Behind the Sense for Your History Pleasure July 25 2014, 0 Comments

When you visit historic sites it is interlay appropriate to be absorbed by the history that site is displaying. It is important. However the next time you visit or even read about a site give some thought to what goes in to the preservation and presentation of our history.

For instance the finding, sorting, collecting, classifying, authenticating, preserving, organizing, and safely making available for scholars and to the public the constant new discoveries of documents and small artifacts. The myriad of higher education and government institutions with departments dedicated to this sort of thing are fairly well known. Less well known are the many, privately run, collections.

One of them is The David Library of the American Revolution , A private organization with a dedicated staff. This institution is mostly used by scholars and authors, for in-depth research but is open to the public. They presents a lecture series each spring and fall that is free and open to the public. It also makes its facilities available to local historically minded organizations for some of their activities and events. Its location is ideal, and appropriate, roughly adjacent to the Pennsylvania Washington Crossing Park. If you live anywhere near there, you should be keeping track of upcoming events they are putting together. But whether you live near or not you should appreciate the amount of work that goes into operating and maintaining such an organization, I mean just keeping all those papers straight (I’m looking at my desk now). If you should visit them in person or on Facebook, give them a nod of appreciation.

How about the historic sites themselves. If you have ever owned or even lived in a really old house you know they are no picnic to maintain. The term, “little repair” is an oxymoron. Now imagine if you had to do it in a way that was close as possible to the way it was originally done, without disturbing any of the rest of the structure. And needing to preserve as much of the old stuff as you can and still have it be safe for worker, staff and the public (who still want walk through the construction). Now add all the interested and vested parties looking over your shoulder and making suggestions, demands, and ultimatums. Welcome to a small portion of the life of a site curator. If you visit a building on a site and wonder as to its condition, think about the amount of work (paper and otherwise), time and money it takes before the first tool is taken out of the bag. For the most part, it is all with good reason, but it is not easy. There are saints with less patience (and they had the aid of a miracle or two).

   A case in point would be Princeton Battlefield’s Clack house. It is part of a New Jersey State Park. The state of New Jersey has many – MANY – historic sites in its care, and a few other things going on as well. You may have heard, it has budget concerns. It is the garden state but money doesn’t grow on trees. (well ok in my case it’s different). For the State there is a good deal of hard work involved in assuring that things are done right, from many prospective. And that is with a whole lot of people looking over their shoulders.

There are also private citizens helping as they can. Two that come to mind the Princeton Battlefield's Clarke House Volunteers. , And there is The Princeton Battlefield Society , . Both these groups are made up of volunteers that donate their time help on and off the site. I have sat in on a board meeting or two and I know that there are several other organizations involved in the restoration project one way or another. You should consider keeping in touch with these groups and if you can even lend a hand. Or at the very least give them a doff of the hat.

Then there are the demonstrators of history. The reenactors, the spinners the cooks, the people that show us how it was done, often by doing it again. Look around at the artifacts around them. Those are almost always of their own collection. They had to find them, buy them, often repair then - or often make them themselves sometimes using original methods. Oh and by the way, they have to do the research for this themselves. Among other things I am one of these. I have made a wooden spoon now used in a Native American cooking demonstration using just river rocks and sand to carve it out. (It was actually easier than I thought it would be) I did it partially to have a more authentic piece and partially for the experience – so I could talk knowledgeably about the process. Another instance, Some of the cooks go to great lengths to use appropriate items and methods in their demonstrations. Sometimes just for the authenticity but sometimes to see just what was really involved and whether it lines up with the research documentation. One food Historian I know, Susan McLellan Plaisted of Heart to Hearth Cookery , is going to try to use an ancient verity of black corn that my brother is growing for her, to make a Native American beverage that will be one of their demonstrations. (if it all works out)

So if you see someone demonstrating at a historic site or event, drink in what they are talking about, but also step back and appreciate the trouble and dedication that went into presenting you with the past.

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