It Takes A Village

Hopefully by now word of ALHFAM’s Skill Training and Preservation initiative (STP) has permeated the living history community, arousing interest. For some it may also have raised questions. What is being preserved and why? What infrastructure is needed at our living history sites to nurture the ongoing acquisition of historic skills and their preservation? Are these support structures sufficiently intact to benefit from the STP initiative?

Strict reliance on the appropriate period tools to solve historic problems force difficult questions to the fore; an opportunity to flush-out new understanding and skill development.

Kitchen at the James Anderson property, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (Photo Jim Slining)

In a 1996 issue of William and Mary Quarterly, Ann Smart Martin wrote “…the study of material culture has remained a sidestream in historical scholarship. Numbers of historians are unacquainted with, or disinclined to engage in, examination of the material world in depth; they do not leap to opportunities to investigate a pot, a picture, or a house in visual and physical ways. At the same time, specialized skill in artifactual analysis often pulls material scholars inward into object study and away from cultural implications….” Also “Human-made things are far more than mere tools: they are complex bundles of individual, social, and cultural meanings grafted into something that can be seen, touched and owned.” If studying material culture has remained a “sidestream in historical scholarship,” studying historic work habits through experimentation is a backwater.

The more basic a tool, the greater is the requirement for complex user skill. Therefore, aspects of material culture may not be understood by “mere” traditional research. One can examine the best of 18th-century, European pipe organs with only a limited idea of its capability. It is only when it is put to use by an organist with proficient skill that its full value and potential can begin to be assessed. If heard only when used by a rank beginner, it may give a very false impression of not only the instrument’s potential but of a culture’s refinement as well. Unfortunately, the skill to play pipe organs cannot be stored in a box somewhere to be pulled out when occasion requires. Skill has to be used– practiced–if it is to be maintained. Sustained skill (transferable over time) requires cultural support. Paradoxically, this required culture is in turn maintained by practitioners of that skill. Cultural knowledge is lost when a practice is discontinued.

Theodore Sindt, a representative of McCormick (left) leans on an early grain binder in this undated photograph taken in Russia (note the binder’s wooden frame)–a testament to regional cultural variations and associated skill requirements. (Tillers’ Collection)

In his important 1977 article “The Use of Objects in Historical Research,” John Schlebecker commented “Scythes, sickles and cradles not only give an impression of weight, but if used a bit, give a clearer idea of farm drudgery. He who swings a cradle will learn why cradlers received more per day than ordinary reapers.” If someone today had never seen a bicycle in use but casually tried riding one “a bit,” the perceived lesson of its usefulness might be false. Lacking skill, a tricycle might seem much more sensible at first investigation. But given limited power, the reduced friction of only two wheels is much more serviceable. Rather than an awkward conveyance, in skilled hands a bicycle is an efficient source of cheap and speedy transportation: In skilled hands!  When learning to ride, the cultural support of skilled cyclists demonstrating its possibilities provides courage, competitive challenge and motivation to the novice.

This exemplifies the requirements of living history if it is to be a successful contributor to historical scholarship. What structures are required at our sites in order to create an environment conducive to skill attainment and preservation? Will they not look very much like the cultural underpinnings that historically enabled common knowledge to be passed from generation to generation? Development of historically-accurate skill requires informed discrimination and commitment. This is why living history sites MUST provide career paths for front-line, skilled historic interpreters. Needed as well are interpretive techniques that are centered on activity and place and on practical knowledge not easily conveyed only verbally. Before big horsepower and cheap fossil fuel, humans often needed to work together in order to power technology. Understanding the culture of such a working community requires museum “towns” to function synergistically, rather than as a collection of house museums. It takes a village to make a village!

Growing out seed for two mid-19th-century plant varieties, Bloody Butcher Corn (behind hybrid sweet corn) and American Banner Oats, teach skills these varieties require for successful propagation. Seed and skills must both be regularly used if their vigor is to be maintained.
Author’s garden.

This is about much more than increasing visitation. The world currently faces some serious challenges. There may well be historic objects within our trust that hold seeds to innovative alternatives useful for sustainable living–alternatives offering hope, confidence and security. Though a backwater in historical scholarship, reconstructing and preserving historic skills and their supporting cultures are a necessary complement to other scholarly research if history is to be accurately understood and assessed. The STP initiative is a tremendously important conduit. May it encourage us to delight in our mission, examine the culture of our sites, and develop the assets we hold in trust which make living history uniquely relevant!

About the Author:
Jim Slining’s first involvement with ALHFAM was at the 1987 Southeast regional conference in a blizzard-stricken Richmond, VA (alright, that local culture’s snow removal skills are less refined than New England’s). He is currently Curator of Collections at Tillers International in Scotts, MI.

Jim Slining (right) and Steve Mankowski in front of the Levi Rugg Blacksmith Shop at Genesee Country Village in this early ‘80’s tintype by John Coffer.

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