In the first of two guest posts, Andrea Jones, Director of Programs and Visitor Engagement, Accokeek Foundation in Maryland reflects on what pushing out interpretive boundaries at a colonial farm to become more relevant and meaningful. Stay tuned for part 2!
Lots of other boxes are arbitrary, too. And today’s society increasingly questions those definitions as more voices are heard. Are there more genders than just male and female? What is an American? Is Pluto a planet?
Boxes can be comforting and useful since they help us to understand the world around us, but they are also limiting. They don’t honor the complexity of life and the myriad possibilities that exist when boundaries are crossed.
Looking at categories as arbitrary human creations is a powerful way to shift your perspective and unlock creative new approaches to interpretation
Here are three boundaries [two in this post, one to come] we crossed at my museum (Accokeek Foundation) and how crossing them helped us to increase our relevancy and challenge our thinking.
First, what is Accokeek Foundation (AF)? AF is a partner of the National Park Service on Piscataway Park just south of Washington, D.C., in Maryland. We steward and interpret 200 acres of this park, including two farms. One of these farms, the National Colonial Farm, has used living history for over 40 years to interpret the lives and techniques of middling tobacco-growers in the colonial era.
Using History to Teach Environmental Science
Along the east coast, where we are, you can’t throw a stone without hitting a butter churn or a spinning wheel. There is no shortage of historic farms to get your colonial fix. And frankly, the hey-day of this kind of interpretation seems to have passed. We decided it was time to look outside of the discipline of colonial history in its purest form. It was time for a remix.
One day a visiting mom said to her child, “See, aren’t we lucky we have electricity and cars, and all the things we have today?” I thought about what she said. Yes, life was definitely more convenient. But through the lens of environmentalism, all of the convenience has come at a great cost.
Coal burning plant with mining in front. Photo: Getty
What if the colonial era was a starting point for the story of the most challenging environmental issues today?
Instead of considering 1770 (our chosen interpretive year) as a time just before the American Revolution, what if we used this snapshot in time to look at family habits in an era when people were more directly connected to each environmental choice they made?
Today, water comes out of our bathroom sink – but from where? How much energy does it take?
"Hidden from view" water treatment plant Where does water come from?
How does that compare to colonial times? The typical middling colonial family knew exactly how much energy (physical energy) it took to haul water from a nearby stream or well. They used it judiciously – approximately 4 gallons/day per person (according to our estimates). Today, each American uses between 80-100 gallons/day. That is a 2,000% increase in water use.
Most of us are completely disconnected to the “secret life of water” because of today’s complex infrastructure, urbanization, and increased job specialization. We don’t know how much energy is used in treatment plants and how little fresh water is readily available as the population swells and the climate changes. By combining two disciplines, we can look at scientific issues with an eye towards understanding changes in human behavior through time.
In an initiative we call Green History, we rotate themes on the farm every 6- 8 weeks or so: Energy Conservation and Climate Change; Water Conservation; The Health of Soil; Food Waste; etc. Our first-person colonial interpreters invite visitors to join them in activities that act as conversation starters around the theme. For example, they help to carry water using a yoke to help our colonial family do laundry or water plants.
It’s hard work. But instead of leaving visitors with the shallow understanding that “life was hard back then,” we try to redirect that assumption to a bigger question:
“What is more important, convenience or conservation?
Can we have both?”
Colonial interpreters are trained to start dialogues designed to get visitors talking about this question, to help them draw comparisons between colonial life and their lives.
The interpretation is not designed to romanticize the past. Although colonial people used less water, they also did not have the benefit of current-day sanitation afforded by convenient water – sanitation that saves lives. It’s complex.
Seeing history through the lens of science has been a hugely impactful perspective-changer for our institution, as well as for me personally. But I’d be lying if I said it’s been easy to thread the needle, given that visitors expect a purely historical experience.
We work continually to try out different scripted conversation starters to help get visitors to think of themselves as current-day environmental decision-makers, while surrounded by the past. Part of the challenge is branding ourselves as an institution known for this kind of interpretation so that people are attracted to the experience because of its environmental conscience – rather than colonial history alone.
Time Traveling from Present to Past
The Colonial Era, as a specific category of history, was another boundary crossed. We wanted to completely erase that famous question that is often asked in history class: “What does this have to do with me?”
Each of our Green History themes includes a small hand-made exhibit that draws attention to a current-day environmental issue. This issue is then brought to life in the past on our colonial farm. Visitors usually encounter the current-day exhibit first, which provides a great way to frame their experience in 1770.
Since most of these exhibits are staffed by an interpreter, the area becomes a center for questions that you can’t ask a first-person colonial character.
During our Food Waste theme, we created sight rare to most colonial farms – a bicycle rigged to a compost tumbler. The odd contraption was meant to draw people in to talk to our staff member about compost.
They could take a spin on the “Hot Rot” (as we called it) and also play a compost sorting game to win $2,200 in fake money (the cash value of the food wasted by the average American family of four each year).
Visitors were then invited back to 1770, to help the Bolton family to do some fall food preservation. The living history interpreters on the farm taught visitors preservation methods that have been lost in recent generations (pickling, drying, repurposing apples into apple butter, etc.).
The characters also make efforts to communicate something deeper – the true value of food when you are the human who has grown it from seed. Wasting is not so easy when agricultural plants are precious and cared for over many months.
This past to present boundary crossing is an explicit way for our visitors to connect history to their lives. It gives a fuller picture of a specific current-day issue – that it didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. These problems are the product of many thousands of decisions made by everyday people over time.
It also becomes obvious how RECENT some our environmental problems are. Food waste has increased by 50% since the year I was born (1970!). The brevity of the problem actually gives me hope that the trajectory of this course can be altered. We want to pass on this feeling of hope and empowerment that the context of history provides. The future of history is not inevitable.