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

Careers in Museums #3 ‘everybody’s talkin’

This week my colleagues have been sending me some interesting online articles about careers in museums: top tips; what it’s like to work in museums at the moment; and the pros and cons of a career in the sector. I thought I’d share them with you so you can get another perspective on museum work.

Museum work???

Museum work??????

The Ministry of Curiosity blog offers an ‘insider’s view to London’s museum-centric social life’. It’s always a fun read and their ‘top tips for getting into museums’ post is no exception. Their points about career funneling, tailored volunteering and the importance of networking and finding a mentor definitely resonate with the advice of most museum professionals that I know.

When You Work At a Museum is a fun Tumblr based blog/ GIF-fest and their crowd-sourced response to a request asking for advice on working in museums ‘so you think you want to work in a museum’ makes some really good points. 5. Don’t be smug and and 3. Be flexible are particularly important.

From a more official perspective here is a blog post from somebody with Arts Council England controversially titled ‘reasons not to work in museums’.The post recognises some of the difficulties of working in the sector at the moment but ends by celebrating the hard working people who make the most of a less than ideal situation.

Finally the wonderful Emily Graslie makes some thought provoking wider points about career planning and a work-life balance in this ‘finding your dream job’ video, which applies to the museum sector and beyond.

 

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

Central Zagros Archaeological Project Bestansur

If the blog has seemed quiet for a little while it’s because Museum Studies at Reading went international during the Easter vacation. The first trip was with the Department of Archaeology’s Central Zagros Archaeological Project (CZAP). As you’ll see Kurdistan is beautiful in the spring and the people were extremely welcoming. I was over there to give some advice on the ‘public archaeology’ side of things and to explore the potential to develop some interpretation with and for local people.

The fields around Bestansur

The fields around Bestansur

The CZAP project focuses on the Central Zagros region of west Iran and east Iraq and explores the beginnings of the Neolithic. The project combines techniques from archaeological science and social archaeology to understand the move to farming in this area of the Fertile Crescent. Some of the earliest layers are 9700 years old so specialists are looking for tiny traces of past activity using techniques such as micro-morphology.

The team getting ready to dig first thing in the morning

The team getting ready to dig first thing in the morning

One of our students Mat sieving for tiny fragments

One of our students Mat sieving for tiny fragments

This kind of project difficult to explain to non-specialists. One of my dissertation students Mat Britten (pictured above) was also on the trip as part of his research into public understanding of archaeological science – specifically micro-morphology. He is lucky to have micro-morph expert Dr Wendy Matthews as his other supervisor. She is extremely well versed in trying to explain this process to archaeologists and non-archaeologists alike.

With Mat and the rest of the team helping I tried to see what we could do on the interpretation front. The local city of Sulaimaniyah (you’ll find lots of spellings and pronunciations of this) has a fantastic museum which recently received UNESCO funding for some refurbishment. We worked with their staff to bring in teachers and create resources in Kurdish.

Slemani Museum

Slemani Museum

In the UK something like this would probably take years to organise but the Director of Education for the region managed to get 28 teachers and 5 regional supervisors to the site only 4 days after we approached him with the idea. It was really impressive to see this level of commitment to archaeology, and the teachers seemed as interested in the behind the scenes science labs as they were in the site itself.

Mat explaining micro-morphology to teachers back at the labs

Mat explaining micro-morphology to teachers back at the labs

Later in the season the chemistry teachers in the region also visited to find out more about the scientific processes being undertaken by specialists on site. Mat and another member of the team Hawar managed to put together a simple but effective flyer explaining the site in English and Kurdish for the second visit which can be used again in the future.

Teachers on site

Teachers on site

I had a wonderful time in Bestansur. The Reading and the local team were extremely welcoming and the site itself was fascinating. From interviewing local workers we found that there is a great deal of regional pride in the results of this excavation. As the dig went on more and more people came to visit. The region is focusing a lot of energy on its archaeology and history at the moment. It will be interesting to see how the site develops over the next few years.

 

 

Glastonbury Abbey Study Day: Guest Post

Earlier this year we ran a Medieval Archaeology and History Study Day for A/ AS level and GCSE students at Glastonbury Abbey. We had a fantastic turn out and I challenged the students to come up with a blog post describing the day. The winner Olivia Bishop (Bruton School for Girls) will get a day behind the scenes with the curators at the Abbey. This is the day in Olivia’s words…

Glastonbury Abbey

Glastonbury Abbey

“Archaeology is a subject that has always sat in the back of my mind as a possible interest; however, despite my love of history, I have never studied or seriously researched it. The talks at Glastonbury Abbey, on Monday 1st February have helped to change that!  From learning about the excavation of bones, to the science behind the archaeology itself, the whole day was fascinating and I came away with new interests and a desire to know more.

Professor Roberta Gilchrist’s talk on how archaeological techniques can help us to understand the medieval world was enlightening and brought alive a subject I hadn’t previously considered. The idea that, using carbon dating techniques, a piece of pottery can give us accurate data on the age of the monastery is amazing. Learning about and seeing a geophysical survey was exciting and I was surprised by how much archaeologists can learn without digging-and destroying the evidence.

Although I had previously heard a few of the Glastonbury Abbey myths, I didn’t know much about it before I arrived and the influence it once had was completely unknown to me. The mind map we were asked to write at the beginning of the day certainly highlighted that; however, by the afternoon, I could recount a detailed chronology of the abbey’s history alongside some of its many legends, and the reasons behind them. I think what captured my attention most, was the idea that when, in 1191, the monks at Glastonbury claimed to dig up the grave of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. They were probably just trying to make money and had no idea of the effect that the myth would have, not only on the thousands of visitors that were attracted to the Abbey by it, but on how it would influence future historical research of the site.

The talk

The talk

Meeting leading archaeologists and learning about their work was really interesting. The range of information and different types of work they are doing is incredible and has opened my eyes to many aspects of archaeology I hadn’t previously thought about. How it is presented, for example, is key in how much people learn and how much of an interest they take in the subject. The bones found at the site help us to discover what type of lifestyle the monks at the Abbey lived and the ecosystems and fossils found, work with the geophysical technology to show where buildings would have once been.

Although the day showed that real archaeology doesn’t happen like it does on ‘Time Team’, it opened my eyes to career options I had never previously considered and gave my love of history a new dimension.”

Museum Studies and Costumed Interpretation Summer Schools

Exciting news! We are running summer schools in the museum this year. The University of Reading has a whole suite of International Summer Schools designed to give people a taster of academic life and we’re looking forward to welcoming some new students over the summer months.

Ure Symposium

Introduction to Museum Studies is aimed at students who want to explore some of the theoretical and practical challenges which face museum curators. This course will include the opportunity to explore: UK Museum History and Ethics; Interpretation and Education; Collections Management and Conservation.The course runs 7th-18th July 2014 right here behind the scenes at the museum.

Performing the Past is being offered via an exciting collaboration between the University of Reading’s Museums and Collections, our Film, Theatre and Television Department, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Historical Royal Palaces and Past Pleasures. Learn the basics of costumed interpretation in beautiful surroundings with guidance form the UK’s oldest costumed interpretation company. The course runs 21st July-1st August 2014.

The application process is outlined by the International Office on their Summer School website. Reading alumni and their families get a special discount. Book now!

Moving on Up 2014 at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester #mou2014

Thanks to our Guest Blogger Richard Kelly (Volunteer at the Cole Museum of Zoology and student on our Curatorship and Collections Management Module) talking about his experience at Museums Association’s ‘Moving on Up’ career development conference earlier this term.

The Museum Association’s conference for the young, up and coming professionals of the heritage sector was held at the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester. It was primarily meant as a networking event where professionals in the first five years of their career could mingle with each other as well as some more experienced professionals. The feeling of the day was extremely positive and everyone seemed to be having lots of fun with the various activities and talks that were held. Towards the end of the day it was obvious that everyone was in high spirits and that even the more experienced amongst us had learnt a lot. The closing speech by David Anderson, the president of the Museums Association heralded the day as a massive success and stated that he would be going back to the National Museum of Wales which he directs and will be seeing what changes he can make after the revelations of the day.

The day began with a key notes speech on leadership by Richard Wilson, an empowering talk where young professionals were encouraged to be the ‘anti-hero’ and to take control of their lives and their careers. Three provocations on the essence of a radical workforce were particularly inspiring and looked forward to the next generation asking them to make the changes necessary to keep the heritage sector relevant in the modern world. The Ministry of Curiosity was also in attendance and gave a talk on how they had set up an independent museums blog for London (@curiositytweet). The blog discusses behind the scenes gossip of the museum circuit in London and tells its readers interesting titbits that might not usually be heard. They are careful to mention that they have a strict code of ethics when it comes to posts and will not post anything that puts the security or safety of museum workers or collections in danger.

Workshops included discussions on how to make a career in the heritage sector including specific hurdles that must be addressed. Also a discussion on how to plan for the future by making a career timeline was led by Tamsin Russel from National Museums Scotland. One of the most useful workshops looked at how to prepare the perfect pitch. Hillary McGowan a professional advisor to the heritage sector explained her method for making a professional pitch with the premise of meeting someone you want to give you a job in the lift and having 30 seconds to get yourself across to them. Others speakers were Tom Andrews from People’s United who spoke about the importance of being kind in the professional world and how to temper dreams with reality to make sure you get the most out of your career. Liz Hide from University Museums Cambridge spoke about leading when you’re not in charge and discussions followed on how to lead and how you would like to be led.

One of the big issues that came up during question time was the importance of qualifications in the heritage sector and whether those without them would hit a ‘glass ceiling’. The debate got rather heated with supporters on both sides of the argument. Personally I can see the benefit of qualifications and agree that some positions probably will require specialist qualifications, especially in the science heritage sector and research positions. That is not to disregard the benefits of staff with a wide range of non-academic skills but employers should also be careful not to disregard the hard work put into getting qualifications. There were several comments from senior professionals regarding the privileged upbringing that must accompany higher qualifications. Personally I find this quite insulting, having grown up in a small town in Lancashire and having to work for everything I’ve achieved to this day the notion that employers could see my efforts as merely a sign of privilege is worrying to say the least.

All in all the experience was truly amazing and the things I learnt about the heritage sector and about taking control of my career will definitely come in handy in the years to come. As will the connections I made with the many cool and friendly people I met. The next big event for the Museums Association is the annual conference held this year in Cardiff in October. I am looking forward to attending and hopefully seeing some of my new friends again.

Richi (@Worldwide_Richi)

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.”

Behind the scenes at UCL

Where can you see death masks and Darwin’s tweezers? The University College London collections. I love to scope out what other people have hidden away and last Wednesday Curator Nick Booth kindly took me and my colleague Andrew Mangham to look at their stores.

20140207-122854.jpg

Andrew is an expert in 19th century gothic fiction, real life Victorian murder cases, and Charles Dickens so we were particularly interested in the criminology collections. We weren’t disappointed when confronted with a collection of death masks. The masks of the great and good sit alongside a morbid collection of masks taken from executed criminals. Read Nick’s own blog post for more information about this fascinating collection.

20140207-122949.jpg

One mask had several cut marks where the swordsman had not found his mark the first time around. Another was mysteriously split in half. Andrew noted that Dickens witnessed and described an execution by guillotine in which the head was severed in half. He also noted that in Dickens’ work such masks are described as decorating the office of a lawyer (I am not a Dickens expert so I’ll get the exact quote for anybody who is interested). Isn’t inter disciplinarity great?

20140207-123051.jpg

We looked around the Galton collection and saw examples of early fingerprinting and phrenology equipment. Galton was Darwin’s cousin and idolized him. Thus, in his collection he had Darwin’s tweezers, pruning scissors and coat clasps. There were drawers full of fascinating and baffling looking pieces of equipment so we are planning to head back soon to quiz the specialist curator Subhadra Das.

20140207-123146.jpg

Nick’s remit is the science and technology collections, however, the most famous ‘object’ under his care is the auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham. Jeremy Bentham was a philosopher and social reformer and he asked that his body be dissected and displayed in this unusual manner. If you want to stop by and visit Bentham you can find him in the South Cloisters of UCL…

20140207-124844.jpg