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 took the time to pop into Midwarr/Harvest yesterday at the National Museum of Australia, with the knowledge that I was catching the exhibition on the last day. I’m not certain why it took me so long to check this amazing exhibition out, it has some fantastic artworks and brilliant design practice. The exhibition is a collaboration between Mulkun Wirrpanda and John Wolseley, exploring the plants of north-east Arnhem Land. There were more then 80 items to explore which stretched out over a number of different mediums.
I loved the organic feeling to the exhibition space. The front entrance to the exhibition included natural feeling curves with a backdrop of a massive canvas stretching nearly the length of the displays. The text panels incorporated the same art styles and created connection to the works very succinctly. It will never fail to impress me when a designer so beautifully conveys messages in so few words. Along with text panels, there were also called out quotes from the artists, in both English and in Yolnu matha (language). It really was a stunning exhibition, and I am disappointed that I left it too late to visit a second time. I’m also disappointed that the book seems to be sold out pretty much from every shop in Canberra - on the upside it’s nice to see a museum exhibition book sell out!
I think what I loved the most with this exhibition was the connection that I felt to the artists. Through expressive panels, I was reading their stories that deepened my curiousity and respect for the works. I felt a powerful draw towards the artist tools and creation process descriptions. Having the wood block cuttings next to their respective prints was a wonderful choice. Not only could I imagine the work that it would take to create the blocks, it created a real resonance with the matierials displayed. I appreciated the small display of artistic tools on display, as another personal connection, and I thought that the photos of the artists creating these beautiful works were fantastic. I really loved that the display design did not shy away from showing the medium that the works were painted on to, and in fact seemed to embrace all aspects of the work as significant.
Having recently attended the National Libaries Dombrovski exhibition, I felt that as a viewer I preferred these deeper connections to really humanise the artworks. Perhaps the purpose of the exhibition Dombrovski exhibition was to give an insider peak into the vast nature of Tasmanian wilderness. However, my reaction to the exhibition was a whole lot of ‘my, that’s a lot of nature’. I would have loved to see some of the personal artefacts to give me an idea of the person behind the lens - a camera, a duffle bag, one of the glass slides, some personal stories. Without these small human connections, I found it hard to transcend from ‘my, that’s a big mountain’, to ‘wow! I can’t beleive a human took that photo under such extreme conditions’. Perhaps the design of the exhibition just required someone who is much more interested in natural landscapes then I am.
A short break in my home town for a weekend gave me some time to go and have a look at one of the local museums. As a young adult I had visited the Berrima District Museum several times, but I’m pretty certain I haven’t been there for at least 10 years. It’s a great little museum, with good spaces and a nice history of average people rather then a focus on the famous. It’s also located in beautiful Berrima, which will always have a special place in my heart for stone cottages and good honey. Enough about me, let’s find the amazing parts of the current displays!
There has been plenty of funding available in the GLAM sector due to the anniversary of the WW1. Berrima District Museum seized on this chance and have created a really fabulous exhibition called the Southern Highlands 1200. The reasoning behind the title is that the Southern HIghlands had 1200 local people sign up for service. I really like the title, it has a draw to it without instantly referring to WW1, a change from many of the other exhibitions I have seen.
There are a lot of really slick ideas going on inside this exhibition that I thought were really amazing. The panels are succinct and drenched in human stories, which makes for pleasant (if not occasionally sad) reading. Along one side of the exhibition is a wall of remembrance, with a space for each of the 1200 enlisted people. On the opposite wall is the more in-depth stories, focusing on a mixture of stories rather then just those who died. The wall of remembrance has a nifty code: a printed poppy for those who died, an identity disc for people linked to other stories or objects in the exhibition and ‘Discovering Anzacs’ leading to a very well presented interactive on iPads. The symbols were easy to see along the wall and I did notice my companion for the day looking for those links.
The display cases are fantastic. Filled with interesting objects, and generally connected to one persons story, they link nicely together. I do like the trend for removing the tags from cases and placing them on the glass. I think removing the number of things that can distract from the emotion or presence of objects is a great thing, and honestly I don’t need to see a tag under an embroidered postcard to know it’s a postcard. I find myself looking for the information on items that have ‘spoken’ to me or that I need more details on.
There are two interactive that are available, in the shape of a replica hat and electronic media. I did like the replica hat being available to touch and interpret, whoever created that item did a fantastic job. Placing an item into someone’s hands is always a great way to sell an object, so this was a neat way to do that without having to have a museum person on hand to facilitate the experience. The iPads are also a great touch and did not remove focus from the rest of the exhibition. I appreciate that the program worked with a viewers natural curiosity, and I found myself falling down a ‘click hole’, where one topic lead to another seamlessly. The program facilitated people choosing to just explore without asking them to know what they were looking for, a great method of encouraging learning and linking of topics.
Beyond the specific WW1 exhibition there were a few other cabinets/displays that caught my eye. I’m kicking myself for not having taken enough photos of the museum, as I think there is some great museum practice happening. I also found myself wishing that the same level of funding could be found for more then just Australia’s war history. As much as I respect Australia’s war history, I tend to wonder if all these well funded WW1 exhibitions, which will likely stay on display due to the money and quality poured into them, will end up skewing the public perception of important events in our history. Where as each little local museum may have once included at least a small panel, now many will have entire wings dedicated to Australia’s war history.
Yesterday, I found myself daydreaming about solutions to personal heritage and community in a world that increasingly becoming filled with small spaces. Personally, I love the concepts behind a lot of new developments in apartment building design: shared spaces on levels for socialising, community gardens, gyms, private cinemas shared by tenants. I wonder if apartment buildings will become as socialable as the street party scene that my parents remember.
I thought that a natural step in this social movement, was to create a new position within an apartment block of a Heritage Officer. Paid from the yearly strata fee, the purpose of the position is to create community through displays and exhibitions about occupants in the building. By linking people to these often hidden or overlooked heritages, apartment designers could create a greater depth of connection and empathy amongst occupants. Occupants could be as involved (or as disconnected) as they chose, with the Heritage Office requiring skills in privacy and sensitivity. The likelyhood is that it would take quite some time to create the traction for people to be willingly involved, so the Heritage Officer would need patience and people skills.
Some examples of displays/exhibitions that could be achieved:
- Wedding dresses: Some displayed in museum style cases, other reproduced for display in corridors or common spaces. Interpretive panels with information about the dress and potentially the wedding day for the person involved.
- A digital resource with favourite recipes from apartments, with a different meal show cased on the website regularly. This could be expanded into multicultural food days or teamed up with a company who could delivere all the ingredients for the show cased meal in a box for those who want to try making it.
- A book with the favourite children’s stories from around the apartment block
- Large interpretative vinyls, tracking the distances that people have come to live in these apartment blocks
- A collection display in the foyer of apartment dwellers favourite tea cup or coffee mug
Museum working, game playing and dog loving geek. Tune in for musings about the GLAM sector, and generally geekiness.