Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Destination LIfe: Stepping into History

PHS Editor Michelle Styles reveals her passion for Living History Museums and in particular Williamsburg!
In keeping with my Weekend Wildcard post about 1776, I wanted to write about one of my favourite Living History Museums -- Colonial Williamsburg. It is rare for me to encounter a Living History museum that I don't like. I enjoy them and enjoy the experience of seeing the past come to life.
The first time I went to a Living History museum, I was ten and we went to Fort Snelling in St Paul. Since then I have been to a number in the US and in Europe. My local Living History Museum Beamish is celebrating its 40th year and has been extremely inspirational in getting me ideas for my Regency and early Victorian set books.
But the one Living History Museum that stands out is Williamsburg. I first read about Williamsburg in a Barbara Michaels' Gothic romantic suspense novel The Patriot's Dream about a woman who discovers she is falling in love with a ghost. Later still I encountered when my daughter became entranced with American Girl dolls, in particular Felicity. Thus when my mother moved to Virginia, Williamsburg was near the top of the list.
It never disappoints. There are many different paths that you can take when visiting. If you have children with you, it is possible to hire bits of costume. Costumes are a big part of the Williamsburg expereince. they have been recreating 18th century costume since 1934. Because of the American Girl connection, you often see girls wandering around with their dolls.
The entire experience is hands on as the vistor wants to make it. You can ask questions and learn bits of information. For example, at cabinetmaker’s, I learnt about the dragon guarding the pearl symbolism that many 18th century chairs have. Because the cabinet maker makes furniture in an 19th century style, it is possible to see the furniture at all stages.
When we visited the wigmaker, I had a very interesting conversation with the woman who was supposed to be running the shop. Unfortunately she didn’t know how to pronounce Ede and Ravenscroft who remain the premier wig and robe makers in Britain. Ede has a d like dog with a silent e at the end, not a dee. But she was knowledgeable on the day to day care of horse hair wigs ( a subject for a variety of reasons close to my heart).
Through out the day, there are special events where visitors are actively encouraged to take part. For example the drilling of the militia or a tea party. There are programmes for children to *become an apprentice*.
With four different taverns, it is possible to get an 18th century dining experience. In the gardens that are connected to the houses, it is possible to learn about different techinques. for example they use skeps for bee keeping as hives with moveable frames were not yet invented. And the vegetable gardens are different from today's vegetable gardens.
In the shops, they sell a variety of items that harkens back to the 18th century – for example stone ground grits, boules and a receipt book.
Although it is great to spend time in the restored houses, the museums on site also provide a wealth of info about how people lived, the textiles they used and how their rooms were furnished.
My experience with Williamsburg is that it lived up to its outstanding reputation and should be visited. Go and failing that take the time to visit a living history musuem near you. You will learn so much about the past.
Does anyone else know of outstanding Living History Museums? And what was the most memorable bit about your visit to a Living History Museum?
You can find out more about Michelle Styles's books by visiting her website.


  1. I loved Williamsburg when I visited it aged 11. I would love to go back.

  2. You've got me fascinated. I've never been to a Living History Museum - at least I don't think I have. The only thing I've been to that was a little similar was the Jorvik Viking Museum in York (very smelly and nowhere near the range of activities you've described).
    Also had a look at the dolls $95!!!! They look around the size of a Barbie, are they bigger?

  3. In New Brunswick the best one is King's Landing Historical Settlement. Everyone is in costume, and works the village. Gardens are kept, horseshoes made, cooking done over the fire, etc. There is also a Visiting Cousins program for summer camps, and a few years ago I took my kids and while they didn't wear full costumes they got to wear aprons and bonnets and had a letter from a settlement "resident" asking them to cover a few daily chores while they went to town. They had a marvelous time.

    I've been to a few others that claim to be living history museums but really aren't. At least not up to the standard I'd expect.

  4. Susan -- Jorvik is just a museum. Living Hisotry mean re-enactors. Your local English Heritage site will probably host a weekend...

    American Girl dolls are 18 inches high. They are styled to be about 10 years old and are well made. The accessories are really well done as well. My daughter and both my nieces were AG people rather than Barbie people.

  5. Michelle,
    Try to get to Mystic Seaport. Fabulous place, and lots to see and do and people to talk to. It isn't quite as 'living history' as Williamsburg appears to be, but there are lots of experiences that are similar. Last time I was there my youngest son was nine. He had a fabulous time doing a day program focused on things kids his age would enjoy. It gave the rest of us a chance to do things we wanted to do that would have likely bored him.

    We also went out on a sail where we were taught how to do things as they would have done them. It was just a small sailboat, and the instructor wasn't in costume, but the learning experience was wonderful.

    There's another good place in Yuma Arizona at the territorial prison that has some living history experiences (not the convict part though!).