Thursday, May 7, 2009

Behind the Scenes at Greenfield Village

Until I began frequenting the Benson-Ford Research Center, located on the grounds of The Henry Ford (where one can search for historical records and photographs of everything Greenfield Village), I had not given a second thought as to what went into the displays and presentations at the open-air museum.
Much of what you are about to read in this chapter comes directly from the training manuals given to the presenters.

Period-dressed presenters eating dinner at the Daggett Farm

First off is the Mission Statement of The Henry Ford: "The Henry Ford provides unique educational experiences based on authentic objects, stories, and lives from America's traditions of ingenuity, resourcefulness and innovation. Our purpose is to inspire people to learn from these traditions to help shape a better future."

Authentic. This is the key word. Nothing is placed randomly inside the structures at the Village. The curators carefully consider every object before allowing it to become part of the site. It's this type of vigilance that maintains the appropriate period appearance for each and every building. Every object tells part of the story. Nothing is there by accident, and nothing is there that doesn't support the overall story.

Everything is strategically placed inside the parlor at Firestone Farm.

Of course, there are some things beyond the control of even the most ardent historian: airplanes flying overhead, the bright lights of the local motel and other modern buildings just outside the gates of the Village, the emergency siren system on the first Saturday of every month...
But, none of these contemporary backdrops detracts from the overall experience. One is surrounded by period buildings, vehicles, and presenters, and, because of the overall scenario, the signs of the modern world become non-existent.

A colonial girl inside the Giddings House

The presenters here play a major part in the whole feeling of Greenfield Village. Through the wearing of period clothing they themselves give ambiance just by their outward appearance. For instance, stepping into the Daggett Farmhouse - an 18th century saltbox originally from Connecticut - and seeing a presenter in accurate period clothing spinning on the period walking wheel gives a desired effect to the visitor of possibly stepping through a portal through time, whereas a modern dress curator would not have nearly the same effect whatsoever.

Likewise at Firestone Farm, where period dressed presenters abound in greater numbers than any other structure inside the Village. Seeing modern people make supper from scratch means little to most folks, but, put those same presenters in period clothing doing the exact same task, well, now everyone is interested. And, there are numerous homes in the Village that apply this stepping into the past procedure including the Edison Homestead, the Ford Home, and, at times, the McGuffey Birthplace, Scotch Settlement School, and Susquehanna Plantation.

The women of the Adams House work together to make their dinner

The workers who portray our "ancestors" have a set of rules they must follow. For instance, they must report to work fully dressed in the period clothing that is supplied to them by the Clothing and Textile production staff. Hair must be in place for the era they are portraying. No make up, lip gloss, or nail polish of any kind is to be worn. Jewelry, aside from an emergency bracelet or a wedding ring, must be period appropriate and approved by the clothing staff. This means no earrings for the males and no wristwatches of any kind. Even undergarments are provided for the period dressed presenter: "Undergarments such as bustles and/or petticoats that have been assigned to you provide certain period silhouettes and must be worn."
Although the presenter may not portray an actual named or historical character from the past while working in the homes, their appearance, actions, and manner of speaking attempt to evoke the past. The presenters are trained in thought and detail to give the visitor the impression that they have stepped into the past.

The kitchen was the busiest room in virtually every 19th century home, including the one in which Henry Ford was born.

They are taught to think about their lives as an 18th or 19th century person. However, except for the servers and hosts at the The Eagle Tavern, you will not find presenters practicing 1st person - speaking and acting as if they are from the past and not acknowledging the present - as is done in other open-air museums such as Plimouth Plantation or Colonial Williamsburg.

The only building that presenters speak in 1st person inside of Greenfield Village is the Eagle Tavern

Greenfield Village applies what I like to call 2nd person: the presenter is dressed in period clothing, doing period work, and carries themselves in a period manner but speaks to the public using modern language and terms, explaining the 'what,' 'how,' and 'why' of the chore at hand. This allows the visitor to learn of everyday life long-past in a fun and fascinating manner and gives the opportunity for questions.
By the way, it's at homes such as Firestone and Daggett that one can see how life was lived by each season of the year: plowing and planting in the spring (Springtime at Greenfield Village), summer chores, fall harvests, and preparing for winter. Each day of the week also follows the daily chores of times past: Monday wash day, Wednesday baking day, Sunday a more relaxed day to do needlepoint, &c.

Monday is wash day at Firestone Farm

At the J.R. Jones General Store, by the way, the presenters will ask the visitors what they are looking to purchase. Of course, nothing is actually for sale, but the docent will explain many of the items in hopes of "making a sale."

Although the actual antique items in the general store cannot really be sold, the proprietor will make the attempt

As for the rest of the homes that do not have period dress docents they will either have volunteers in the modern blue vests giving the tours, or a self-guided tour of the home with the rooms plexi-glassed off.
A few exceptions that the powers that be have made are the scenarios put on by professional actors portraying famous people in history. This has been done at the Wright Bros. and at Menlo Park.

The Wright brothers with their sister put on a historical play to visitors explaining their adventures at Kitty Hawk in 1903. This is one of only a few presentation done in this manner.

It's always surprised me that they do not use a period dress docent at the Sarah Jordan Boarding House - I believe that could add quite a bit to the atmosphere, especially if they use a 1st to 2nd person female presenter.

Because of the large variety of buildings, because of Greenfield Village's promise of authenticity, and because of the mission to teach accurately the daily life of those from America's past, one can visit the Village frequently throughout the year and never fail to learn something new.



Kymberly Foster Seabolt said...

I am not normally a fan of sitting for "shows" while at amusement and museum venues. Greenfield Village "dramas", however, are in a class by themselves. Engaging, entertaining, and informative. My 12 year old daughter said that seeing the presenters made history feel "real" to her and not just "those old brown photos" (sepia). I'm old enough to know that I didn't really step throug the time, but GV's attention to detail allows one to suspend disbelief momentarily.

Historical Ken said...

I couldn't agree with you more! "Suspend disbelief momentarily" is an excellent way of putting it!