The Man Behind the Curtain

In case you don’t recognize the source of the post title, it’s from the Wizard of Oz (the film). All four travelers are in the Emerald City, awed by the Wizard, and then Toto pulls aside a little curtain to reveal an ordinary person. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” says the Wizard, a little desperately. But they don’t.

I love that quote. It’s partly about magic, which is based on misdirection, but rather than misdirect it somehow draws attention to what you’re not supposed to see. I love seeing how things work, whether a car engine or a museum. I also like being part of the world behind the curtain.

I’ve been aware of the world behind the curtain for years. When I was four or five years old, I started ballet and theatre classes, both of which culminated in productions. I’ve known about green rooms and lighting technicians and all the work which goes into a show for almost my entire life. My mother was, for my entire childhood, a professor, and so I never wondered where teachers went at night. I knew that, like my mother, they went home to families. When I was in high school, I volunteered at the museum I had frequented as a child, and for the first time experienced the delicious pleasure of walking through a door labeled “STAFF ONLY”.  I have always known that there was a backstage, and enjoyed working there.

One of the startling realizations for me, working as I do behind a curtain at a museum, is how many people don’t seem to know that the curtain is even there. A number of people, when I tell them where I work, ask if I’m a guide, and are surprised that there’s anything else to do at a museum. Some visitors are likewise surprised to find that there are buildings not open to the public; I can see them thinking “but what do they do in there?” And there was the one volunteer who interrogated me about our operations, apparently unwilling to believe that a non-profit museum still operated like many other organizations, with financial and administrative departments (but then, he also assumed the entire curatorial department were volunteers).

I am not entirely sure how to change this, or if it should be changed. At my institution, we are in the process of furnishing a historic house, and our guides talk about the work that goes into this effort. This is a start, and hopefully gives people an idea of what curators and museum researchers do. I wonder if there is more I could do, individually, or if just explaining my job at coffee hour at church and such places is enough.

Have other people encountered this lack of understanding, of awareness of the backstage at museums and historic sites etc.? Are there better or worse ways of explaining, of opening the Staff Only door (figuratively, anyway)?

Short take on the news: shared beds

There’s a story on the BBC today wherein a Doctor suggests that married couples not share a bed because sleeping apart is healthier. The article says “Dr Stanley, who sleeps separately from his wife, points out that historically we were never meant to share our beds. He said the modern tradition of the marital bed only began with the industrial revolution, when people moving to overcrowded towns and cities found themselves short of living space”.

I think someone needs to read a little social history.  Especially if he thinks the only time people have ever shared beds was as a married couple.

I remember when I was research women’s roles in war in Scotland (and Europe) for one of my grad seminars and read an essay about women’s units in Britain during WWII.[1] The administrators (upper and middle class urbanites) were concerned about what they saw as lesbianism among the women in the barracks; these women were from rural, less wealthy families and as one of them pointed out later, they had never had their own bed. Many of them were sharing a bed not in a romantic or sexual way but because they were so unused to sleeping alone they could not sleep at all.

I appreciate that people have the option to sleep seperately or alone, but one would hope that when you start making historical defenses for your scientific theories, you would actually understand the history…

1 I believe the essay was in A soldier and a woman : sexual integration in the military – it may have been the DeGroot article.

Mail by Train

This morning I attended the re-opening of the train station/post office in the tiny little zipcode that houses the historic site where I work. I was excited partly because the building has been wonderfully restored, partly because I no longer have to drive to the nearby tiny town to check my PO box, and partly because, in February, we’ll be installing some exhibits in the old White and Colored waiting rooms.

The Train Depot is on the rail line between Cville, Culpeper, and Fburg. It isn’t a stop now, and apparently was never a regular stop, at least not for passengers. The current director for this area’s post offices (the Mountain Region, which goes over into West Virginia) told us some stories about when the mail was carried all over the country, back when he started with the USPS. This was before zip codes, and when he was invited to the re-opening of our little post office train depot, he thought for a minute and was able to recall exactly which train you’d need to have put the mail on form his sorting facility for it to reach this depot.

Even the mail trains didn’t stop here. They just slowed down and the mail carrier on the train would toss the sack of mail out of an open window. At the time, federal employees (including postal carriers) had merits and demerits. Failing to deliver a sack of mail was a demerit, so they kept a few empty sacks by the train car door. That way, if you couldn’t find the right bag, you could just toss an empty bag – it still counted, no demerits.

The other story I found interesting was that our little depot had a dog who would come out and get those mail sacks. The guys on the train (and yes, I think it was just men) took to tossing out various things, trying to distract that dog. Chicken bones, baloney sandwiches, whatever they could get their hands on that a dog might like. No matter what they tossed, the dog always got the sack. The man from the USPS didn’t say, because by that time the guys on the train would have been out of sight, but I bet that dog went back out after delivering the sack and enjoyed the treats from the train.

Quick thoughts after THATCamp Day 1

Spent today having good conversations and listening to good conversations at THAT Camp.  The twitter buzz on the camp hashtag (#thatcamp) has been pretty busy; one of the points which kept coming up in twitter was how conversations kept coming back to tools more than implementations.  My thought, in the final session I attended today, was that we have such diverse audiences (end users).  Attendees include art historians, academic historians, public historians, librarians, grad students, costume designers, archaeologists, english professors, &c. The way we want to use the tools we’re brainstorming about are myriad; and of course once we launch the tools, the users will take them in totally new directions.

This makes the conversations more challenging, but the end results all that much more interesting.

Marriage, economy, community

On the drive into work on Friday, my local NPR station had a story on Governor Kaine disucssing the econonmy (sadly, the station isn’t very good about posting stories on its web site). Apparently, Gov. Kaine made a statement that one way to improve the economy would be to raise the marriage rates to where they were in the 1970s – he mentioned on how children from single-parent homes face “challenges” in their lives.

I can think of one way to raise the marriage rate, but I doubt Virginia will rapidly join Maine and Iowa, and that’s not really what I wanted to write about.

One of the points Gov. Kaine made was (his facts) most of the single-parent families in Virginia have a mother but no father. His solution to this is to promote marriage. Mine would be to promote community. As my last post mentioned, I think about the difference between how we live now and how we lived fifty or a hundred years ago (or more). A child who only had one parent in the home, but who had a community of adults of different ages who they could trust and turn to for guidance would probably do just as well, if not better, than a child in a two-parent family who didn’t have that kind of greater community.

When more people lived in one house, when we lived closer together, or were (in general) more engaged in social “institutions” (places of worship) which were nearer to our homes, there were more adults around to help both parents and children. Parents can get support elsewhere – many of my friends belong to online communities which support breastfeeding, where they can give and receive advice – but children are more limited in where they go to get adult advice. I was very lucky in that I lived in a neighborhood built mostly in the 30s/40s where the houses had porches and the local Neighborhood Association hosted regular events. I left that neighborhood ten years ago this summer, and I am still in touch with many of my neighbors, because it was more than houses – it was community.

I don’t think there’s one simple solution, or that one solution fits all. I do think that when someone says “The best way to ensure adult presence in a child’s life is to have two-parent (one of each gender) families” they are seriously missing the point, and ignoring a lot of history.