The Power of Myth – part 1

In a field where we focus on research, facts and supportable evidence we often come across stories or explanations that are less than true. At times we find these un-supportable, un-documentable, un-researched tales to be irritating, unsettling or just pressing a button. I’m sure for many of you a particularly popular or unpopular myth often used as a marketing ploy comes to mind.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, a Myth is “1) a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events; traditional stories or legends collectively:the heroes of Greek myth. 2) a widely held but false belief or idea:he wants to dispel the myth that sea kayaking is too risky or too strenuousthere is a popular myth that corporations are big people with lots of money; a misrepresentation of the truth:attacking the party’s irresponsible myths about privatization; a fictitious or imaginary person or thing; an exaggerated or idealized conception of a person or thing:the book is a scholarly study of the Churchill myth.” Comparatively, Folklore is the “traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth; a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

Our world is full of myth, folklore and tall-tales that have a great impact on how we perceive the world around us. There are monumental stories we learn in school or through progressing media, books, television and movies. How many of us remember being intrigued by a tale from Arthurian legend or the stories of and Robin Hood? There has been a recent resurgence of Greek and other ancient mythology seen in our movie theaters and working its way into television story-lines. While this grabs the newest generations so captivated by media, we all can see how mythology has worked its way into the art, architecture and stories of almost any generation. Looking at a more personal level, we each have the deeply personal family stories that may have a foot-hold in truth or may not. This could be a story about great-great-great-grandpa discovering gold in the back field of the family’s farm or the story of how the family came to live here or own “this” artifact.

As historians and interpreters we come across a few different types of myths we encounter.

  • There are the myths and tales of folklore which have grown with our nation similar to the monumental stories mentioned above. These include stories about our founding fathers, presidents, and iconic leaders such as the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. We could also include stories such as those about Paul Bunyan and Babe the Big Blue Ox. Many of us in my generation learned these stories in school as a precursor to learning chronological history.
  • There are the family history myths which include stories of family history and what a family memento might be. Often times we here that a great-great-aunt so-n-so was at the first Women’s Rights Convention or that on a family dad’s-dad’s-mom’s-mom’s side they are related to someone important. These stories may or may not be true. But, to the individuals who grew up with them, they are extremely important.
  • There are the stories or explanations for something that developed about an event or item well after the contemporary era. In the areas of material culture we see this a great deal. This would include the previously alluded to marketing motivated myth above which began in the 1990s, nearly a 150 years after when the myth addresses with no plausible documentation. A good many myths about the 1700s and 1800s developed during the 20th century . In some cases the propagation of myth was unintentional due to research flaws whether narrow information, anomalies, or a missing piece. In other cases, the propagation of not-true, un-documented information was intentional.

In part 2 we will look at techniques for dealing with these myths.

Presenting the Lives of Women in Different Social Situations

Repost – This post was originally posted in January 2009


While reading the first three chapters of The Other Civil War, a presentation idea came to mind. The idea stemmed from a clothing accessory presentation/discussion method Bevin and I were discussing that I believe Liz posted on the Sewing Academy.

The original accessories presentation took three or four women from different socio-economic positions and accessorized them. This would include a poor woman, a working woman, a middle-class woman and a leisure class woman each dressed in a basic dress. The visual would be best if their basic dresses were similar with just slight variations for class such as a basic brown wool dress or brown silk dress. Accompanying the women is a table of accessories the women may wear mixed together including aprons, bonnets, jewelry, gloves, shawls, parasols, etc.. The audience would work together to accessorize each of the three or four women with appropriate items. The end result should transform a group of slightly varied women to individuals distinctly dress for their social positions.

The presentation inspired by this text focuses on the daily lives of women from different social positions. This will require several women distinctly dressed to represent different social positions. Ideally these women would fully span the civic and economic ranges both North and South including a slave woman, a very poor woman, a free black woman, a working woman, a middle class woman, a plantation mistress, a northern leisure class woman, and etc. Each woman would need to be prepared with the information about what their life was like. They should each know about the lives of women like them – their work and leisure, dreams and hardships, freedoms and restrictions, rights and isolations.  They would start with a dramatic presentation of who they are with a short autobiographical speech to start with. Another option would be an excerpt from a woman similar to the position they represent. After all have introduced themselves, they can interactively  discuss their lives and possibly answer audience questions.

To do this in a school setting, a photograph of each woman would be needed. I suggest a modern color photograph so the students can really see who they are looking at. A one page ‘autobiography’ would be prepared for each woman along with a life fact sheet. (These could also be used as a teacher packet for pre or post visit materials.) During the presentation, select a student to read the autobiography (length according to age/grade.) Discuss how each woman’s life was similar and different.

Published in: on February 27, 2011 at 9:23 am  Leave a Comment  

NM Farm and Ranch Museum

It isn’t very often I am exceptionally impressed. I happen to have been so impressed by the Farm and Ranch Museum yesterday, I am doing a double post on both blogs.

Originally we were going for their once a year Antiques Day where they open up thier curatorial storage. The events listing I read said it was the 12th, Saturday. Nope. It was the 13th, Sunday. I’m so glad we decided to stay anyway. 

The lobby is nice, open and airy. It is very welcoming. I noticed through the lobby’s wall of windows, there was a presentation area set up in their courtyard. Later we were to notice the large dining area fully set for a function. The receptionist went beyond welcoming us and taking our entry fee. She took the time to explain the museum, point out various things on the map and tell  us about the trolley. (Very good since as we pulled into the parking lot, I realized I was one of those women who wore heeled sandles.)

The first exhibit was called What in the World. This is a collection of objects from the about mid-19th century to about the mid-20th century. This is the exhibit that caught my attention. It was wonderfully interactive.  As you enter the exhibit, there is an introduction and a rack of clip-boards on the right. The clip-boards held your answer sheet. It was a game to see how many objects you get right. The objects were broken down into true/false, matching, word scrambles and multiple choice. Just looking at the break-down, one might think it is like a quiz. But, when you combine it with their displays, it was definitely fun. Each well displayed  lighted object was simply numbered. For the true/false there was a simple statement about what an item was. You decided if it was true or false. Then you could flip up the text plaque to see if you were right. Similar flip-up methods were used for the matching with a group of objects and a group of text plaques with what they were used for. Under the flip-up was a further explanation. They also used a spinning roller with a selection of answers in combination with a covered window to reveal whether you are correct, and a type of turn disk where you move a small knob to reveal the answer.  When you are done, you add up your score. We were meant to be curators based on our score. I’ll admit, I was not good at the word scramble. I had to just look at the object. Dan figured out the scrambles. There was one object I was able to point out to Dan that I would love to have; the crimper for doing edging. This room really showed well that interactive exhibits aren’t just for kids. I would love to see about doing something like this for an event public program or a seminar program.

The next exhibit was the one I was least familiar with, the Colcha, Embroidery. It reminded me most of Berlin work. Three things stood out, the interactive how-to section, the display of Colcha Christmas ornaments available for purchase and the feedback stand. The interactive piece caught my attention because it would have worked nicely for PDC camp. They took plastic canvas. Framed it with a solid 1″ frame on both sides. Drew the outline of a flower on the canvas. Attached a plastic needle and thread. On the wall was a nice directions board.  (This is also the room where we notice the no photos sign. So, sorry, no pictures.)

The halls between the exhibition rooms were used nicely as display areas of vintage quilts, artwork, and a photo history of school houses.

The large exhibit room traced 3000 years of agriculture in the Rio Grande water shed area. My compliment on this room is how they created multiple levels with walking ramps that made the room feel like more then just a big gallery. The displays were well done with great textual explanations that weren’t to long but created a nice story. They recreated an early 20th century store and post office as well as a kitchen and parlor. Those were fun for me because it showed both items I remember using at home while growing up (no I’m not that old, we just had vintage and antique items everywhere.) and it showed items we see at mid-19th century events in a more appropriate setting. I really wish I could show pictures of that for references for people. The far other end of the room had the modern agriculture. I have to admit, I still just don’t get it, the dryness, the routing of the water in a completely different way than I am accustom. I think I really would have needed my brother there to talk through it to fully appreciate the concept.  The only criticism is on Dan pointed out. There wasn’t a flow that we caught on to. I don’t know if we entered the time line wrong or what.

Next we went across the building and outside to the blacksmith shop. I was initially curious to see how similar or different it might be to the blacksmiths I am used to in the 19th century. We didn’t even get to the building before we got pretty excited. There was an area filled with wrought iron for sale. Then as we entered the building there was more, lots more. Oh, how I wish we had pockets of cash to spend. Now, if it ended at the items for sale, I would have been happy. But, the apprentice working that day gave a solid, informative and interesting presentation. The coolest thing is how much they recycle. He started telling us how they use the railroad spikes and horse shoes. Showing us the starting product and the finished product from the displays (for sale). Then he moved on to what must have made my jaw drop; the items made from garage door springs and truck springs. This was fabulous. As he talked and made his nail, he had my full attention. This is not an easy feat. Before we left, I had a mental list – folding grill, awesome tri-pod, several S hooks, simple letter opener. Dan wanted one of the railroad spike knives. I also asked if he could make things on request. Yes! I’m going to bring him a drawing of Grandma’s rug hook I lost at Granger to see if he can make it.

All in all, very happy with the visit.

Published in: on June 13, 2010 at 10:47 am  Comments (2)  

GCVM has a blog

I can’t believe this took me two months to notice….

Genesee Country Village & Museum

A Must See Photo Project

If you haven’t seen it yet, take a moment to look at the photo project the Palmetto Soldiers Relief Society is doing.

Published in: on May 22, 2010 at 2:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

Talk on Helping Children Connect with History

This morning I was the guest speaker at the Alamogordo Kiwanis (different then the Noon Kiwanis I belong to.) I had planned on there being some children in attendance but due to testing there weren’t any. Here is some of the presentation:

While in college taking education courses we were taught children needed to have an established understanding of time and how time passes to begin to understand history. This concept of time is said to have developed by grade 4. But, if we look at history as a Story rather than a sequential timeline of events, children can embrace history at a far younger age. After-all, how many of our favorite childhood tales begin “Once upon a time…”? The US Department of Education in its 2004 publication for parents Helping Your Child Learn History points out this phrase captures the two essence meanings of history. History is a story of people and event. History is a record of times past, “Once upon a time.” Further, they acknowledge that “Although it is important for citizens to know about great people and event, the enjoyment of history is often found in a story well told.”

Children begin to thing about their own story, their place in history and society as they begin to ask “Who am I?” and “Where do I come from?”. This personal inquiry develops into wondering about their family and community. As this continues to develop, children create their own “usable history”. This is the history that pertains to them, that is important to them, that has meaning to them. Most often this “usable history” includes stories of family, friends, and community rather than “school history”, that which is taught in books that children find less or little connection with. Living history museum and historic sites, along with their outreach programs, provide children with the opportunity to experience history which becomes part of his or her “useable history” because they are immersing themselves,  in the context of the story that is history.  

When working children, museum educators want to engage children to help them connect with history. We do this through the use of story and hands-on opportunities where they can explore and investigate. Dewey refers to these hands-on opportunities as “Learning by doing” theorizing that “experience is key to learning and knowledge. When and experience is acted on it becomes knowledge. Abstract ideas need to be applied to life experiences to have meaning. Meaning is developed when connections are made between prior knowledge and between prior experiences.” (Connecting Kids with History through Museum Exhibits)

 [discussed examples of how children can take part in hands-on and history through story – dressing in clothing, games & toys, ‘a day in the life’, connecting a single experience with a multitude of subjects]

Children bring to their understanding and learning of history their own personal experiences, their own history. This was very evident to me early in my experience as a museum educator when I was teaching a school workshop on tin punching. My students usually were from rural or suburban schools. We would begin each session by looking at an assortment of tin items discussing their uses, unique characteristics and comparing them to what the students knew. This included a pierced tin barn lantern where I pointed out how the piercings let light out but kept the wind from getting in. This particular morning the class came from an inner city school. When I raised up the lantern for the kids to see, instead of hearing “lantern” as usual, I heard “cheese grater”. After a moment of pause I realized, yes this lantern does look like a cheese grater. Nutmeg graters are made the same way. I discovered talking with the kids that this group hadn’t brought the lack of electricity into their understanding of history or what they were seeing that day. Rather then discussing the rest of the tin items, we talked about candles and lanterns along with what would be different about their day without electricity.

Updated Civilian Article Index is Available

I finally got around to updating the Civilian Article Index entries for the Citizen’s Companion through the March/April edition.

It can be found on my Yahoo Group’s files as I am not yet able to upload an Excel file here (just about everything but Excel). The published articles’ worksheet is now 48 pages long. A version with just the published articles is available in Word. Keep in mind this is not sortable. Civilian article index just published articles

There are still gaps in the published and web-based articles. I know I’m missing some recent needlework and knitting articles in other publications which should be include. If you know of an article please let me know so I can add it.

Increasing Spectator & Civilian Interaction

Inviting Spectators to participate 

It is important to offer an opportunity to try an activity to a spectator or visitor. Inviting them to participate opens the door for a more complete experience. Since live historical interpretation differs significantly from traditional museum and gallery displays, visitors may not know what to expect or what opportunities to make the most of. Often guests will be interested in trying what you are doing but will either be to shy to ask or unsure of what is acceptable. This is why it is important to invite spectators to participate, clarifying the possibilities of the experience for them.


Spectator friendly activities

  • Sewing – Invite spectators to try working on sample sewing and handiwork projects.  If you are working on a treadle or hand-crank sewing machine, invite them to try the machine. If you are quilting, have an extra needle and thread started for them to try. If need be, you can remove the stitches at the end of the event.
  • Spinning and Weaving – If you are working with fibers, have a drop spindle or small loom on hand for them to try. Children will benefit from the tactile experience of feeling the wool, silk or cotton fibers and comparing them to the finished yarns.
  • Knitting – Have an extra ball of yarn and a set of needles for spectators to try.
  • Food – Have them churn butter. (This is one of the few food related activities that are allowable.)
  • Laundry – If doing a partial laundry impression without the hot water and caustic chemicals, spectators can participate. Scrubbing wet clothes and hanging them can be a favorite for children.
  • Games – Almost every child and many adults love to play with period games. If your children are playing, invite a visiting spectator family to play as well. This will give the adults plenty of question and answer time as well. Parlor games are fun and often new to adult spectators. Invite them to join your game of conundrums or tableax vivants.

Potential Spectator Hazards

  • It is generally best not to have spectators handle original items outside of control situations with the proper surface and gloves.
  • Spectators should not be allowed to handle or taste food.
  • Spectators, though very interested, should not be allowed handle sharp or hot objects.
  • Spectators should not be allowed to handle loaded firearms.
  • Spectators should be kept a safe distance from fires.

Working with School Groups & Encouraging Student Interest

  • Younger spectators relate better to the character, personalities, and personal stories of people rather than facts, details and technical concepts.
  • Presenting a concept, event or series of events from the perspective of a character helps a student connect and develops a story-line.
  • Give students the opportunity to think critically and voice their perspectives on issues and events.
  • Link past events with present day experiences kids can relate to. Example – Soldiers’ aide groups gathering supplies for CW soldiers compared to student groups gathering items for care packages for soldiers.
  • Provoke curiosity and creativity.
  • Themes that can work well with students include
    • Choosing between different options, right and wrong
    • Dealing with pressure from peers and superiors
    • Needs, wants and problems solving – ex. How to provide food for your family if there wasn’t any available to purchase? What would a soldier do if he saw a cool stream of water during a hot day of marching?  


Tips for Teaching the Civil War

Mid-19th C or CW Civilian Article Index

I’ve noticed some people have been trying to find the index I am keeping of mid-nineteenth century civilian related article index. The index included articles from the Citizen’s Companion, The Watchdog, and The Civil War Lady. Some articles from the Civil War Historian  are also included while I wait to fill that in fully. There is a seperate list of online articles as well.  

Sadly, I can not upload Excel files to the blog. I can however post a PDF version of the printed article index. Downside is this is just an alphabetical list that isn’t sortable like the Excel file. If you are interested in the Excel file, email me or leave a comment. (Right now the index is current through January 2009. Updates will follow.)

Class Resources

For the past couple years, I’ve done part of the CW unit for the HS I work at. Here are the class outline and the basic handout files in Word format.

Published in: on March 28, 2009 at 10:57 am  Leave a Comment