Friday, March 19, 2010

Donning the Wool

With the recent SouthCoast focus on preservation of buildings (and their relevance, value, and exploitation), the reasons for preservation have become muddied by some who value a façade over a full story. "History buffs" see some urban developers cherry-picking projects for utility, cost, and glamor. Corporate developers see obstructionists and Luddites in "ardent preservationists."
But, someday a historian will tell the story of that business and its owners, with interest, honesty, and enthusiasm. Preservation secures a visible remnant and only assumes interest. A historian ensures the latter.
No restored granite edifice, gingerbread detailing, iron machination -- no matter what interactive signage or concocted parochial significance -- can ever deliver the humanity of history as effectively as a spoken narrative. When listening to a National Park tour guide or well-prepared historical re-enactor or first-person interpreter as they present The Past to us in The Present, the media is reality itself: tangible, relatable, and sometimes inspiring.
I have been a personator. That may sound like another bit of contrived industry jargon, but I was in that industry. Sure, "actor" or "coach" or "consultant," look better on the business card, and they're all on there. But indulge me as I congratulate, recommend, and commemorate some former colleagues and peers here every so often.
Personating is like a restoration or preservation project; it requires knowledge, skill, and research. Just as a building like the Baker-Robinson whale oil refinery/candleworks represents one industry that employed many many people and relied on many many trades to do so, a historical interpretation depicts a representative of a setting: a series of details that acknowledge a populace while presenting a presence.
Because history doesn't actually repeat -- so much as it displays relatively similar circumstances and presents predictable outcomes -- somebody has to put on the stinky wool and tell/educate/show/interpret/manage/sing/discuss/collect/translate/portray/first person relate it. I have argued elsewhere that "it can be done poorly, indifferently, ineptly, and mawkishly. It can embarrass you. It can embarrass the audience, and it can embarrass someone's great-grandfather."
In this irregular feature, I hope to celebrate the people who don't.
Stacey RothMary Ludwig Hays McCauley may or may not have won the Battle of Monmouth, but she did more than carry water that day in the Summer of 1778 when she joined her husband's Continental Army cannon crew. "Molly Pitcher" has assumed the prestige of representing numberless camp followers who performed necessary duties for soldiers and in some cases -- like Molly's -- fought in the War for Independence. Many fought alongside their husbands, sons, patients, and, erm, customers. Contemporary desk jockeys would call them "on-site support staff." Which is why their story is an important one to tell.
According to the Independent Press of Newark New Jersey, the Historical Society of Chatham Township and the Chatham Historical Society have teamed up, with funding from the Horizons Speakers Bureau of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, to present historical interpreter Stacy Roth as Molly Pitcher.
Stacy Roth and David Emerson are History on the Hoof, an outfit that presents at libraries, schools, historical societies, community organizations, clubs, festivals, and more according to their website The photograph above of Stacy Roth, by James Bell, is from that site. As is the one below, of David Emerson portraying Captain Leland Emerson of the whaler Sarah Ann. (Who should give the octant back to the Li'l Navigator.)B. David Emerson

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