Monday, November 9, 2009
When too much information is not enough...
A few weeks ago, we mentioned that the study of history can be a sticky wicket because of this nagging little thing called "perspective." This is but one of the many challenges facing historians as they attempt to piece together the past. History would be "easy" if it were one thread woven into one fabric: "everyone" did this and "everyone" had that. But, as in modern times, each historical figure had his/her own tastes, friends, influences, and income. Therefore one household might consider one object of utmost importance, while another household could not spare the eggs to barter for it.
And as a 19th century living history museum, which household should we represent?
People tend to place "the past" into a monolithic homogeneous category. For current adults, "the past" resides somewhere between the pilgrims and the turn of the 20th century. For kids, "the past" is roughly the 1960s-yesterday. Many adults truly do not see a difference between frontier Texas and colonial America, even though hundreds of miles and more than fifty years separate them. It's all "the past," you see. They don't realize that this is as erroneous a comparison as trying to present 1949 Massachusetts as 2009 Texas. It's an innocent mistake, particularly to those who are not historians. The farther removed we get from history, the more abstract it becomes (I, personally, cannot tell you the differences occurring over 50 years of 13th century British history). (By the way, Pilgrims didn't even build log cabins!)
The "monolith" doesn't necessarily fade once you've honed in on the correct time period, though. The next hurdle is, again, remembering that all families and experiences are different. Telling the story of one family whose history is well-known is difficult enough. Telling the story of "everyman" can be almost impossible given the infinite possibilities and choices available.
For example, we interpret candle-dipping here at the Village. One might assume, by that choice of interpretation, that all households in the 1850s made candles. This assumption ignores a few basic facts: 1) candles could be made by factories at this time, 2) candle molds were often used, and 3) some families might not make their own candles--perhaps they bartered for them instead. So are we incorrect in showing visitors how to dip candles? No...because in frontier Texas, far away from supply lines, many families did indeed dip their own candles. It would be incorrect to assume, however, that ALL families dipped their own candles.
It's a choice that all historians make: which story do you tell? What do you decide to include? What do you leave out?
Here's a modern day example: up until a couple of years ago, our director didn't have a microwave in her home. If, in one hundred years, her home were excavated by archaeologists, would it be correct to assume that 21st century Texans didn't have microwaves? No. It's one family, one snapshot, one story.
Which 21st century household should future historians represent?
Here at the Village, we do our best to provide an accurate picture of 19th century life for the average frontier family. Since we do not have complete records and artifacts for the specific families who owned each of our structures, we can make an educated guess about what frontier Texas families would have had in their cabins. We set up our exhibits accordingly. Does that mean EVERY frontier Texas family had a candlemold on their mantel? No. But it IS a distinct possibility.
We also have artifacts from the 1700s through 1890. Our time period of focus is 1836-1890. Does that mean that our 1700s artifacts are incorrect? No. Families in the 19th century, just like today, would have had heirlooms passed down through generations still proudly displayed in their homes. Log cabins may have been more primitive structures built out of necessity, but they were still--first and foremost--family homes.
It is also a mistake to assume that the presentation of crudely built furniture and candles for light meant that factory-rendered and finely made furniture and alternate sources of light were not available. Gas lights were in use by the mid to late 19th century, but certainly not on the frontier. Skilled craftsmen made beautiful dovetailed furniture, but they may not have been able to take all their tools with them on the wagon trip to Texas and therefore had to produce lesser quality (but utilitarian) items until they could carve and/or smith new tools (or purchase some from supply lines from the gulf coast, Mexico, or east coast). The technology existed; it just may not have been available in this particular region (much the way that 21st century developing nations live much like our 19th century frontier ancestors because of lack of available technology).
It was not unusual for 19th century women to have to learn or "relearn" crafts like spinning and weaving once they arrived in Texas. Before they reached the isolation of the frontier, they might have purchased these factory-made items from a local mercantile or a neighbor. But with stores, factory, and supplies many days journey away, the women learned a new type of self-reliance and a life much different than relatives on the east coast or in Europe at the same time.
So what's the message here? When examining history and museums, remember that a number of factors influence outcomes. One hundred years and hundreds of miles can be the difference between the Pilgrims, American colonists, and the frontier Texas families we actually represent. Just because we show a skill doesn't mean EVERY family completed it the same way. And one should always seek to discover all the facts before making a determination about "the way life was."
Happy history hunting! And Happy Thanksgiving to our 17th century ancestors (from the 19th and 21st century descendants)!