18th century, authenticity, common people, common soldier, Events, interpretation, living history, New Jersey, Revolutionary War
Or, Confusion into Confusion.
Docents and volunteers: the backbone of any non-profit organization, right?
Well…sort of. I’ve worked with docents for more than a decade, and along the way I’ve learned what does and doesn’t work. What does work is intensive engagement and participation, though the occasional shock to the system can be necessary and useful. For special events, though, and in cases of turf, diplomatic relations must be opened with the enemy early and often.
That is not to fault the organizers of the “Order Out of Confusion” event this past weekend, for I was one of the people organizing the civilian, non-marching end of things, and due to turbulence in my own life, I failed to plan adequately in the arena of Docent Relations.
We had a Retaliator, a Pine Robber, a Quaker, and a Slave-Owning Patriot. We managed a debate or two over slavery. We begged people to take the Quaker home with them. But we did not occupy the house, for the house was occupied by red-shirted volunteers who gave at least some of us the five cent Condescension Tour punctuated with, “But I suppose you’re not interested in that.”
Actually, that look was one of sheer disbelief, sir, at the farm implements in a bedroom, the tidy piles of perfectly formed ashen coals under the cookware in the fireplace, and the roomful of flax accented with a snake charmer’s basket. In my line of work, I enjoy house tours, but find they generally go better when tour guides don’t point out all the flaws to me. Complaining about the state (which owns the site) and onerous regulations that make repairs expensive will also increase my look of horror and disbelief. But really, if you want full-on horror, kindly inform the Quaker that Japanese POW camps “really weren’t that bad” because we are thriving on confusion today.
The volunteers were thrilled by the marchers, and were clearly very positive about the event. They love Craig House, and the battlefield, but that sense of pride and ownership made it impossible for them to share the house with us, or to see us as anything but invaders– an Army of Occupation in our own right.
It’s my fault that I’m not an agile enough negotiator to convince recalcitrant octogenarians that my friends and I are safe to play with and will respect the house, and it’s my fault that I didn’t put in place all the lessons I’ve learned in the past decade. Then again, I don’t know that I would have had time to travel for meetings with the volunteers to generate buy in and support, given the maelstrom that was my life this past spring.
But it’s a lesson well-learned: interpreters will read voraciously, acquire tons of material, and turn that research into appropriately-dressed characters making interpretive points, but unless you work with the site and its volunteers or staff to create agreement about presentation, you’ll get about half the value of the work you put into the planning.
Many heartfelt thanks to everyone who participated, and to the organizers for letting me try out my interpretive model. Next time, I know I have to work with the site staff and volunteers to make sure that execution matches vision.
Sometimes I find that working with sites with regular docents and volunteers is just lovely and we all get along splendidly and are pleased to have one another around…and sometimes I feel as though I’ve stepped into a nasty turf war that I wasn’t aware that I and my fellow reenactors had apparently started. (Like the docent who yelled at us to “Use the handrails!” every time we went up or down the steps…oddly territorial about her stairs, that one.)
Mark Texel said:
To Kirsten and all the civilians who participated at the Craig House last weekend: My most sincere apologies this unfortunate sequence of events unfolded as they did. Clearly, we (the State Park Service) made a mistake somewhere in fully communicating to our Friends organization their role in this event; and likewise ensuring they understood that costumed, living history professionals would be portraying period correct roles and as such would be occupying and interpreting the house for the day. Knowing the Friends give guided tours wearing modern polo shirts, we would have never tried to incorporate this into the intricate, costumed living history planned by our civilian participants. Doomed from the state. When we (those on the march) arrived at the house and I saw all the civilians outside, I honestly made the assumption everyone had just come out to cheer the troops and provide us with much needed refreshments. It wasn’t until later that day I learned this was not the case; that folks had been relegated to portraying their roles oustide instead of instide the house as planned. In hindsight, I should have dug deeper at the time to figure out the situation and in my role as Parks Director corrected it immediately. I confess I was dealing with some heat fatigue at that time and somewhat distracted figuring out how to get my body temp back in check. So in addition to all of the others points Kirsten’s fine blog raises, it also underscores the need to double-check ALL planning details and not make assumptions. With humble apologies to all, Mark Texel.