In October I had the pleasant experience of visiting the Goulburn Historic Waterworks to check out their annual Steampunk & Victoriana Fair. It was brilliant fun, and I will certainly be going along again!
The Waterworks is located next to the Wollondilly River, making it a very picturesque location. I can completely understand why so many events choose this location for a wide variety of shindigs. The official website explains that the pumping station was built in the 1880’s and provided Goulburn’s first reticulated water supply. The original Appleby Bro’s Beam engine is still maintained as a working piece of machinery. I was struck by how surprisingly quiet it was - somehow I has imagined that it would be as loud as the steam powered trains that I have seen. Beyond the original machine, there is a variety of other impressive devices that are somewhat meditative to watch in movement.
The museum space has a complicated past, much like many small museums. It has swung between fully privately funded, to council funding multiple times, but has somehow managed to survive quite solidly. There is a neat little education program available and the volunteers that I met onsite were very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. The Steampunk & Victoriana Fair is an initiative by the Waterworks to raise funds and profile. The Steampunk & Victoriana Fair has been running since 2014, with an attendance of approximately 250 people in it’s first year. Attendance for 2018 was approximately 3000, which is a fairly good rate of growth for an annual event (I believe this would have been higher is not for the rain). Revenue is also raised by having themed retail stores and food vendors. Cleverly, the food vendors were hidden slightly around a corner, which meant that the steampunk atmosphere could be maintain a little more easily. Multiple competitions (costume, inventions etc) invite participants to join in the fun from early before the events date, keeping it fresh in the public’s mind.
Steampunk is a genre of fiction that imagines a 19th-century inspired world that is influenced by science fiction style elements. There are very few ‘rules’ on what this means exactly - but imagine, it you will, a Victorian Gentleman in a lovely outfit that also includes a fully steam powered mechanical arm, or a set of suitcases that follows along behind the owner using steam powered tank treads. It is an amalgamation of science fiction with steam powered 19th century ingenuity and fashion. As someone who enjoys textile arts and sewing, I was so inspired by the characterful costumes. Admittedly, I am certainly not looking to get involved in another hobby, but I thought the deliberate anachronistic nature of the costuming looked very enjoyable. There is a storytelling element that is very alluring to the whole business.
With that in mind, I think that as a revenue raising event, the Fair is a wonderful choice for the site. The volunteers onsite helped to explain how the actual technology worked and I did notice that people were stopping to read the historic panels. The atmosphere was fabulous, and the users of the site clearly cared for the space. A quick googling brings up plenty of news articles talking about the event, raising the profile and traffic of the Waterworks. It also promotes the historic buildings as a prime site for other private and public events. I love that it both celebrates a history that was, and will never be. I will absolutely be returning to visit again this year!
Beckford’s Tower was on our list for the Open Palaces Programme, scheduled for a hands on workshop with Dr Amy Frost. Beckford’s Tower is part of the Bath Preservation Trust, along with a number of other buildings that I visited during the educational program. Dr Amy Frost is the Senior Curator and led two of our workshops, and also demonstrated her wonderful abilities in stone masonry at the Bath Museum of Architecture.
Beckford’s Tower is an incredible building that was lovely to spend time in. To reach the tower itself there is a quick stroll through a surprisingly beautiful graveyard. I felt a little like I was wandering into the beginning of a fairy tale, and wondered whether a princess would let her hair down from the gold gilded peak of the tower. I managed to make it up most of the tower until my terror of enclosed spaces and heights won out. It was an incredible view though. I loved the curation within the building and thought it was just a marvellous place to study.
The building was constructed in the 1820s, commissioned by William Beckford, an English novelist. He had a deep passion for architecture and landscaping, with a love for the picturesque movement. His tower was built as a place of solitude and quiet, landscaped to mimic the concepts within the picturesque art pieces that he enjoyed. It included a vast pleasure garden that stretched between his home, located on Lansdowne Crescent, to the tower which is at the top of Lansdowne Hill.
With his death, the land was sold to a publican who used the area briefly as a beer garden in the early 1840s. It was repurchased by Beckford’s daughter, the Duchess of Hamilton, in 1848, who donated the building and land to the Walcot Parish, where it entered it’s second life as a graveyard. The tower was partly converted into a chapel to carry out funerals. Originally, Beckford had been buried in Bath Abbey Cemetery, but he was reinterred shortly after the towers transformation.
It’s third life started in the 1970’s, sold after being made redundant by the church. It had endured a catastrophic fire that had destroyed much of it’s contents in the 1930s. Privately purchased, the first intention was to renovate the building into two flats. The Beckford Tower Trust and museum were established in 1977 and it started it’s new life as a historical site. Bath Preservation Trust are now the primary caretakers of the building. As a side thought, if you ever want to stay the night it looks quite beautiful and is available through The Landmark Trust (link below).
The workshop at Beckford’s Tower was a hands on chance to create reports focussed on restoration and conservation of the building. There was a very pleasant 60 minutes of walking through sections and finding areas that we thought could use conservation. Dr Frost was brilliant, allowing us to come up with our own thoughts and I was pleasantly surprised that as a group we perhaps picked up on 50% of what we should have noticed. The other 50% included us madly taking down notes and asking a lot of questions. Dr Frost was incredibly enjoyable to listen to and wonderfully pragmatic about the limitations that are involved in small heritage sites without huge budgets.
The second part of the workshop included considering how to work on the interpretation of the landscaping, which has significantly changed since Beckford’s time. The area is complex, with management of the building being organised by Bath Preservation Trust, and the grounds managed by the Bath & North East Somerset Council. This style of situation in heritage sites is not unusual, but nevertheless awkward. I can imagine there must be a great deal of diplomacy and consultation being conducted behind the scenes. I did like the challenge of considering how you could interpret a site that can never go back to what it once was. Those bodies are happily buried for the rest of their existence. So how can you interpret something that is stubbornly no longer there?
My thoughts revolved around two concepts. One of my coworkers created a fantastic children’s activity that they called time telescopes. Using old photos printed on transparencies, they attached them to white PVC pipes. By looking through the pipe, you could overlay the picture with what now existed. This is a very low cost alternatives to the AR apps being used by multiple organisations, where an overlay of images can be created to call back to the past. However, there are not really any photos of the gardens during their existence. My idea was that an artistic interpretation could be designed, using paintings that were focussed on the written details of what was described in the garden, and painted in the picturesque style that Beckford loved. For a low cost option, large interpretation panels could be placed in the landscape allowing participants to look through the semi transparent window that had a view painted onto it. Alternatively you could design an app that painted those images onto the phone screen depending on where it picked a person standing. It was an enjoyable thing to image, and I think quite influenced by a video I had recently seen of Van Gogh’s Starry Night brought to life (I’ve popped a link in below).
Beckford’s Tower only opens on select dates during the year, so I recommend checking out their website. It’s well worth a visit!
Beckford’s Tower: http://beckfordstower.org.uk
Landmark Trust: Beckford’s Tower
3d VR version of Van Gogh’s Starry Night: Motion Magic
One of the stops that I had been extremely excited to see during the Open Palaces Programme was the Roman Baths. I ended up visiting twice, which I am so glad for, because there is no way I could have taken in the vast amount of information in one session.
If you are visiting the Roman Baths as a tourist, I would highly recommend going to the summer evening sessions. It’s a little quieter, and the location takes on a very different atmosphere once the glare of sunlight dims. Also, contrary to the descriptions of the taste of the water, I didn’t find it repulsive. Someone during the tour described it like ‘warm water, served through a sweaty sock’. I would describe it more like warm bore water inside a metal tin. It was odd, but not awful. As a museum enthusiast, be prepared to take a lot of notes. There is a whole lot to see and think about.
There are some significant differences between The Roman Baths and the vast number of heritage sites in Australia. Firstly, there seems to be an entire country of people visiting it everyday. The Roman Baths had a whopping 1.2million people visit it during the last financial year This is remarkably close to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, who stood at 1.12million during the previous financial year. The part that makes this particularly incredible, is that those 1.2million visitors are walking through and touching the ancient space. There are areas that are protected, but when you are walking on those ancient stones you are stepping on the real stones. There are places where you can put your hand on the building and almost feel the weight of the years behind it. I can’t image the work that must be achieved behind the scenes by a dedicated conservation team to make this possible. From all those people visiting and some brilliant retail/hospitality choices, The Roman Baths turns over a very tidy profit each year. It’s important to keep that in mind when looking at the incredible set up that exists there, I can imagine that a good amount of that is achievable because they sell themselves extremely well. I was also incredibly impressed that in their annual report, they reflect on the benefit that has reached the wider community through generated tourism revenue and employment.
The two fantastic take homes from the Roman Baths, for me, was the diversity of their audio guides and brilliant use of scrims. We had a workshop session with the Education Manager, Lindsay Braidley, who was entirely inspiring. Much of the workshop revolved around placing people back into the site, and their work on creating audio tours that felt personable. I also fell in love with the concept of the ‘Tripod of sustainability’ which includes Customers, Commercial, and Conservation. I will likely cover that much more in another blog post (most likely when I am day dreaming about working in Bath).
Audio guides and I, are not normally friends. I like strolling at my own pace, and being required to stand in front of an object while someone talks in my ear is not my idea of a good time. Generally I find them hugely irritating and kind of pretentious. The key is, that most guides are there to inform the visitor about details, and without a guide there is a good chance of missing information. So it was with a heavy heart that I picked up an audio guide and started winding through the ginormous crowds of people. The Roman Baths has gone out their way to match people with an interest through different programs. From memory the guides included children, adults, archeology, geology and (my personal favourite) the Bill Bryson tour. You are not locked in to hearing only one, you can key into which ever one interests you the most, giving me some power over what style of information that I wanted. The Bill Bryson one particular appealed to me, because it was really a bit like wandering around with a mate who liked to think about things, and was very accessible. The children’s audio guide was quite enjoyable, and included a variety of characters that kids could connect with. I found myself frequently tuning into a session, because they were so personable. The audio points are all over the place, and there are few spots which don’t include them. Audio guides were free with admission and available in a wide range of languages.
Scrims! I personally love the use of a good scrim, but not everyone does. A scrim is an incredibly thin piece of fabric, that is mostly see through, which you can either print or project an image onto. The reason that I love them so dearly is that you can very effectively create a scene where the current and the past bump up against each other. This is particularly useful in heritage locations when restoring a location to the vision of the past is not suitable or in interpreting areas which are difficult for a participant to imagine. The Roman Baths were using a large numbers of scrims with incredible results. Many of the rooms that are still being researched and used by archaeologists had scrims with projected scenes of everyday use in the space. The character actors were not often speaking (which is great for avoiding language or hearing barriers), but soundscapes created the atmosphere of noise that would have been heard within a busy location full of people. In some locations, scrims were used in conjunction with items that were placed around the area, further creating the illusion of the scene. It was an incredible experience and I found it very sympathetic to the spaces, and really felt like seeing the ruins and combining the scenes made the building extremely relatable.
The Roman Baths are well worth a visit for some wonderful cutting edge museum practice. They will soon be opening up a new area, which is highly exciting. I really recommend checking out their annual reports if you are in the museum business, because they are fascinating. They also have a wonderful website full of educational programs that can be downloaded and studied in detail. It was truly a wonderful experience.
My current challenge is to find some new and realistic food for our little cottage. We have a marvellous new artist working on items, and I can not wait to show you what she has been working on. However cabbages are proving very hard to find, if not outright illusive. Sadly, I do not think this fine example will fit in with the tone we are attempting to create...
Sally Lunn’s was the first museum I checked out during my Open Palaces Programme adventure. The day before the tour started, I decided to stomp my way around Bath locating some of the places that I would be coming to and getting an idea of the location. Plus, I was in Bath! My excitement levels were so high I felt like my little heart was going to bounce straight out of my chest.
Sally Lunn’s is located close to the heart of the town, and within an easy walk from the train station and Roman Baths. The top part is a great little restaurant dedicated to serving a historic themed menu, including something call a Bath Bun, which is a little like a very large dinner roll which has been sliced in half. The Smithsonian mag describes it much better then I as “nearly six-inches in diameter with a soft, domed top, it is like a brioche bun on steroids”. I didn’t get a chance to eat there, but I can say that the smells coming from the kitchen were enticing. I will note, the food was surprisingly affordable and it’s a regret that I didn’t find the time to eat there.
Below the restaurant is a small museum dedicated to the history of Sally Lunn’s. I personally wonder whether there is a better word to call it then a museum, but heritage site doesn’t really do justice to the level of contents. I wouldn’t call it a heritage house either. It is not a traditional museum of ‘things in cabinets and words on walls”, but a fully recreated set of scenes that interpret the space. On one side of the small space is a fully recreated kitchen, with some fantastic looking fake food. Only after you have spent 2 months staring at plastic tomatoes can you fully appreciate realistic fake food. The other side was my favourite, with an explanation of the floor level changes and a plaster archeologist busily excavating a section.
What I really loved was the immersion of history combined with the present. The historic section was great, but having a section explaining how the history was being discovered and the different eras of the building was great. On the wall in the modern section was a series of very symbolic figures showing the different depths that the ground would have been at. It was such a simple and effective method of showing those differences, and for someone who comes from a country where cities have not necessarily been built on top of other cities, it was a really useful way to picture it. I loved that the archeologists finds and record keeping were on display (and that he had a neat little packed lunch).
The museum was free and really is worth a visit if you happen to be in the area.
As a side note, plastic models of people give me the serious willies. I loved that I couldn’t see the faces of either of the figures. But not in a terrifying Blair Witch style. This didn’t seem relevant to the actual review though...
Website for Sally Lunn’s: https://www.sallylunns.co.uk
Dana Bate: The Squishy History of Bath’s Buns
As a disclaimer, a number of years ago I joined a historical reenactment group called the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) . The medieval age as it should have been, sounded ideal as a hobby. I would spend weekends swanning around in a lovely dress, eating food and watching knights in shining armour. For many years I enjoyed playing, but I started to feel disillusioned by a brand of discrimination that made me distinctly uncomfortable, and decided that it was time to find a new hobby. I went back to gaming and doubled down on my career. At times I have a pang of regret and longing for the hobby, because while it was good it was amazing. As long as I could disconnect from the feeling that the ‘game’ was not balanced to support people from all backgrounds.
Fast forward to now, and the ugly rise of white supremacy into the public eye, reenactment of all types are finding themselves uncomfortably linked to discrimination on a grander scale then I personally saw within my little group. I have sat on the sidelines watching friends I adore grapple with what this means: what were the groups doing to attract these members to their fold? Are you a (insert descriptor here) if you liaise with a (insert descriptor here). I can see the pain that it causes the vast majority of people within the SCA, a group stemmed from a group of slight hippy uni kids with romantic Arthurian legends on their mind and a set of elf ears they were dying to try out.
Today I found myself reading a fascinating blog post by Guy Windsor, a mover and shaker in the Historic European Martial Arts (HEMA) group, condemning discrimination within their group. While I read it, I found myself again thinking about how this keeps occurring. In pondering it, I found myself drawn to his explanation of the name HEMA “It stands for Historical European Martial Arts, and a sad and disgusting number of white supremacists, nazis, and other scum have latched on to the “European” bit (at the expense of the historical, the martial, and the artistry) and are bringing the term into appalling disrepute.”.
Historical Reenactment is tricky. On one hand, it can be a fabulous method of learning and teaching history. There is nothing like actually trying to walk in someone else’s shoes to get the full effect of what it means to live in a different culture or time period. Museums often use character actors to great effect to get a message through; immersion is a wonderful tool and can create a long term love affair with history. In the wrong hands though, it is extraordinarily easy to completely miss the reality of a time period. Brain Sarnacki (way back in 2011) touches on some of the danger points with this fabulous quote: Bad reenactments can innocently allow specific details, like clothing, to overtake the importance of understanding the meanings of the event being reenacted or, more sinisterly, whitewash history with patently wrong interpretations of history.
My first thoughts around this are: maybe all historic reenactments are a bad idea. After all, no mater what era you look at, there is a history of minorities not faring well. Sometimes the minorities change a bit, but generally speaking human rights and dignities is an ever changing land scape. Ideally, each generation is trying to be better then the next. Thus, maybe the smartest thing is to just avoid trying to recreate time periods so that we can avoid glossing over the inequalities and nasties that would have made living in those times a lot less comfortable. There are certainly groups that can achieve whole truth scenarios, but I’m not certain anyone specifically does them for fun. As people living in a modern world looking for enjoyable pastimes, maybe focusing on our current or future society and not romanticising the past would be wisest. This has the benefit of just not having reenactment groups for discriminatory practices to hide in, but certainly seems heavy handed.
My second thoughts were around history reenactment groups that have not publicised problems around harbouring secret Nazis. Admittedly, just because I haven’t heard about it doesn’t mean they are not struggling with it. However, I think two points might contribute towards groups avoiding discrimination: Exclusivity and Knowledge. Groups such as The Companie of St George specialise in very specific time periods and require members of the group to be experts within that. There is no space for romanticism. The requirement to apply to join means that the group can be selective and chose people who are educated within their field.
Which brings me to my next point: reenactment and lack of education is a terribly bad mix. Where groups like the SCA formed from history loving geeks inspired by Arthurian legends and university textbooks, this is particular to geek pop culture from the 70’s and 80’s. I think I would be hard pressed to find members from the era who weren’t part of the geeky minority that was reading Tolkien and playing Dungeons and Dragons. Their inspiration came from the ideal notions of chivalry and the hero of the day. I’m sure many new reenactors may have come from this as well. However, there is a growing number of people inspired by “historical” shows such as “Vikings” or even “Game of Thrones” (don’t even get me started). These are just examples, and I’m sure there are plenty of other options available in different mediums. These individuals find themselves caught up in a history that is dubious at best and highly damaging at worst. Before I go any further, I do want to acknowledge #notallreenactors, please don’t flame me. Connection however to “Might is right” is flowing into reenactment groups through people choosing to be Vikings, or Crusaders, or whatever conquering group that appeals to them, because it dials in with the ideals of a white strong Europe. A simple google search will find an assortment of articles approaching this topic for many different history based groups, with one I have linked below written by David Perry, that I think succinctly sums up some of the problems.
So, how do we fix this giant problem? Honestly, today I started to wonder something that would have made my mentors within the SCA go grey over night. I’m going to say something that people are going to think is me either trolling or throwing a grenade into the room and running away. But hear me out.
Maybe it’s time to stop trying to be ‘realistic’. Maybe those elf ears should come back out from the cupboard. Maybe it’s time to stop being serious unless you have very specific and restrictive recruiting processes.
Live action role play (LARP), has had a chequered past. LARP is where you will find people however remaking history in a fantasy style setting. In the SCA over the last year I have listened into the fairly serious conversations of whether a swastika should be allowed to be worn in public because some research proves that it has been worn by non-nazis 1500 odd years ago. That’s correct, but hiding behind historical ‘research’ completely ignores the fact the the world has marched on. It ignores that history happens in context, and sometimes things are inextricably tangled up in different events (particularly when those events happen in living memory). LARP has the benefit being able to say “Not in our make believe system” and bypassing those problematic conversations altogether.
In discussing the Richard Iott controversy in 2011, Robert Slayton explores some of the dangers in War Reenactment, and I think makes an excellent point in saying that “reenactments on American soil fail to reflect the historic record. They work against the noblest aspirations of the historian. By cleansing war of ideas and policy, they purge history of human meaning and of its moral dimension”. Most reenactments are going to be toeing this uncomfortable line. People will hide behind what they argue is a legitimate historical position with out understanding the full context of the history they are interested in. Or they will twist historical ‘facts’ and research by latching onto the small points that can back their opinions. The more we fall down the hole of defining history through the small details, we lose track of the big picture of why it’s good that we don’t live in the past. It’s not educational, it isn’t good representation, it the corruption of truth through good intentions and the search for connection.
I used to wonder why historians and museum professionals were so rare in the reenactment community. I think I understand now, and suddenly my occasional pangs for community based games with fun costumes makes me wonder if it’s time to check out a different course of action.
I also stumbled on an amazing article about LARP and consent culture that further sent my mind reeling while connecting up some ideas. When we enter into a historical reenactment event, we are in a sense placing ourselves in a position of vulnerability. We dress up and hope that we fit into the group. In Sarah Bowmans article, she touches on the problem of the ‘Cult of Hardcore’ within LARPing communities, and I have certainly seen these problems regularly in a number of historical groups. The answer that the Hardcore will give to a perceived slight is, in a nut shell, eat a spoon of cement and harden up. In a community where we ask people to trust that they will not be abused or hurt while being vulnerable, this style of interaction further damages the whole. It creates an atmosphere of distrust and agitation. To foster creativity and empathy, we need an understanding of group consent and personal consent within what is effectively a giant community led game. Learning how to accept that we will, inadvertently and sometimes deliberately, hurt others is paramount to developing the skills to appropriately address some of these extremely delicate conversations. Instead of bullheadedly sticking to “This totally isn’t a swastika and people are stupid”, opening ourselves to vulnerability and empathy by saying “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable and I want you to be having as good a time here as I am”. It’s hard to face our own failures, but owning them outright means we have any chance of learning from them and building the bridges we (generally) accidentally burn.
I have waxed lyrical now for almost 2000 words, and only touched on the tiniest part of this iceberg. I have linked below to some of the articles that I thought of while typing this up. I’ve made an additional list of extra things that I have gathered up while thinking this over as well. Please keep in mind, that I am not an expert on this topic, just a curious bystander hoping for the best and enjoying a good thought exercise.
Articles actually used:
Sarah Bowman: A Matter of Trust – Larp and Consent Culture
David Perry: White supremacists love Vikings. But they've got history all wrong.
Brian Sarnacki: My View on Historical Reenactments
Robert Slayton: Reenacting Evil
Guy Windsor: Fascists are poisoning HEMA. Here’s one small thing I’m doing about it.
Articles I found interesting along the way:
If you have the time, the Public Medievalist has some really interesting articles that delve into some of these topics: https://www.publicmedievalist.com/race-racism-middle-ages-toc/
Jameson Adame: Why living history matters in teaching
Maury Brown: The Consent and Community Safety Manifesto
Joshua Green: What’s Wrong with Nazi Reenacting
Jamie MacDonald: Larp and the joy of collective bullshit
Kate Townshend: Role play, chivalry and a world without sexism: Welcome to the ultimate female fantasy
Clayton Willets: Reenacting in a Modern World
I popped into the Hall School Museum and Heritage Centre last week and was totally blown away by their WW1 displays!
Having tackled fake food in a heritage house in the past, I have a lot of respect for anyone who can find items that don’t look a bit shoddy in someway. The last batch I bought were not too bad, but I still ended up with some very dubious looking carrots. Hall School Museum decided to make their own! A skilled volunteer led the process and has created some very edible looking food.
Beyond the awesome fake food, there were a couple of extra impressive pieces of museum design. The current exhibition space is a permanent zone for the display, but it started as a temporary exhibition for the WW1 anniversaries. Public reactions to the display were so strong that they decided to move the display into a permenant area which is slightly smaller then the temporary exhibition space. To achieve this, the museum has employed a couple of very clever tactics. The one that blew my mind was changing the wall panels into a swinging display a visitor could flip through in their own time. There is some brilliant design going into this small community museum, and it is certainly well worth a visit!
Museum working, game playing and dog loving geek. Tune in for musings about the GLAM sector, and generally geekiness.