Pulling Back the Curtain

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The Artist in His Museum by Charles Wilson Peale. 1822. Coutesy Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

I read this blog post hoping to find some insights that might help me as I figure out what comes next. I found myself irked instead.

Be Prepared to Struggle.

3. Be prepared to struggle.
The museum education field is not for the faint of heart, or people who want a 9-5 job. One of my mentors advised me that the days are long, but the years are short. The hours will hurt, you will get tired of the near-constant balancing act, and you might even question if you’re making an impact. Hang in there. Find your network (local, regional, or national). Share your vulnerabilities with people you trust. Delegate if you can. Most of all, document your successes and create a portfolio that illustrates why your efforts matter.

What is hidden between those lines? Be prepared for your life to be subservient to the needs of the museum? Be prepared to give everything– but document all you do because you’ll need to prove your value, no matter how much you sacrifice?

Saint Catherine, by Bernardino Luini. State Museum of Azerbaijan. (c) Stourhead; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation. You will not achieve sainthood by sacrificing your sanity to a job.

Why would you put your work ahead of your life? (YES, I KNOW that’s not exactly what that post is suggesting, but that’s how it often ends up.) Encouraging people to work hard is good, but telling them they should expect to, and will, suffer isn’t good. That feeds the beast that chews up and spits out eager, idealistic young people on a routine basis. The museum is definitely not going to tell you it loves you, or visit you in the hospital. You need the time to build your own life, a circle of friends or family, interests of your own to feed your soul. And that means you will need boundaries, and need to have some “evenings, weekends, and holidays” when work is not required or expected– though I know that those hours are required and that people have to work them because they need the money.

Sculpture Hall, after 1913 installation of ceiling lights and before 1928 installation of fountain, c.1920. St. Louis Art Museum

Museum education staff are on the front lines– certainly more so than the curatorial, research, or exhibition design staff– and their work is immediately recognized and experienced by visitors. Museum education staff include a wide range of folks, depending on the organization. Costumed interpreters, gallery guides, program managers and assistants to develop and run fun but educational activities for all ages, curriculum developers who work with teachers to ensure that museu visits and activities for school groups meet the local or common core standards, and lots more. Sometimes the education staff are paid less than the curatorial and collections staff– and they’re pretty underpaid to begin with. Education staff are, to a larger degree than collections staff, expected to work evenings, weekends, and holidays, often without holiday differential pay, and receiving “comp” time instead of overtime.

Now, all that said, the blog post also contains these points

1. Gain skills outside of your intended field.  Learn how to budget. Like, really budget. What would you do with $2,000? How about $250,000? Know the numbers, and know how to speak business. If this isn’t your comfort zone, join the club. Take free online courses (edX is my go-to), and expand your skillset to include some productive surprises.

Victoria and Albert Museum, interior view (South Court), late 19th century (V&A PH.1156-1905)

Guess what? Budgeting IS part of your intended field. Sure, educational methods for reaching kids is directly related, but there is hardly a museum job in the world that doesn’t need to deal with money to some degree. The better you understand the way a budget works, the way grant budgets work and what you need to account for, the better you will understand the place you work and why things are the way they are. (Translation: the better you will understand how you are being rewarded– or not.

 

2. Work hard, be nice.  One of the best things to do when you’re starting out (or moving up) is to do excellent work and share it with your peers, supervisors, friends, and anyone who can provide constructive feedback. The museum world is a teeny-tiny place, so be nice to everyone you meet.

Be nice. As a woman, I often hate hearing that. I’d rephrase this one to “Do the best work you can without killing or compromising yourself, and be generous to the people who help you.” Develop the radar that lets you know when your colleague is using you– and someone will, trust me. Eventually someone will take credit for your work (ask me how I know), or betray a confidence, or a boss will keep moving the goalposts for a promotion, raise, or title change.

The North Court in the late 19th century. Museum no. E.1101-1989. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Museums aren’t easy to work in– there’s no field that’s always easy to work in– but we accept far too much because we love what we do. We are charmed, seduced, by the beauty of the objects, the mystery of the concepts, the scale of reach. But like a bad lover, museum administrators and boards can exploit our passion and use it against us. Don’t think they won’t.

If you don’t work in a museum, substitute your position title and/or field for the museum-specific words in this post. I believe everyone should be paid a fair wage, have decent working conditions, and the ability to have a robust and satisfying personal life as well as a job they find meaningful.

Safe as Houses

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Collections staff climb wobbly ladders all too often

Someone brought up the Plimoth Plantation workers concerns for safety, and how those outweighed the low wages in their drive to unionize. Uneven streets, low staffing levels and safety requirements placed on them– watching open fires– meant that they were unable to leave the houses even for “nature breaks.” These are all legitimate concerns and the expectation that workers will tolerate unforgiving, dangerous, or humiliating conditions because “it’s all for a good cause” is ridiculous (and, apparently, a darned good way to inspire a union).

The union effort I was part of was not driven solely by low wages. There were other factors, including an executive director with a large but fragile ego, who was inclined to operate rather whimsically. When the drive failed, the need for union was by no means diminished, especially given the retaliations that followed, including the case of a woman who went on maternity leave, only to find on her return that her job had not been saved for her, despite the museum’s need to comply with the FMLA and assurances made before she went on maternity leave.

Bad management makes it hard to get out of bed.

Do not think that cannot happen today, because changes to the terms of employment happen all the time in museums, even when the leave alternate work schedules have been negotiated and put in writing. Museums and their directors are, in general, no more benevolent than any other employer.

But safety seems basic, right? Well….would you like to be the sole person working in a 16,000SF historic house? Granted, no open fires, but you are still expected to answer the door and you will find that people will force their way into the house, even when you tell them the museum is closed. Lucky for you, none of them were threatening.

Some are more equal than others

Except of course the one who was. When the concerns were brought to the executive director, there was a surprising lack of support– It’s one incident. He’s crazy, so what? You’re overreacting. That’s the best neighborhood in [small town redacted]. House staff asked for mirrors at the door and minimum staffing levels of two. Someone suggested maybe Boy Scouts would be good to have come in on the weekend afternoons when the staff person is alone– Boy Scouts need service hours for college applications, after all. In less than a year, the house manager resigned. The exterior lights around the house were not fixed or replaced, and it was pitch dark and empty on the walk to the parking lot. Only when the executive director’s husband said, “Gosh, the parking lot seems kinda rapey when so it’s so dark” did the parking lot lights get replaced– but only the lot, because she used it to park in when she went out to dinner with board members.

The same employer expected staff to come to work even when the water had been shut off at the site all day for repair work; fortunately, they could be convinced to close sites to the public on those occasions. I have worked in modern museum and research facilities without heat, light, or water because no quarter was given, and no exceptions were made for you to work at a different, functioning site.

Toodles might as well have been on security

For years, I was the on-call person for all alarms at the collections facilities. This meant that in the middle of the night, I had to go to the sites if the alarms were tripped. I had to go in alone, and was expected to sweep the facility and site for intruders. Eventually, I talked the police into a policy of staying with me until the sweep was complete, but I can assure you that a 16,000SF facility is creepy AF at 3:00 in the morning when the security alarm has gone off and you don’t know if someone has broken in or not.

Employers send very clear signals about how much they value employees and they punish employees in ways both small and large. Punishing an entire division, and putting the director put on six months probation because the director and division staff tried to follow the employee handbook and procedures to deal with a new hire who turned out to be incompetent and unwilling to work? Not great. The new hire was transferred to another division where the same behaviour played out, and caused great frustration to her new supervisor and colleagues. Eventually, she quit when it became clear that she was going to be let go and could no longer manipulate the system. For a division director to be told, in a meeting with the executive director, that “This isn’t your fault, and this isn’t about you– you’re here because of what other people did,” is not reassuring in the least. Punishing people for trying to follow the rules when the HR staff won’t will not generate good morale, or retention.

Because I said so, that’s why

Employee leaves are another serious pressure point in museums. Often no one extra is hired and no tasks are reduced, but are instead spread across a variety of people. Sadly, when someone like a registrar takes an extended leave, and the museum refuses to reduce collecting or loans, someone has to process all the paperwork. Asking people who are already doing two jobs to take on a third is not uncommon. Directors reveal a great deal about themselves in the response they have when they’re approached with a request to reduce some of the workload because the person covering is burning out. Dismissing the request with “It’s just a few more weeks,” 10 weeks into a 16 week leave with major program planning starting on top of all the other tasks is not helpful, supportive, or collaborative.

Directors who say, “I’m the director, I always win,” when direct reports disagree with them, may find their direct reports seeking work elsewhere. I’ve heard directors complain about having to “seek consensus,” and chafe at having to convince boards to support changes to staff structure. Directors who chastise front line staff in front of the public and shake their fingers in the staff member’s face– and then turn out to be wrong about what they’re upset about, but refuse to apologize– are not as uncommon as you might hope.

Safety. Consistency. Respect. That’s all employees want, no matter where they work. They want policies that are applied equitably, and workplaces that do not place them in danger either by condition of the site or the attitude of the management. When any employer fails to provide those conditions, the result will be low morale and high turnover. The cost of those is significant, both in declining visitor experience and increased training.

There is Power in a Union

Most readers know that I have a fairly extensive museum background: my entire working life has been spent in museums. Over twenty-six years (right outta school, folks–this is the only life I’ve ever known), I worked my way up from Curatorial Assistant to Director of Collections. I’ve seen a fair number of museum directors and museum crises (deaccessioning, anyone? financial retrenchment? sexual harassment suits and countersuits?), I’ve hired and fired people, managed some large and rewarding projects, and met some amazing donors, researchers, and colleagues.

I still remember when I was front-line staff in the research collection, when you were on the phone 75 times a day, when patrons would walk in, stamp their feet and declare, “My taxes pay your salary! You have to do what I want!” Guess what? We didn’t, and that four cents didn’t go as far as you think.

When I see commentary on FB about the unionization at Plimoth Plantation, and read comments by people stating that until someone can PROVE that the director is making six figures and that the workers are TRULY in danger, they cannot support the unionization of workers because, well, the workers signed up for the poor pay; they knew what they were getting into; and it’s a MUSEUM, so it’s special, I wonder what those commenters are thinking, and what their work lives have been like.

Organizing a union is not an easy thing, so do not imagine that the workers at Plimoth rushed into this willy-nilly like they were voting for prom king and queen. It takes months of effort to canvas employees– work that must be done off-site and after working hours– to talk to them about working conditions and the benefit of union protection. Union reps go with employees who act as the ambassador, and on-site relationships can be testy when the person you thought was your friend and ally resists or resents your unionization effort. I know, because I’ve done it. In 1993-1995, the Missouri Historical Society went through an attempt to form a union that ultimately failed at the ballot box.

One moment that will always stick with me came after the union drive failed.  During the drive, an employee in Development argued with me that she didn’t need a union to protect her; her boss was nice. I pointed out that her boss wasn’t always going to be there; staff changes, and to have happy employment at the whim of one person was risky: a union offered protection from change at the whim of the director or your immediate supervisor. She was one of the “No” votes. Some months later, after her boss had been let go suddenly, and replaced by a more demanding woman with far less tolerance and far more quirks (and the original boss had been no peach), she approached me at a staff meeting. “You were right,” she said. “I see that now.”

There are two lessons in that experience: one, that it’s hard to imagine another person’s situation unless you’ve lived it, and two, that humans are bad at imagining, anticipating, or preparing for change (except those of us with anxiety disorders, who plan multiple responses to any situation). Unions help workers by setting rules that protect them from change, and by having input into things like, oh, HR manuals, where the worst case is that every policy statement ends with, “Or at the discretion of the director.” As much as museums need directors’ “vision” and leadership, museum employees often need protection as they try to implement those visions.**

Here’s the thing: on the 2015 Form 990 filed by Plimoth Plantation, the Executive Director’s salary is listed as $142,896*. Costumed interpreters are seasonal, often paid minimum wage ($11 in MA right now), and contribute directly to the museum visitors’ experience. Yes, the Director is responsible for raising funds, maintaining happy donors, and has overall responsibility for the museum’s success. Let’s say, realistically, the Director works 60 hours a week. For the 2015 tax year, that was $45 an hour. (For a 40 hour week, the base “wage” would be $68/hour.) Should  a director earn 4 or 6 times what front line staff earn? I suppose it’s better than the difference that exists in for-profit entities, but why are the interpreters paid so little? What about Colonial Williamsburg, another place where wages are low and expectations high? What about at the New-York Historical Society, where an archivist can make less annually than in a similar position in a similar organization in much lower cost-of-living Rhode Island?

When a museum pays its director six times what front line staff are paid, what does that tell us about its priorities? Does that imply that the director is more valuable to visitor experience than the interpreters, maintenance workers, and craftspeople? When was the last time the director spent a day over a fire, graciously fielding “gotcha” questions and recreating the past to inform the public? I’ll grant you the director probably does have days when she can’t pee for hours because she’s stuck in a meeting with droning donors, or on endless, useless, frustrating conference calls. And I further understand that the director bears the final responsibility for the museum’s financial health and visitor experience, but when was the last time a director got canned when a guest complained (reasonably or not)?

Why have we decided that museums get a pass? Why have we decided that the work is worth our (or others’) personal sacrifice? Why do we persist in making those excuses, even though we know MPA and MBAs are running museums using the tools and precepts of peak capitalism?

*You need an account, but I highly recommend searching Guidestar before you apply for a job with any 501(c)3. Form 990s (the non-profit annual filing form with the IRS) give you great snapshots of financial health– and an idea of what the top dogs make, and how an organization’s finances have changed over time. I never apply for a job without checking the financials.

** More on this another time– both HR policies and the “visions” of various directors.

Squirrel!

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It’s astonishing to me, in a way, that I haven’t posted about this before, but shockingly, I have not. Remember the need to keep warm in Princeton? Tested on at Ti? A compromise?

I updated that garment and wore a nearly-completed version at Ti last February but never wrote about the new version: the Squirrel Waistcoat.

Wool hand-quilted to a wool backing and lined with wool, I wore this almost finished at Fort Ti last February, and found it comfortable and cozy. I had imagined its state to be far worse than it was: with a lining in need of piecing, mangled seams, your worst nightmare come true. But no: all it really needed was some binding adjustment, not surprising considering that I stitched the binding by candlelight while chattering away with friends over cider.

The back pieces weren’t bound at all, but because I’d imagined this needed so much more work than it did, I put it aside until now, when I know I will want it for a weekend in Trenton, and another at Ti in December. All it took was a little time, and accepting that the bindings will not match.

This wasn’t a long, involved project, really, though I spent lunch hours and evenings working on it last January and February. It is, as so many things are, about patience. Patience and good needles.

The construction was based on the quilted waistcoat I made two years ago, with a pattern derived from Sharon Burnston’s research, using fitting adjustments I’d made to an earlier jacket pattern (long since abandoned due to living in New England).

I don’t fully remember how it fits best, over or under my stays, but I’ll get a couple of opportunities to test drive the layers in the next two weeks. And in the meantime? Squirrel!

Gathering Thoughts

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Someone must watch the baggage.

You only live once, as they say, so you might as well enjoy yourself, and have a nice apron while you’re at it.

At last I have finished the one I made to serve as a demonstration model for the apron class I taught for Crossroads of the American Revolution. Plain, unbleached linen (osnaburg), it will be a good, serviceable garment well suited to getting dirty through use. There’s a lot to be said for filth, and my first-ever apron has acquired a fine patina of stains and wear.

So why make a new one, aside from needing a teaching aid? Especially when you already HAVE a checked apron that’s looking used, and you have others in your wardrobe: why? One reason was the sheer cussedness of making the plainest, dullest, least-pretty item as finely and carefully as I could. Another was that the more I looked for apron data and examples, the more I noticed plain linen aprons. Yes: the preponderance of aprons are check, but looking at Sandby again made me realize that plain was documented, and under-represented in living history.

Sandby shows working women in checked and in blue aprons, but he also seems to depict women in plain, unbleached linen aprons, particularly the women in the street scenes. All the more reason to make up a plain apron, when your preference is portraying the urban underclass.

It’s also a good chance to hone one’s skills and keep in practice when you’re avoiding sewing the things that need sewing, like new shifts. And a basic project is meditative in a way that a new pattern is not: making stitches small and even is to sewing what scales are to piano playing or singing.

The first supervised apron I ever made is described here, and I’m pleased that my skills have improved since.

Stroke gathers are worth practicing, since they’re used on shifts and shirts as well as aprons; I’ve even used them on early 19th century garments to evenly distribute fine cotton lawn across the back of a gown. Sharon Burnston explains them here. I don’t know that there’s any one “trick” to them aside from patience and even stitches, but that “trick” will take you far in assembling pretty much every hand-made garment.

The Stuff of Life

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We all love things, don’t we? Things in the literal, corporeal, piled-in-a-heap sense: plates, shoes, books, chairs, necklaces, models. But what makes us love them? How deeply do we really love them?

Someone posed the questions, What would you take if you had to pack in a hurry to leave home forever? What will your kids remember you by?

Those are hard to unpack: how will other people remember us? Often, we have no idea what we mean to other people, even the ones closest to us. It’s easier for me to know what I would take or keep to remember someone else by– a single sleeve link; a wooden train engine; a stainless steel spoon; a necklace of handmade beads. None of those things reflects what is truly meaningful to me about them, that is, without my knowledge, these aren’t particularly interesting or aesthetic objects. What makes them special is the story I attach to them.

That is, of course, the key to interpreting objects in a social history context: the story is what makes the object more interesting, more important, more compelling. It’s the difference between a provenanced and an unprovenanced object, between a roundabout (or corner) chair in context, and one out of context.

Corner chair, probably John Goddard. Metropolitan Museum of Art, L2014.9.1a,b Lent by the Wunsch Collection, 2014

This is not to say that beautiful things are without value removed from context, but what makes that Goddard chair more compelling is knowing who made it, who it was made for, and when– knowing that it was part of a set of furniture ordered to furnish a house for Providence newlyweds, made in Newport by one of the hottest makers of the time. It’s the people who make the object more interesting, who make it worth having, seeing, holding on to– whether it’s a $6 million chair or a $25 mug, memories and stories make things compelling beyond our associations with them.

Part of a museum curator’s job is understanding those stories, placing objects in context, and connecting them back to their stories, to their makers, users, owners, and keepers. We may buy things because they’re beautiful or useful, but often we keep them because of their meaning– which is, more often than not, about people. Unprovenanced objects have less meaning; an object sold outside, or without, its context will not fetch as much. Value resides in people, not in things.

I think of this not only because a portion of my work is to recreate or reestablish the human contexts and connections for things, but because there is a human instinct to grab onto something tangible (like an object), rather than something ethereal (like a memory), even though what will sustain us in the end is not things, but other people, and our memories of them.

We Have Data

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My assistant misunderstood the exercise, and is disappointed that we will not be turning the government over to him.

Data Cat says it’s clear: Cats Rule.

What is clear is that 501 people from around the world (really: people responded from the US, Canada, Australia, Europe, Great Britain) were interested enough to see what we could find out by asking questions about what, how, and why we make and wear these funny clothes. I’m immensely grateful that Google tools are easy to use, as I can present Graphs Without Tears:

Here’s how that breaks down:
Strongly disagree: 1.8%
Disagree: 0.6 %
Neutral: 3%
Agree: 30.9%
Strongly agree: 63.7%

That is, 94.6% of respondents agree that they try to make the most period-correct clothing they can. The “strongly disagree” folks (9 of them) are interesting to me, because it’s a position that’s foreign to me. (This is why recording your email was an option, so I could clarify the data.)

Next, let’s look at Authenticity:

Here’s how that breaks down:
Strongly disagree: 2.6%
Disagree:.2 %
Neutral:1%
Agree:32.3%
Strongly agree:63.9%

And on the use of Primary Sources:

Yes: 94.4%
No: 5.6 %

When I dug into what sources people use, and consider “primary sources,” I realized I have more questions to ask, and there are some folks who could use some research help. Not handed to them on a plate or in a slideshow, but in terms of process, and in recognizing primary versus secondary sources, and how they can be used together for maximum understanding.

Then I asked, Why is documentation important to you? 

Those responses will also inform another round of questions. Many were very revealing of thought processes and approaches; some made me a little sad. A couple of people said, essentially, I don’t want other reenactors to laugh at me.  I think we can do better than that, right? Let’s try empathy on for size, and be as helpful as we can in guiding people to an understanding of what they want to do, and how best to go about it.

Because the answers varied in length, I started reading them to discern the essence of the response, and I came up with five categories; the sixth slice represents the answers left blank.

Accuracy: 73.4%
Immersion: 11.6%
Learning: 6.1%
Respect (of ancestors, history): 4.0%
Personal (fun; satisfaction): 0.5%
No answer: 4.5%

Accuracy is the main reason documentation matters to people, and they gave good answers for why accuracy mattered.

I want to have the resource itself, rather than someone else’s interpretation of it. If everyone bases their impression off of somebody else, rather than going to the source first, it becomes a game of telephone.

It’s like medical documentation. If it’s not written down, it didn’t happen. There’s enough open source imagery and documents on the internet, let alone physical ones or surviving garments, that there really is no excuse for wild supposition.

Because everything else is unsubstantiated conjecture or hearsay and feels inauthentic to me and to those around me.

Because I use my impression to communicate about history, and history is grounded in factual, accurate information.

Documentation is the truth behind the fiction of a living history impression.

Immersion had interesting answers, too:

I want to accurately portray my impression for the public. As an added bonus, wearing the correct clothing and using period correct items, helps me connect with the people I portray on a personal level.

Because the point of living history (to me) is to recreate the past enough to learn from the visceral experience of *living* it, so it needs to be pretty accurate! Documentation is how I can know if what I’m doing is accurate (or close to accurate).

It tells us a lot about the larger picture of what was going on: trade, manufacturing, diplomacy, economics

Learning:
Because if we’re teaching people history, teaching them something that’s wrong is a disservice and an embarrassment on our part. We have the ability to learn what’s correct.

Researching and documenting my impression is why I am proud to put on my clothes. I enjoy the challenge and detective work that comes before I ever cut into any fabric.

Respect:
We owe it to our ancestors to tell their stories as accurately as possible.

For the class of person I represent, documentation can be very difficult to get at. Some documentation indicates that the garment(s) in question possibly existed, 3 pieces of documentation is ideal, but 2 will sometimes do, depending on my instincts about something. I have regretted only going for two in the past because my intention is generally to represent something very common. Documentation is important because it shows respect for the historical people I am trying to represent, it shows respect for my own work and time and it shows respect to the hobby (which, in historical circles, is often far more important than people give it credit for).

There’s a lot to think about in considering what you all think about, and I am really grateful for your help! As I look at the answers over the next days/weeks, I’ll let you know what else I see, and once I figure out how to ask the next round, there will be more questions! Thanks again! (And if you didn’t get to participate this time, no worries: you can join in next time; the easiest way is to follow the Kitty Calash FB page, but I’ll also post a link here.)

Taking the Census. oil on canvas, 1854. Francis William Edmonds. Gift of Diane, Daniel, and Mathew Wolf, in honor of John K. Howat and Lewis I. Sharp, 2006 2006.457 Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Clear and Present Danger

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A Female Philosopher in Extasy at Solving a Problem. London, England; about 1770 Mezzotint and engraving with watercolor on laid paper
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Scandal and outrage rock the reenacting world as reading comprehension lags and The Gentle Author is accused of presentism– or, at least, that’s the most reasonable translation I have for comments made about me last night on social media, including:

Yeah- she’s got great stuff. But I feel awful that she fell into a modern-think trap.

and, my favorite,

I’d say its a post modern Critical Theory think trap. Frankfort [sic] School is gushing from the pores.

Let’s take this apart, shall we? The Frankfurt School (not this place) was a social and political movement based in Frankfurt am Main in the immediate post-World War I years. After 1933, the school, formally known as the Institute for Social Research, moved to Columbia University in New York city. Being insulted by association with the likes of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno is a new experience for me; I’m more usually associated with the ideas of Mary Daly and Jacques Derrida but I’ll take backhanded intellectual flattery where I can get it. (Also, thanks for thinking of me, but Kitty does not require your pity.)

More seriously, the postings last night (which happened while I was in class and have been deleted) brought to mind two powerful issues in living history and the reenacting community: Presentism and Feminism (with its unholy shadow, mansplaining).

Let’s go over these:

Presentism: uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.

Feminism: The radical notion that women are people. the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.

My recent post about MoAR’s Occupied Philadelphia event was accused of presentism, or “falling into a modern-think trap” and a “Critical Theory trap.” Here’s how that post came about:

Images were posted to Facebook, and I was tagged in one that showed me in the midst of a crowd that included members of the 17th Regiment of Infantry, one of the forces that occupied Philadelphia in 1777. My cousin, ever the wag, commented:

click to enlarge in a new window

“I suppose you hang out with Confederates, too,” had some bite. What surprised me was my well-educated and thoughtful cousin’s facile conflation of Confederates and British. Is the world that easily black-and-white, good-and-bad, Manichaen? Not usually, and certainly not usually to my cousin. Explanations seemed in order. Why had I done what I did, and what did I do? What was Occupied Philadelphia about?*

To me, it offered the chance for some complicated interpretation that’s more readily accessible via living history than by exhibit panel, or at least significantly more engaging than text. How do you elucidate the complexity of the American Revolution? How do you get people to think about the past in the past’s terms? How do you get them to query and interrogate their accepted understandings of history?

Apparently that position towards living history– that it is complicated, worthy of criticism, can be used to create a complicated look at the past, and can be understood through cultural criticism– is deserving of the dog-whistle scorn of men hiding behind false names on social media. It elicits from them suggestions for interpretation that include impressions already being done, and referenced in the original post. It elicits suggestions based on 1811 paintings of Philadelphia, because of course, nothing helps illuminate 1777 Philadelphia like a genre painting made 34 years later.

If anything, I was suggesting that complicated interpretations (that is, showing how an “occupying force” might be “good” for the population) can further an understanding of the past that helps us understand the present. Isn’t that the mission of most history organizations? Understanding the past to illuminate the present and shape the future? It’s unsettling to realize so immediately how people who practice history use it to reinforce the status quo, and use misreadings of interpretation to further their own sense of superiority.

That’s where feminism comes in: suggesting “new” roles for women in living history (Laundry? How ’bout being a Quaker?) on a page dedicated to women’s history is a dizzying feat of sexist thinking. It is particularly delightful given that the Gentle Author and her associate, Our Girl History, are among the people who have suggested new roles for women, and have organized events that included suggested roles, and in fact required them. But please, tell me what to do. Belittle me by association with some of the leading critics of the 20th century. Because when you do, you reveal yourself not only to me, but to others.

Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. Oil on canvas by Charles Jervas.

As Our Girl History wrote recently, women’s voices in living history are too often silenced in the present by excuse of the past. That anti-feminist approach was on view last night, and continues to be the default setting for many men in living history. It reflects a persistent bias against intelligent, educated women, like the Female Philosopher.  It reflects a persistent position that women should “know their place:”

The greatest sin a woman could commit was to participate in any sort of public life, be it theatre, politics, or social causes – this made her immediately ‘difficult’

Margaret Perry on “difficult” women in the long 18th century.)

It will not remain a viable position for long.

 

*Brits-as-Nazis is not my origination, but the distillation of a comment made about the dedication of a monument at Guilford courthouse and subsequently reported to me. Despite a commenter’s attempt to attribute the equation to me, it is not mine, as should have been clear from “in certain circles.” Not my circles, not my monkeys.