The Seasons of Public History

When studying the events, people, and episodes of the past it is difficult not to find evidence of the cyclical, habitual forming nature of human development.  Most often, it seems natural changes of the seasons, drove most of these “traditions.” At the same time, I find it interesting in indentifying how many of these “historic” habits we still follow.  For instance spring cleaning, customarily an annual event to thoroughly clean one’s home (or office, more on that later.) The expression itself has a multitude of historical precedents, but for most of North America, it stems from eighteenth and nineteenth century practices of using the warmer months of March and April to air out buildings, remove built up winter dust, and otherwise “cleanse” structures with a fresh  coat of whitewash. Another modern example is daylight saving time. Albeit, this specific topic deserves serious historical investigation, but in short, is a cyclical custom (for most of theU.S.) Serious investigation would answer the “why,” as the popular conception that it is for farmers is somewhat inaccurate. Actually, it seems to have negatively altered farmers’ own cyclical habits, rising with the sun regardless of clock time, but challenges their work by forcing them to follow the natural timing of things (sunrise, sunset) with the preferences of others, say those buying crops on a daylight saving time schedule. Who knew? At any rate, the custom is probably best explained from the more recent development (1895) of extending “after work hours” sunlight. (Ben Franklin also gets credit, but like many of his great lines, he is horribly misquoted. Most of the public failed to appreciate his sarcasm in speaking about the all night “partying” characteristics of the 1770s French.) I digress, back to the point again; the warm, outdoor conducive weather of spring seems to be the driving point.

Spring appears, more than any other season, as that time of fresh renewal, growth and desire to start again. It’s that “rebirth” after winter that seems to have the greatest impact on people.  Another quick historical reference; if one were to analyze solider accounts from the 18th and 19th centuries, one might (I for one do) grow tired of reading how intensely boring winter camps and quarters were. Some soldiers eagerly awaited the arrival of spring, for the new campaign season, chance to march and get active, and of course fight in new battles. I find this to be quite an interesting sentiment, in the larger scheme of things.  However, I do appreciate the sense of urgency. Most public historical sites, as is the case with the Trust, operate seasonal buildings. We close three sites after Thanksgiving (the Bonham House, the Colonial Complex, and the Fire Museum) and reopen each seasonally in late March.  During the time in between we have our own version of “winter quarters.”  We spend time revising out interpretations, planning and coordinating our cyclical programs with new concepts, activities, speakers, and programs and even a little bit of site reorganization. We too, also have our own brand spring cleaning. Typically as an organization we will take time to clean each site prior to the opening. I always look forward to these days, one from the break in the day-to-day winter/office cycle, and from the sense of team building that occurs between the staff. It can also be “fun” when thought of as a learning experience. As one of my former supervisors would say, cleaning at a historic site is “historic preservation in action…. at the grass roots level.”  “Grass roots,” also has a literal meaning (say weeding a brick line in front of a property for example.)

From my professional stand-point, I look forward to spring and site re-openings as it is the chance to tell visitors about the new information we discovered, offer new and improved tours, host this year’s event, and educate new school groups. We often see first time visitors right after our initial openings, but still have our share of repeat visitors interested in reconnecting to a site, historical topic, or eager to have a new experience in a familiar setting.  This is actually one of my favorite aspects of the study and interpretation of history. The fact that content and stories can always be revisited, argued, or looked at differently. The same is true for a physical site. No two visits, tours, or experiences are ever quite the same. Spring welcomes that opportunity to rediscover the past with new perspectives.  It is for this reason that I think of spring as the “harvest time” for public history (rather than fall.)   Hope you can make it a habit to visit our sites!

————-Dan Roe, Director of Education


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