Thursday, April 3, 2014

Sharpening Your Pencil

Anyone tired of hearing about my day-job yet? This has been a really critical time for my team and I, and we've been working extra hard while making plans for the year. We have a new boss who is awesome and really wants to take our team to the next level. In a planning meeting this week, she used this analogy: "Everyone is like a pencil. We are all great and work hard, but occasionally we get worn down and we need sharpening to make us even better."

This, of course, is a pretty good analogy for anything in life. It naturally got me thinking about reenacting (because let's face it, everything goes back to reenacting). In what ways do we (and can we) sharpen our pencils as reenactors?

One of the biggest mistakes reenactors can make (in my opinion) is to become complacent about what they know, or what they think they know. Knowledge is a living, changing thing with a quantifiable life - just check out this video of author Sam Arbesman, summing up his book The Half-Life of Facts, which discusses this exact topic. He focuses more on science and medicine, but the same holds true for social sciences like history.

 In the past decade, since I started reenacting, digitized collections have exploded all over the Internet, allowing historians access to collections all across the world. It has put information right at our fingertips and made it even easier to compare different sources and find new avenues of research. We no longer have to go across the country or around the world to find the resources we need.

It also means that every day there are new things being digitized. Google Books, the Library of Congress, Project Gutenberg, the Digital Library and are all digitizing new sources every day from some of the greatest research libraries in the world. Museums like the Met, the Kyoto Institute and LACMA are photographing their collections of historic clothing. This means that the things we thought we knew ten years ago (or even yesterday!) are now potentially outdated as we discover new sources we may never have stumbled across otherwise.

 There are lots of fads we have seen discounted, myths dispersed, and the nuances of life and material culture in the mid-19th century better defined. When I started reenacting nigh onto thirteen years ago, it was widely assumed that straw bonnets were only for summertime wear, gigantic hoops were "in", and those rugby-striped stockings were all the rage.

Today? We now know that straw bonnets show up well into the fall in fashion illustrations. Ladies have a better understanding of the realistic ideal size of a hoop based on one's height and shoulder width. And the pendulum has swung back and forth on the striped stockings, with new research being added all the time.

Those are only three examples. Imagine if one hadn't done any reading or research in those ten years, figuring that they had all the answers they needed for a good impression. Think about how outdated their research would be! Their pencil would, indeed, be quite dull.

We owe it to the public to whom we present to keep our pencils sharp. We owe it to the historical community as well- we are representatives and all play a vital role. Most of all, we owe it to ourselves to challenge ourselves to a better, broader, sharper understanding of life in the era that we interpret.

How do you sharpen your pencil? What plans do you have for sharpening your pencil? Leave a comment!