and location was donated: famous White Oak Plantation and its more famous owner/chef, John Folse.
This brings me to the subject:
ALHFAM meetings are not just about old buildings, battle sites, “who did what to whom”, townball, plowing contests, and stuffing information into our heads and notebooks.
ALHFAM is about understanding one another. Not just a little bit; but understanding in a deeper way, a way that comes from connecting together all that we are experiencing from our hosts, the views out our window, the ground (or, in the case of Louisiana, the swamp) under our feet, and the past, the personalities and regionalisms that create this mixed-up North American culture.
In Baton Rouge as well as in New Orleans, and all the small visits around the region, we caught just a little whiff of what makes the heartbeat of the Louisiana people and this Creole, Cajun, Deep-South place. We experienced the sultry (that means ‘hot and sticky’) nights and even hotter and stickier days.
We started to understand why the pace of life might be slower down there, with different ways of moving through the heat and the sun, and the ubiquitous water everywhere. In this place where the history includes so many languages, based on the movements of the French, Spanish, and mixed-race peoples moving through, settling down, and moving again. We learned — in unflinching detail— about slavery’s swath through the culture and the pain it caused. We learned about the iconic politics which rose and fell, affecting generations during and after.
But mostly we felt the care and attention of the Louisiana people, embodied by the generosity and the kindness of the volunteers at the Rural Life Museum (RLM) and the other sites and activities we visited. The unceasingly big hearts and passion that brings over 100 people to hand-make meals and serve to us, one attendee at a time, heaping plates of food that symbolized their love, care, and attention to both ALHFAM and to the RLM.
Here was the biggest lesson we could learn: that the Deep South may struggle with harsh weather conditions, culture clashes, and even the wildness that comes with yearly Mardi Gras (a wild party which started in 1699 and has now grown to an elaborate set of parades, costumes and rituals — but varies between urban New Orleans to the rural Creole country parishes) – but we all come back to the deep heart of love and hospitality.
We so deeply need ALHFAM.
We need to see not only our own history which we probably repeat daily, weekly, monthly – day in and day out, but we need to see how every half lives. We need to visit all these regions and areas hosted by our ALHFAMily.
We need to be shaken. We need to be heart-warmed. We need to be surprised. We need to be made uncomfortable [as much as we love comfort].
We deserve to be humbled by examples like the great strength of character and will which push Louisianans through the terrible hurricanes that regularly devastate the region, especially the worst ones that took away life, property, and hope.
We need to be loved by our new mothers and aunties and uncles. We need to taste new foods, we need to see new (old) buildings and lands.
We need to connect with our distant “cousins” of the ALHFAMily.
We need to connect to those places different from us. People in the North need to interact with the slow South, while leisurely Southern people might be curious by what makes the North so quick. We need to sweat or freeze. We need to cross sandy soil, rocky earth, or swampy mess.
We in ALHFAM can be an odd bunch: academics, historians, material culture specialists, culinary experts, farmers, livestock carers, volunteers, retired hobbyists, reenactors, vendors, artists, front-line interpreters, exhibit specialists, administrators, managers, and more. We are experts – or need to seem like experts. We spend more time in one location more often than another.
With all of our research and focus, we can often think we know everything – or we think we have done it all already.
then we can come to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA, and we find out that we know nothing. We can taste the humidity and sip the julep (metaphorically speaking).
We can, in essence, see the world anew again – with beginner’s eyes. We can remember that with each place we visit — whether a regional meeting or annual meeting — we can be like a beginner again, taking-in the culture and learning to love.
Unsettling as it may be to be a beginner at anything, being a beginner is the deepest way to understand a subject.
Drink your subject in, like you’ve never done so before.
Lauren Muney is a demonstrating interpreting artisan, creating freehand-scissored portraits for visitors and guests at museums, events, corporate and social events across North America, in all time periods. Her work can be seen at her website, www.silhouettesbyhand.com. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. All photos by Lauren Muney, 2016.