By Ryan Shwartz
The bell tolls nine times,
From the steeple of St. Peter's Church.
From old Milwaukee town,
Carried board for whitewashed board,
It heralds the new day.
The small village wakes.
Forges flame, aromas waft from the Inn.
From bygone era garbed,
Docents open their aged buildings wide,
For their guests arrive.
On foot and by tram,
They are welcomed at every door.
Inside, history waits,
In the bricks, the boards, and artifacts.
Here, we give it life.
A tram rumbles further on,
Past the town, through the woods, into fields.
Farmers till the earth,
Animals pulling long-bladed plows behind,
Just as a century ago.
The fields are rocky,
Faithfully sown, though low in harvested yields.
Farmers pause their labor,
As the visitors come 'round the bend, snapping pictures,
And eager to see Ted and Bear
The oxen give a snort,
Rattling the oaken yoke about their broad shoulders.
Their driver pats them,
Indulgent of the faithful, favorite working creatures,
As children swarm around.
No one is perturbed,
By the pause in this day's plowing schedule.
Money is not the aim,
Of anyone across Old World Wisconsin's grounds.
Knowledege is the treasure.
Thoughts on the use of Outdoor Museums for Rural Life Reproduction
Insofar as historic institutions are concerned with the preservation of agricultural ethnic heritage, few venues are so well-tailored to the task than outdoor Living History museums. With the coming of the 21st century, we have reached an age where the men who worked the land behind the plow and the women who woke before the rising sun to start the fires and milk the cows by hand have passed away, leaving behind a generation who know nothing of agriculture before the tractor and whose children may never see more of a farm than what is visible from the highway. Among citizens of a new age, where agriculture is preferred as a behind-the-scenes element of the greater tableau of modern living, such outdoor museums that exist take on new significance.
The world of public history is vast in expanse and as deep as the Mariana's Trench in its depth, with each form of museum following the function of its subject. In the case of rural living and agriculture, no other form of museum could be more congenial to the function than the living history museum. While traditional museum institutions-- the classical edifices to humanity's scholarship such as the Smithsonian, the New York Museum of Natural History, the Field Museum of Chicago, the Milwaukee Public Museum, and their like-- serve admirably to address the breadth of their subjects, they cannot be so well-suited to this particular function.
The words "agriculture" or "farm" inevitably bring to mind gently rolling hills and rows and rows of orderly crops in the fields under a rich blue sky. To begin, this is an effect that cannot be replicated in a museum nestled in the grid pattern of a city. Furthermore, without this "space," the farming practices of old cannot be reproduced better than on a video screen. Herein lies the two most valuable attributes of an outdoor museum as a center for the preservation of a society's agricultural heritage. A museum which spans several acres of workable land allows the visitor to immerse themselves in the lifestyle and environment, while providing the staff the ability to demonstrate traditional farming practices in this ideal area. This demonstrating, in turn, further develops the immersion of the guest, creating a symbiotic circle in the museum structure where one experience reinforces the other elements.
Therefore, the structuring of an outdoor living history museum can be considered most conducive as a monument to the pioneering and settlement of the new American frontiers by peoples of every creed and color. The sheer amount of territory they boast and the environment they create reflect the very essence of our agricultural heritage.
Just as outdoor museums are an evolved itineration of public history institutions, they too must re-imagine themselves to suit the sensibilities of modern audiences. In short, museum patrons have changed with the times. Gone are the days where visitors would visit historic sites simply to see old buildings and tools. Largely due to the nature of our digital age, visitors to museums come and sign the guestbook (and to spend their hard-earned greenbacks) expecting to receive an experience.
In the face of flagging seasonal attendance, such museums are facing an existential crisis, requiring a vivid reallocation of priorities, resources, and techniques. This is particularly true in the case of institutions depicting everyday life, which can seem almost mundane to the casual observer without engaging activities and imaginative programming. Fortunately, it is the very nature of this new audience that provides agricultural museums the ability to avail themselves of a "novelty" market. The modernity that produced the most recent generation is, on the whole, far removed from the world of farming, and impossibly distant from the days of draft animals and hand-sewing textiles.
People, therefore, would benefit from "getting their hands dirty" on these reproduction farms, and this approach can be effective in a variety of ways. The first of these has to do with farm life, something utterly foreign to most guests of today. Living history farms need to begin making the transition from "telling" to "showing." This refers to the need to move away, somewhat, from a narrative approach and instead involve staff more heavily in demonstrating old fashioned activities and techniques common to farm life, and to relating those activities to occupations and chores to those visitors might identify with. From there, it would behoove museums to make use of reproductions rather than actual artifacts, as visitors whose interests are thus piqued will be more interested in trying their hand. Touching and feeling, understanding the effort and its meaning, all this will change spectators into participants.
Another valuable practice for living history staff to exercise is a more interactive, intensive form of interpretation. While 3rd person docents are essential to the industry, living history sites would benefit greatly from the inclusion of 1st person storytelling. The nature of this sort of museum lends itself easily to a natural association with actors and theatricality. A mutually-beneficial arrangement where actors might receive regular employment and public history can benefit from their expertise, developing theatre programs adds a strong new dimension to a historic site. Having actors play the role of real people in an informed improvisational exercise will activate the imagination of visitors and draw them deeper into the world established by the outdoor museum itself.
When considered, the world of Public History is in an important transitional phase, not only in Wisconsin, but across the nation and the world. Digital age patrons expect an enhanced experience to result from their visit, which offers them not only a chance to witness a life they themselves have never known, but an experience from that life through hands-on activities and theatrical-style programming. Although the Internet allows people access to incredible amounts of data and information at the click of a mouse, outdoor museums still command an important role in providing one of the few things web-based encounters cannot: genuine, relatable human interaction in an absolutely authentic atmosphere. Until they invent a virtual reality interface for the public market, the real McCoy cannot ever be duplicated or replaced.