A Museum and a Stage


A HORSE-DRAWN carriage clip-clops and reels down a dirt road carrying a man and a woman. He's wearing a tall brimmed hat and a cloak. She, a bonnet and long dress. From behind a white picket fence, a young girl watches them. She's wearing a fluorescent Bugle Boy T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. It's not so much that she's out of place, but out of time in this village of the 1830s.

Here in Old Sturbridge Village, though, the past and present are meant to mesh. Visitors come to the re-created New England town - part static exhibit, part theme park - to taste what life was like in early 19th-century America.

``You can never relive the past, but you can give people an emotional bond to it,'' says Warren Leon, director of interpretation for the 40-year-old ``village.'' ``You're presenting history not only on an intellectual level, but on an emotional level.''

``We're a museum,'' says Alberta Sebolt George, Sturbridge's vice president, ``but also a stage.'' More than 40 restored buildings - plus gardens, shops, meetinghouses, mills, and farm buildings - make up the stage set. The 200-member interpretive staff are the actors and actresses that animate it.

Nancy Ferguson, training interpreter for the schoolhouse and meeting house, says interpreters start by ``reading'' an audience. ``You have this body of knowledge, and you can't just spit it out,'' she says. ``You have to find out what they're open to.'' What are their interests? Are they in school? Do they even speak English?

Ms. Ferguson recalls a particular group of senior citizens that ventured into the schoolhouse. When she asked if any of them had been in a one-room schoolhouse, nearly every hand went up. She talked to them about the different kinds of one-room schoolhouses in the United States and encouraged them to share their experiences. They left, all smiles.

``People's memories come into it a lot,'' says Ferguson. ``You really do learn a lot from visitors, too.''

Phil Eckert, lead interpreter for the tin shop, agrees. Getting people to ask questions and share experiences does more good than just teaching, he says. Interpreters must act a certain way, must exhibit an enthusiasm, to make visitors feel comfortable. ``You have to take that interest and excitement and guide the visitor into a broader understanding,'' he says. ``We're trying to show a point in time where a town of 1,500 existed and help people imagine the rest.''

Like Mr. Eckert, other interpreters must not only know their history, but be able to skillfully perform trades - pottery, broommaking, blacksmithing. The purpose is to instill the sense of a real working community. The village, including Freeman farm, functions as a village would - year round.

Of the half million people who visit the village each year, many harbor misconceptions. The village's time period is not well represented in history books, which tend to jump from the Revolutionary War to the Westward movement. Ms. Sebolt George estimates that three-quarters of the visitors cannot place the Federalist period (1790-1840) correctly.

Some of visitors' misconceptions are the same ones historians had, says interpreter head Leon. ``People tend to think people [of the 1830s] got married at a very young age,'' he says. Not so: for most of America's history, marriages occurred when a couple was in their 20's. Only in the 1950s did Americans start marrying later.

Weren't people shorter back then? Yes, says Leon, but only modestly so. (The short beds that give rise to this myth were designed for occupants to sleep semi-reclined, propped up on pillows.)

And ``More people ask about underwear!'' says Sebolt George. Men simply had long shirts (like modern nightshirts) that they tucked into their trousers. Women wore petticoats and long skirts.

One all-encompassing, behind-the-scenes task is making the village as authentic as possible. From the farming, cooking, and blacksmithing to clothing, architecture, and artifacts, Sturbridge's research and curatorial staff is constantly looking for new ways for the village to be and act more authentic.

``We've been on a search for accurate pigs this year,'' says Leon. Through backbreeding, more authentic farm animals are produced. Tinsman Phil Eckert just got a patented folding machine and is on the lookout for accurate kettle ears (they hold the wire handle onto the kettle body).

But can a living museum be too authentic? Obviously a village in 1830 didn't host half a million people each year, so 20th-century accommodations - modern restrooms, ramps for disabled, safety goggles for some craftsmen, a sprinkler system - are necessary.

Where do you draw the line at authenticity?

People in the 1830s didn't bathe often, and there was a good amount of poverty, but to portray those things - even though they are historically accurate - wouldn't be sensible. The nonprofit village is primarily supported by visitor admission fees and gift shop sales.

There are also issues of authenticity surrounding scenarios - like the Bixby house, says Sebolt George. It follows historically that the wallpaper in the house was put on in a sloppy fashion, she says, but ``Can you imagine telling a restoration wallpaperer to be sloppy?'' The compromise: The room is shown in the process of being papered.

But such issues are seldom detected in the village at large. The beauty of the grounds - the sights, smells, and sounds of the early 19th century - are what people take home with them. Children participate in special programs and may dress up in period clothes to become part of the scene. They play ``hoops'' on the Common. The character Widow Fenno oversees a farm and makes bonnets - women got along on their own then, too. She suggests to a visitor a pink bonnet with built-in curls.

Women hang laundry, spin wool, cook, and garden. Roosters strut at the feet of farmers who tend to the fields or load barrels onto an ox cart.

At the end of the day, visitors leave enlightened. ``We have an obligation as a steward of a museum to preserve it for generations to come,'' says Sebolt George. ``The worth of the museum itself comes out of making it available to other people.''

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