Episode 81

81. Living History in a Pandemic at Old Sturbridge Village

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About this Episode

Old Sturbridge Village is a living history museum in Massachusetts depicting life in rural New England during the early 19th century. But the early 19th century isn’t specific enough for the site’s historical interpreters—to immerse visitors in the world they’re recreating, knowing exactly what year it “is” matters.

Tom Kelleher, Historian and Curator of Mechanical Arts at Old Sturbridge Village was tasked with choosing that “default” date. He chose 1838 in part because the social and political change of that time period would resonate with today’s visitors. But there’s another aspect of the year that will resonate with visitors today once the museum reopens after closing due to Covid-19: how people in New England responded to the Cholera Pandemic of the 1830s.

In this episode, Kelleher describes the difference between first and third person interpretation, and how visitors might react to seeing 19th century costumed interpreters with modern facemasks.

Topics and Notes

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 81. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear, and only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.


Tom Kelleher first learned what the word “interpreter” meant when he applied for a job at Old Sturbridge Village, a living history museum in Massachusetts.

Tom Kelleher: They posted a job for a research historian and being young and firstly minted as a historian. I thought I knew everything and I applied and they called back a few weeks later and said, I'm. Sorry, you didn't get a job. Tom. Um, and I went to hang up saying, thank you because it was nice of them to tell me. And they said, would you be interested in being an interpreter? And I thought for a minute and said, well, my Spanish isn't that good. I don't think I could do that. And they said no you don't understand. The people who explain the past are called interpreters. They interpret the past for the present.

Today, over thirty years later, Kelleher is Historian and Curator of Mechanical Arts at Old Sturbridge Village and one of the museum’s longest-serving employees.

Tom Kelleher: Hello, my name is Tom Kelleher. I’ve been working in the living history field, which is wearing the clothing of people of the past and trying to have the past make sense for the present.

I work at a living history outdoor museum in Massachusetts called Old Sturbridge village. And I literally and figuratively wear a lot of hats. And one of them is, I'm the one in charge of initially training all our new costumed historians or historical interpreters depending on what term you like.

A living history museum recreates historical settings to simulate a past time, providing visitors with an experiential interpretation of history. Old Sturbridge Village is a living history depicting life in Rural New England, set on a couple of hundred acres. The museum features over 40 historical buildings -- most are antique buildings that have been moved and restored to the site. There’s also three water-powered mills and a working farm with animals.

Tom Kelleher: It's not a recreation of the town of Sturbridge or anywhere else. It's more like a slice of life, a historical sampler. So in a couple hours of walking around, a day of walking around, you can get an idea of what life was like in early 19th century New England.

And one of the ways the museum gives visitors an idea of what life was like in early 19th century New England is historical interpreters. In the business of historical interpretation, it turns out, there are two broad categories: first person interpretation and third person interpretation.

Tom Kelleher: What's called first, first in a role, playing, pretending you're a person from the past explaining how the past worked over a particular time and place. You, me as the historian pretends that I don't know anything past whatever year I'm portraying. For example, Plymouth Plantation, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, there are costumed staff that pretend it's 1627. They have this confusion thing, which then I think puts a burden on the public because then instead of being an interpreter, you're not making things clearer, which is what an interpreter should do, but just confusing the situation. An example, I give my new staff all the time of bad roleplaying interpretation is people ask, where's the bathroom? And you get this at some sites, you know, you say, excuse me, where's the bathroom?

And they go, “Bath? Why I haven’t had a bath! You'll catch your death of cold bathing. I wash my face, I wash my hands with water, but oh my, why would anyone immerse themselves?”

So you know, the kid there, he got a kid who needs to go to the bathroom, for heaven's sake, just point right over there!

The historical interpreters at Old Sturbridge Village interact with visitors in third person.

Tom Kelleher: When you're in third person, you're wearing the costumes, the clothing of an earlier time and place. And you're doing the work of an earlier time in place, but you are not pretending that the people you're talking to are wearing strange clothes and our magic inventors with all their electronic technology. You just try to have conversations with them to try to relate to how the past in present, interact, or as I like to say, you don't know where you are until you know where you've been. And so I think while I do a lot of role playing at Old Sturbridge village, most of us are not in character at any one point in time, but we're just portraying the past to try to make it make more sense to the present.

In a museum without historical interpreters, the date and place don’t necessarily have to be specific.

But a historical interpreter exists in a specific date and place. Whether they are first person or third person interpreters, the visitor experience depends on that anchor in time and space.

Tom Kelleher: One of the drawbacks if you will of living history of portraying clothes is, is that you do have to narrow down your time period. And truthfully, we as an institution at Old Sturbridge Village, wrestled with that for a number of years. When the museum was founded, we opened to the public in 1946.

It was kind of like, well, you know, about 200 years ago, about 1800. About, about, about, it was hazy. But they weren't doing a lot of costumed interpretation at the time.

But in the early 1970s, Old Sturbridge Village and a number of other sites in the United States and Canada especially started getting serious about making sure our clothing was more accurate. And the tools and techniques we were using, the recipes the ladies would cook in the houses, that kind of thing, were more authentic. And it started dawning on us that you couldn't just show a 50 year old span. I mean, if you're trying to show a 50 year time span from 1970 to 2020. How should people dress? How should they act? What kind of devices should they be using? And so it gets confusing.

An example is a visitor asking an interpreter: who’s the president?

For first-person interpreters at Plymouth plantation, that’s a difficult question to answer: in 1627, not only was there no United States or heads-of-state who used that term, organizations that might have used the word president were few and far between.

But even for a third person interpreter at Old Sturbridge Village, answering that question requires a specific date.

Tom Kelleher: Well, it depends. Andrew Jackson was president from 1829 to 1837 Martin van Buren was president from 1837 until 1841. So what specific year are you in? And so they might go into the shoe shop and ask the Shoemaker, “who's the president?” And it'll say, Andrew Jackson, and he'll be right.

And the same people might be in the printing office later in the day. And the printer says, Martin van Buren. And the guy said, well, wait a minute. The guy in the shoe shop thinks it's Andrew Jackson. So we decided that you have to pick a year. And frankly, about 10 years ago, the administration told me, “Tom pick a year.”

I agonized and justified it. And I arbitrarily, not arbitrarily, but with a lot of reasons that nobody needs to know about, picked 1838. And so that's our default year. We don't really make a big deal of that to the public, but our staff knows that when push comes to shove, when somebody asks, what year is it, who's the president? We’re 1838.

Picking a specific date also allows the museum to go back in time. People in 1838 would be using objects and recalling events from earlier decades.Kelleher points to more rapid means of communication, widespread substance abuse, a widening disparity of wealth, rapid technological development, rising consumerism, and growing political divisions as aspects of the 1830s that resonate with visitors today.

But there’s another aspect of 1830’s that resonates with visitors today -- or at least it will once the museum opens up again after its closure due to Covid-19: how people in New England responded to the Cholera Pandemic of the 1830s, also known as second cholera pandemic.

Tom Kelleher: At Old Sturbridge Village, we interpret health and healing a lot of ways. Cholera is an infectious, uh, bacterial disease, usually from poor sanitation. Is that still fairly prevalent on the planet.

In the 19th century, people didn't understand until the late 19th century, didn't understand bacteriology didn't understand what caused diseases, how diseases are spread.

Even more so than Covid-19, it was very scary because even though there's a lot that's unknown.

The second cholera pandemic would have been in recent memory to people in 1838. And even before the current pandemic, Old Sturbridge Village portrayed 19th-century diseases and medicine as part of its presentation of the lifestyles of the time.

Tom Kelleher: We do sometimes talk about the cholera epidemic and we talk a lot about a lot of diseases. I mean, the early 19th century was a time when people didn't really have a germ theory. So there was especially in the popular mind, there's very little separation between the spiritual and the physical world. There were ideas then. There was a health reformer in the 1830s named Sylvester Graham who had made a name for himself as a temperance preacher, preaching on the evils of alcohol. And he took advantage of the cholera epidemic when it came to the United States in 1832 and basically started advocating a vegetarian diet, very regular meals, no snacking, whole grain breads. So he guaranteed that if you followed his regime that you would not get cholera.

A lot of people then, in the 1830s, blamed immigrants for the cholera.Softentimes, people do point fingers and scapegoat. It's “them” making “us” sick.

Kelleher sees living history museums as uniquely suited to interpret public health, historical pandemics, and medicine.

Tom Kelleher: Some sites actually have special event weekends that focus on epidemics. There's a place in Georgia called Westville that used to have, I think, yellow fever days, and they'd have a weekend about the panic when a yellow fever epidemic would sweep through the American South.

Old Sturbridge Village, like most museums, is currently closed to the public. The farm animals and gardens are being tended to. As Kelleher and his team plan for the reopening, they know that the costumed interpreters will sport a new item of clothing when the museum opens: an anachronistic face mask.

Tom Kelleher: Our museum, when we reopen, we, the costume historians are going to be wearing face masks. I mean, we're not necessarily in roll, but it is the 21st century, and that's going to be a constant reminder to the public that, you know, we're in a different time and place: not so much in the 1830s, a different time in place, but during the Covid-19 world. So yeah, I think it will be a constant reminder and perhaps even a minor shock to people that is going to be a necessity because we are, we're where we are. And how people are gonna react to it and deal with it. I don’t know.