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.