Dare to Interpret

I just got off the phone with a good friend of mine. She’s planning a civilian living history event at the end of April. Meanwhile, I’m thinking about interpreting peacetime British garrison life on the eve of the American Revolution next month. Her event will fall on my birthday, while she has work on the date of mine. We found ourselves clamoring to express why exactly each event is worthy of the other’s attendance, despite schedule restraints. It became a discussion of what makes an event worth going to. Both of us are sick of trotting out the stale history-book stories. In the age we live in, we don’t have time for “edutainment” that doesn’t teach something we care about. So what are the stories that urgently need to be taught?

I find myself desperate to teach history that will inform the world I live in now, and which perhaps has a chance of correcting its flaws. In light of this past Saturday’s march on Washington, I feel even more firmly than before that women’s roles must be incorporated wherever possible into the typically battle-heavy world of reenactments. I want to create much needed visibility of this full half of the population in a portion of history which is so often left to the men. Long on my mind, but sparked by other comments made after this weekend’s march, I also want to make discussions about First Nations peoples possible. These two examples are of course the beginning, not the end of the list of subjects which should have prominent places in the history we present today.

I want to do more than say “these people were here too” though.  I want their narratives to be intrinsic to the stories we tell, and to inspire self-examination. I want discussions of laundry to be a tool for talking about health, about equal pay, about essential personnel. I want those portraying native fighters to have a chance to talk about exchange and appropriation of culture, then and now; about being understood, and misunderstood. I want these narratives – little heard, and much needed at this current time, to be given room to shine at the forefront of interpretation.

Let’s put the refugees, not the soldiers, in the foreground.

For my friend’s sake, and my own, I will push myself to tell a new story at next month’s event. Neither of us is interested in reliving boring history. And that doesn’t mean that we don’t think it’s interesting to spend the day weeding a garden, or darning socks. It means we want to tell stories that aren’t stale, that no one has bothered to consider before now, and that truly have something to say.

Before getting off the phone we dared each other “plan something cool, something worthwhile, something I’ve never done before, and I’ll be there!” Forget the American Revolution for a second, living history is ready for – is already embarking on – this revolution. Dare to interpret the untold. Put the marginalized at the forefront. Tell a story that scares you because the message is has to share is important. Be a radical historian today.


The Conundrum of “Old Technology”

A brief reflection on the value of studying the way things worked “back then”. 

On a hot August day this past summer I stood in a crowded second-floor barracks room of the old fort that is my workplace. I was on duty in our military tailor’s post; sweating into my gown, and drinking water from a redware jug to keep myself from stumbling over my words as I spoke to a constant stream of late-summer tourists. I paused my banter for another drink of water, and a man piped up with a question about my scissors, dubious of the quality of tools available to an eighteenth-century craftsperson. I smiled, this being a topic I am fond of, and responded that, in the grand scheme of things, 1777 wasn’t really all that long ago; technologies such as eighteenth-century tailors’ shears were quite similar to their modern equivalents.

I heard a voice from the doorway and turned, seeing a twelve-year-old girl step into the room. As she snapped my photo on her phone, she stated with youthful self-assurance that “they didn’t have technology in history”.

Original 18th-century shears in the personal collection of David Niescior. Much thanks to David for allowing me to use the image. 

I understood the meaning behind her words, and yet I was startled by the scope of her statement. It was hard to know where to start: with the idea that the word “history” could be used so broadly, or “technology” so narrowly.

Her comment stayed with me long after she left the conversation and the museum. Technology is manifestation of the ancient Greek concept of techne: the realm of human art or skill. To this end, every tool we use and every invention created today, or last week, or millennia ago is, in truth, technology. Both antique sewing shears and the iPhone 6 qualify. Through the eyes of my young visitor though, technology encompassed only new ideas, and so could not exist in the past.

I saw a flaw in this logic, for there is a first time for everything: the first knife, the first stained glass window, the first computer. At that moment in time, each is cutting-edge. Many antiquated objects have since evolved almost beyond the point of recognition, but many others survive still in nearly their original form – tailors’ shears for example: so functional that they need no re-design, but so familiar that we cannot conceive of them as technology, until we think back to an era when they did not yet exist. In the study of material culture, we cannot afford to let the word “technology” be relegated to modern times. An object which was the first of its kind might at once be very old and entirely new – the foremost technology of another era. Not only does an understanding of this allow us to explore that age, it also helps us excavate the foundations of our contemporary material lives as we follow the story of that once-new idea on its evolutionary journey through time.

My conversation with this young tourist caused me to appreciate that there is value in understanding the full life cycle of a design, as it gestates in the mind of its inventor, is born imperfectly into the world, and is then remade many times over, remaining much the same or evolving almost beyond recognition. It remains a function of techne – the artfulness of humanity – be it old or new, useful or obsolete. In either case, when viewed through the lens of technological innovation, the study of material culture teaches us not just about the material lives of ages past, but also about how people went about the process of improving their lives. To study material culture is to step inside the inventive human mind.