Costumed Interpretation one day workshops

Just a heads up about some one day workshops on costumed interpretation that we are offering in collaboration with our pals from the Historic Royal Palaces and Past Pleasures, the UK’s longest running costumed interpretation company.

Performing the Past
Workshop 1: costumed interpretation on a budget
Workshop 2: creating historic costume

Past Pleasures at Hampton Court

Past Pleasures at Hampton Court

These unique one day workshops are perfect for heritage professionals and volunteers who want to learn about managing and planning costumed interpretation from the experts.

  • Chris Gidlow (Head of Live Interpretation HRP) will examine how heritage managers can be strategic about costumed interpretation.
  • Through a series of talks and workshops Past Pleasures team Mark Wallis and Kate Howard will offer valuable tips and advice. They will assist participants as they engage with best practice and identify models and strategies which will work for them.

Workshop 1: Monday 24th November 2014

Workshop 2: Spring 2015 Date TBC

 10:00-16:30 Museum of English Rural Life

Booking: £40 per workshop (includes lunch)

For further information, or to book a place contact:
0118 378 8660
merlevents@reading.ac.uk

Costumed Interpretation: an interview with Bill Weldon (Colonial Williamsburg)

In yesterday’s blog post on Colonial Williamsburg I mentioned some of the challenges of designing costumed interpretation which told a range of well-known and hidden stories. While I was over there I was lucky enough to meet with Bill Weldon (Creative Director, Revolutionary City, Colonial Williamsburg) who was a great help in shaping our Performing the Past Summer School. I wanted to find out a bit more about how you get into this slightly unusual line of work so I posed some questions:

Reading the Declaration of Independence

One of the CWF team performing the daily reading the Declaration of Independence

·     Bill, how did you get into costumed interpretation?

I began acting in high school, and majored in theatre in college, but decided not to pursue a career as an actor.  I did continue to perform as a folk singer and guitar player.  When I began working at Colonial Williamsburg, my love of acting returned as there were bountiful opportunities to portray historical characters.

·      Which character do you enjoy playing the most?

While I have had the good fortune to portray a diverse group of historical figures, the portrayal that has meant the most to me by far is that of Patrick Henry, Virginia’s legendary orator and statesman.  Henry’s declaration, “Give me liberty, or give me death,” on March 23, 1775 motivated his countrymen to take up arms and seek independence from Great Britain.  That was but one of many epic speeches and seminal events that Henry was a central figure in during the American Revolution, and the formative years of the early republic.  He is a delight to portray because he was such a “lightning rod” figure, people tended to love him or hate him.  After Patrick Henry, I am most fond of portraying William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Pacific Ocean, 1804-1806.

·         Do you have a favourite venue to perform at?

I have never met a venue I didn’t think was workable, but the best of course are the actual historic sites where the characters operated, the places  that they are associated with.  For me, nothing matches portraying Patrick Henry in the restored and reconstructed environs of Williamsburg, on the ground where he made history.  I feel the same about the opportunities that I had to portray William Clark at the reconstructed site at Fort Clatsop near the mouth of the Columbia River at the Pacific, the expedition’s winter camp at the terminus of their exploration of the American west. 

·         Which event are you most proud of organising?

I am most proud of my role as one of the creators and the artistic director for Revolutionary City, Colonial Williamsburg’s outdoor drama that ran from March through November, 2006 through  2013.  Revolutionary City consisted of a series of scenes that revealed and interpreted actual events that occurred in Williamsburg from the spring of 1774 through September of 1781, the years of political and social upheaval and the war for American independence.  (For commentary on the outdoor drama please see: here and here)

·         How important is training and research to costumed interpretation?

Research is the bedrock for legitimate costumed interpretation.  All historical interpretation must be built on a foundation of well researched documentation.  Otherwise it has no validity as an instrument for education and social provocation.  There are so many elements necessary to the creation of effective interpretation; research (including language use, deportment, social norms and habits, etc) performing skills,  narrative construction, etc. These can only be accomplished through comprehensive training process.

·         What one last piece of advice would you give to anybody thinking about getting into costumed interpretation?

Make an honest assessment of your skill sets and sensibilities to determine how you can best contribute to the field of historical interpretation, and thereby realize the greatest degree of self-realization and fulfillment.  Ask yourself if you possess the passion that will motivate you to commit to the research, training, and rigors of daily public engagement that are essential to succeeding as an interpreter.

Bill as Patrick Henry

Bill as Patrick Henry

If you want to find out more about costumed interpretation (and the Colonial Williamsburg perspective) look into joining our Summer School Performing the Past

Colonial Williamsburg

In case the last post about my trip to the CZAP Project excavation in Kurdistan didn’t make you jealous enough, this post deals with a trip to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, USA. I was invited over to discuss our exciting new collaboration on the Performing the Past Summer School which teaches the basics of costumed interpretation.

After the crowds had gone home

After the crowds had gone home

As I mentioned in last year’s postcard, Colonial Williamsburg is a hard place to get your head around due to the sheer range of facilities. This time I was staying right in the heart of the Historic Area for two weeks and I got to see the full scope of what Williamburg has to offer.

The Governor's mansion

The Governor’s mansion

Firstly the site has it’s own state of the art museum and stores which hold both examples of furnishings and objects from the period and the wonderful Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. Behind the scenes its educational facilities are also top notch and include a TV studio where they film footage for their Electronic Field Trips.

The new-old tinsmith's shop

The new-old tinsmith’s shop

The Foundation also oversees the original and reconstructed buildings which are furnished to the standards of the time. In these buildings you may find costumed guides giving tours or the craftspeople and apprentices who form Williamsburg’s ‘trades’ department. With everything from baskets to wig making going on you can spend days just walking around talking to these extremely knowledgeable individuals. However, I was there for two reasons 1) to look at the live interpretation and (2) to explore my research into the reintroduction of ‘hidden’ or ‘silenced’ voices at heritage sites.

Great Hope Plantations

Great Hopes Plantation

On the second point, as Gable and Handler (1997)‘s study of the site makes clear, Williamsburg has always had trouble reconciling the nostalgic elements of its reconstruction with the less palatable aspects of its past. Since 1979 the site has had an African American programme which tells the stories of these enslaved and freed people who made up half of the population of the city. I attended an incredibly moving workshop called ‘Workin’ the Soil, Healing the Soul’ which was delivered in third person and took visitors through the experiences of enslaved people at a plantation site. It’s easy to miss Great Hopes if you jump on the bus to the Historic Area but I would urge visitors to take time to talk with these incredible interpreters. It is challenging but you need to experience it.

'The Hated Spy'

‘The Hated Spy’

The challenges of telling the whole story of Williamsburg can also be witnessed in the Historic Area where staff are constantly discussing and debating how programmes such as ‘Revolution in the Streets’ can convey the full range of historical lived experiences. Watching ‘The Hated Spy’ or ‘Jumpin’ the Broom’ made it hard, for me at least, to simply tune out and enjoy the beauty of the place and forced me to engage with these complex and contradictory aspects of the past. As I was over there on a research grant I got to talk to the team behind this research and interpretation. Williamsburg as an organisation, and individual interpreters, sometimes ‘get flack’ for their depiction of the past but it’s clear that they’re tough on themselves and are always trying to improve what they do. It’ll be interesting to see how the site develops over the next couple of years and I’m really looking forward to welcoming some of their team on ‘Performing the Past’ this summer.

The fife and drums

The Fifes and Drums

AHRC: Glastonbury Revealed

How do you interpret a site which is best known for its myths? The University of Reading is being featured on the AHRC website today in a film which examines a recent research project with Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset, UK. Find out more about how Professor Roberta Gilchrist (Department of Archaeology, University of Reading) and a team of experts disentangled a complex web of archival documents and stored objects related to historic excavations at the site (1904 – 1979). Museum Studies Programme Director Dr Rhi Smith appears in the video, talking about her collaboration with the Abbey and the challenges of developing an interpretation strategy which respected the complex history and spiritual significance of the site.

The AHRC have provided the following information on the project:

“The site of Glastonbury Abbey is one of the important ancient heritage sites in the UK.

A focus for many people who value the spiritual and historical resonances of the place, it is best known for its legendary reputation as the burial place of King Arthur and as the earliest Christian foundation in Britain, allegedly founded by Joseph of Arimathea, the great-uncle of Christ, in AD 63.

A team of AHRC-funded researchers, led by Professor Roberta Gilchrist of Reading University, has re-evaluated the history of Glastonbury Abbey and its environs and disentangled the rich but not always accurate myth from historical reality.

Among the findings are: fresh evidence to confirm that the abbey site was indeed occupied in the 5th or 6th century, before the foundation of the Saxon monastery; identification of an early timber building with large post pits associated with fragments of imported Roman amphorae, dated c AD 450-550 and often associated with very high status secular (ie royal) settlement; analysis of glass and metal fragments suggesting that the glass-working furnaces at Glastonbury represent the earliest evidence for significant glass production in Saxon England; and a great deal more.

The project has worked closely with local groups and the general public and outreach activities have been crucial to its work and its findings.

This film examines the new evidence unearthed by the project and how researchers have worked with the Abbey Museum, conservators and the public to explore the history of this rich and extraordinary site.”

Museums Association Conference 2013

For those who aren’t in the know, the Museums Association conference is the big event of the year for museum bods in the UK. This year it was in Liverpool which also gave us the chance to look around some world class museums. I am only one woman so I couldn’t make every session. I am also unable to get into all of the individual debates here (that’s why I have lectures!) so what follows are some of my highlights with links which you can follow up at your leisure.

Liverpool Museum

Liverpool Museum from my window (with rain!)

On the first day I got up early to attend a breakfast tour of the recently opened Museum of Liverpool. The Museum was opened earlier this year by a 6 year old boy who wrote in and asked nicely. This story demonstrates the commitment of the museum to the people of Liverpool. The displays balance celebration of people and place with more serious discussions of controversial historical and contemporary issues.

After a quick run to across the docks to the conference centre we were welcomed by a moving keynote from Ricardo Brodsky, Museum of Memory and Human Rights, Santiago, Chile. The keynotes are always interesting and sometimes controversial. Helen Goodman (shadow culture minister) was pro-museum but talked more about export bans and gifts in lieu than funding the care of existing collections. The Plenary Debate: Crisis? What crisis? between David Fleming (Director, National Museums Liverpool) and Peter Bazalgette (Chair, Arts Council England) dealt with the impact of funding cuts. The Rebalancing our Culture Capital Report was mentioned by several speakers (including new President of the Museums Association David Anderson) and some tweets behind Sir Peter Bazalgette in the plenary debate illustrated the frustration felt by many in the audience. Have a look at the hashtag #museums2013 on twitter to follow the debates. The Museums Association also has summaries up on their website.

MA conference

MA conference

It should be noted that when choosing activities I engaged in some obvious nepotism by attending sessions run by my colleagues e.g. ‘Overcoming your fears of managing volunteers’ and the University Museums Group session which launched a new report. Other than that I found the ‘Emotional Museum’ strand particularly thought provoking and it included my star session, a workshop on LGBT activism in museums. On a related note the Social Justice Alliance for Museums launched on the first day and the three conference themes The Therapeutic Museum, Tomorrow’s World and The Emotional Museum all referred to the bigger question of who and what museums should be for.

Teddy

Teddy

On a lighter note I had great fun mooching around the exhibition area, quizzing people about digital developments and picking up free pens (and teddy bears). However, there were also a number of sessions somewhere in the middle, giving concrete examples of how high concept ideas can be put into practice.The ‘I Tweet Dead People’ session from York Museum and Imagemakers was a great example of the kind of innovation which can marry new technology together with engaging interpretation. This is what the conference is really about for me, learning new things, meeting new people and developing new ways of moving forward together.

I tweet dead people

I tweet dead people

Postcard from Samos

Warrior Samos Museum

Warriors Samos Archaeological Museum

I was on the Greek Island of Samos recently (hence the lack of updates) and visited the Archaeological Museum in Samos Town (or Vathy). It houses some beautiful objects most notably the statue of a colossal kouros (a representation of a male youth). The sculpture can be seen in a custom made building opened in 1987 to deal with its massive scale. For most of the time I was there visitors were clustered around the base of the statue having their photos taken.

Kouros Samos Archaeological Museum

Kouros – Samos Archaeological Museum

I personally preferred the collection of smaller items in the adjacent building which used to house a library/ archive (guidebooks differed in opinion). Samos’ location meant that following the flowering of its own culture in the 6th century BC it was involved in trade or conflict with a number of different civilizations. These influences can be seen in the collection which includes some beautiful little Egyptian pieces.

Display cases Samos Archaeological Museum

Display cases Samos Archaeological Museum

As you can see from the images the museum was far from over-interpreted. What it did very well was use stands and subtle reconstruction to make even the smallest of objects interesting. Below is a tiny fragment of pottery which nonetheless jumped out at me. I used to work at the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology and it was great to see what I think might be a whole aulos being played.

Aulos - Samos Archaeological Museum

Aulos – Samos Archaeological Museum

Before visiting I had been reading Monti and Keene’s (2013) Museums and Silent Objects where they ask whether less impressive objects can be displayed in a way which attracts and keeps the interest of visitors. In this museum the Kouros is clearly the star but by splitting up the larger pieces and the smaller items and by using the simplest of all display techniques (interesting arrangement within a case) curators made sure that it did not overpower the rest of the objects. These tiny objects would have been worn against the skin or clutched in the hand. As such they connect us with individual and imperfect humans rather than their idealised forms.

Heads -Samos Archaeological Museum

Heads -Samos Archaeological Museum

Glastonbury Abbey Abbot’s Kitchen Conservation Project

My research examines the interpretation of Glastonbury Abbey and I visited yesterday to see what’s going on. I found the Abbot’s Kitchen covered in scaffolding as part of a conservation and re-interpretation project.

Glastonbury Abbey Abbot's Kitchen Conservation

Glastonbury Abbey Abbot’s Kitchen Conservation

The Abbot’s Kitchen is a fascinating piece of architecture with a varied history. It was built sometime between 1320 and 1370 as part of a large complex which served the Abbot’s guests and speaks of the medieval wealth the Abbey. Given its relatively domestic function it also holds stories of religious strife. The Dissolution of the Abbey in 1539 saw the man it served, Abbot Richard Whiting, being executed, with his head put on a spike above the Abbey gatehouse. Immediately following this it was home to group of Huguenot weavers fleeing religious persecution on the continent. In 1683 it also housed a Quaker meeting which was forcibly broken up and resulted in 10 Friends being sent to jail.

Glastonbury Abbey Abbot's Kitchen Conservation

Glastonbury Abbey Abbot’s Kitchen Conservation

It was eventually used as a cow shed but drew the interest of antiquarians and artists with its unique design. Pugin visited Glastonbury Abbey and drew elevations of the kitchen. It was well known to figures such as John Ruskin and was replicated in neo-Gothic architecture. The ‘laboratory’ to the right of Oxford Museum of Natural History entrance is based on the Abbot’s Kitchen and I even found a summer house replica on St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall. The Abbey is running an exhibition on the Kitchen which deals with these issues, and a case full of tourist images demonstrates its ongoing iconic status.

Glastonbury Abbey Abbot's Kitchen Conservation

Glastonbury Abbey Abbot’s Kitchen Conservation

As for the future of the Kitchen, more can be found out in the exhibition and its accompanying video interview with project staff. Historical kitchen expert Peter Brears has recently been able to provide information about the layout of the medieval building, even identifying the presence of a raised walkway where chefs could watch different workers. A conservation team is currently hard at work stabilising the building before re-interpretation can take place. Visitors will be able to get tours of the scaffolding over the next couple of weeks but I got a sneak preview. Here are some more photographs of what I saw…please enjoy and think about contributing to the Rescue our Ruins project which is making this possible.

Glastonbury Abbey Kitchen Conservation

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Glastonbury Abbey Abbot’s Kitchen Conservation

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Glastonbury Abbey Abbot’s Kitchen Conservation

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Glastonbury Abbey Abbot’s Kitchen Conservation

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Glastonbury Abbey Abbot’s Kitchen Conservation

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Glastonbury Abbey Abbot’s Kitchen Conservation

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Glastonbury Abbey Abbot’s Kitchen Conservation

 

Postcard from America 4 The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Anybody who has visited ‘the Met’ will know that it is impossible to summarize it in a single blog post. The place is humongous and I spent a lot of my time walking in circles.The Museum traces its roots back to 1866 when a group of Americans agreed to establish a national museum of art. The Museum opened in its current location on 5th Avenue in 1880 and provides more information on its own history via its website.

Medieval gallery at The Met

Medieval gallery at The Met

What I found interesting about the Met is that it defines itself as a museum of art in its mission statement but has large holdings of what might be termed archaeological material. As the work of Prof. Christopher Whitehead has illustrated the line between these kinds of objects is fuzzy and has an interesting place in the history of the development of academic disciplines in the 19th century. In the Met archaeological objects are displayed largely as pieces of decorative art. The visitor is encouraged to appreciate their aesthetic values over their social or economic function. However, the museum also uses it’s own architecture to create room sets which provide context for individual items. This works particularly well with the medieval collections in highlighting their function within larger religious buildings.

Frank Lloyd Wright room set at the Met

Frank Lloyd Wright room set at the Met

After an hour of aimless wandering I made a decision to seek out material which I couldn’t see in Europe. After visiting a haunting photographic exhibition Photography and the American Civil War I took about half an hour to find the American galleries. Unfortunately I was there a few months too early to see a new permanent gallery devoted to the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany but I did get to see some examples of his work in the current displays. Again, there were room sets, including a Frank Lloyd Wright room which I would have happily moved into.

Being a museum geek, what really impressed me was the visible storage which was accompanied by computer screens where one could type in the location of an object and get more information. It tested my jet lag diminished memory to get the numbers to the machine, but it was a great place to explore. They also had a wall decorated in tiny images of all of the gallery’s acquisitions drawn from their database. It created a striking visual effect and could be explored while you loitered on the benches in that space.

Visible Storage at the Met

Visible Storage at the Met

This might seem like an extremely partial account of such a world famous museum. A museum where you can get hand rolled sushi in the cafeteria and where every object is recognisable from a text book.However, visiting a museum with such vast collections can be overwhelming and these smaller spaces for exploration and reflection are a useful antidote.

Postcard from America #3 The American Museum of Natural History New York

Entrance American Museum Natural History

Entrance American Museum Natural History

This postcard is a bit delayed but it relates to a museum which just blew me away during my time in America. Following on from Carlisle, PA I traveled by train to New York City. As this was my first visit I tried to see as many museums in as short an amount of time as possible. My first stop was the American Museum of Natural History which is on the Upper West Side, looking out over Central Park. The entrance (above) is almost overwhelming with its dinosaurs, murals and quotes from Roosevelt (after whom the hall is named).

Diorama 1 AMNH

Diorama 1 AMNH

The Museum was founded in 1869 and is famous for its use of habitat dioramas. The most notable example of this is the Akeley Hall of African Mammals which opened in 1936. I am always a bit wary of dioramas, as in the UK outdated shop dummy dioramas were the stuff of childhood comedy or terror. However, the hall is named for Carl Akeley (1864-1926), a man who took taxidermy and dioramas to the level of an art form. It is difficult to make out in these photographs, but standing in front of these scenes you feel as though you have been transported to the location in question. Many of the observations were made through expeditions, and the dioramas also convey the strength of emotion which these explorers must have felt upon watching animals in the wild. You can find out more about Carl Akeley via Milgrom’s infinitely readable and informative (2011) ‘Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy’.

Diorama 2 AMNH

Diorama 2 AMNH

It becomes tricky when this technique is applied to human beings. Perhaps more worryingly when it is applied to certain human beings and not to others. This image of a Tibetan couple in Lhasa with the Potala in the background is pure Shangri-La (see Dr Clare Harris’ ‘The Museum on the Roof of the World’ for more on the way that Tibet has been represented in museums). The museum does have a slightly retro feel but I wondered whether every audience member picked up on the significance of the timelag. The political consequences of presenting frozen images of ‘exotic’ cultures needs not a blog post but several books to discuss and I’ll try to add some references in the comments section.

Tibetan diorama AMNH

Tibetan diorama AMNH

The animal collections are also challenging. Some species were being killed for taxidermy at a time when they were under extreme pressure. Carl Akeley himself realised this and, after seeing gorillas in the wild, actually established a reserve in Virunga. The Museum is well aware of its commitment to the preservation of the planet, with the Roosevelt quote ‘The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased; and not impaired in value’ adorning the entrance hall.

Overall its slightly retro feel was a dream come true to a museum professional. The dioramas are both popular and an important record of how we have thought about and represented our world. Yet the timelag in representation does cause problems in places. No doubt the staff grapple with these complexities on a daily basis, and it will be interesting to see how reflexive museology and anthropology translates to the galleries over the coming decades.

Silchester Excavation Open Day July 2013

Students in woad

Students in woad

I was out at the  Silchester Excavation site today for one of their annual Open Days. For those of you that don’t know, the Silchester Excavation is examining one insula (or block) in the large Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum and the Iron Age settlement Calleva which lies beneath it. Since 1997 Prof Mike Fulford and Amanda Clarke have been leading a team of dedicated excavators at the site. Silchester is the University of Reading Archaeology Department’s training dig and students make up the majority of the ‘diggers’.

Visitors

Visitors on the viewing platform

Students also get involved in the interpretation of the site, this year under the guidance of freelance museum educator Ross McGauran. The site welcomes school groups and has a training pit, Roman garden, tours and activities for visitors to the site. I was also really impressed by their head-sets which linked visitors not to a pre-recorded tour but to a microphone. This meant that site directors could jump around the trenches providing information while visitors listened from a viewing platform. On a windy day like today this was much needed.

This kind of activity also gives students an opportunity to communicate their passion for the subject with the public. In recent blog posts I seem to be repeatedly talking about how easily the popular image of apathetic students is overturned when you look at heritage volunteering. Academics and professionals can assist in this process by providing support and giving students a platform to express themselves. To link back to a previous post on this blog two of the students were Nerdfighters and the three of us chatted about how we had been inspired to use social media to communicate about arts and heritage. I am currently thinking about how I can integrate social media training into my teaching to help students in this process. The students that I met at Silchester were excellent communicators and the kids who visited were enthralled. I walked back up the path at the end of the day to find a 7 and 3 year old ‘being archaeologists’ by picking up every piece of gravel. If you want to be similarly inspired the next Open Day is on 3rd August…

Silchester Insula IX

Silchester Insula IX