A child peers under the brim of my bonnet, looks into my eyes, and gasps as I gently smile and greet him with “Hello, traveller.” The revelation that the figure he approached is real is quickly borne to the rest of the group as they gather around me.
History … is it just battles, dates, and artifacts? What is it if it isn’t people? Not just privileged or famous people either, but everyday people ╤ how they lived and what they valued.
I interpret overland trail history and demonstrate homesteading skills at The High Desert Museum, in Bend, Oregon. I prepare by studying, primarily the many journals and diaries written by those well aware of the great adventure they were part of. But, it is the magic cloak of costume that helps me capture people’s attention, imagination, and trust so that I might better serve as their guide.
I use a costume to become Hannah Elliott, a grandmotherly farm wife, emigrating in 1853 with my husband to a new life in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. When the gallery is empty, I slip into a quiet pose. As visitors enter, I gradually become the chatty woman who inquires about the visitors’ observations and feelings, and also about what they’ve learned.
Sometimes, visitors find me reading a small book of poetry, or writing a letter home. Today, I write in my diary.
“I’m keeping a record of this land voyage,” I tell the visitors. “Do you know why?” A pause follows that is sometimes filled with answers, sometimes not. I continue, “So that years from now, if someone is foolish enough to suggest another trip like this, I shall simply take this out to refresh my memory, and clearly and loudly shout, ‘No thank you kindly!’ ” My answer provokes chuckles. As I go on to disclose bits and pieces of the problems and difficulties I encountered traveling west, questions fly back and forth. “Why did you leave?” asks one man (and I am secretly pleased at his use of the word “vow”).
Would you like to use a costume to help others interpret history? Key words are “appropriate,” “simple,” and “practical.” Generally for women, a simple blouse, long skirt, apron, shawl or scarf, and appropriate head covering can be adapted to represent most periods. For men, it need not be much more difficult. Look up colors, fabrics, accessories, and silhouettes, as well as styles for your period.
Remember, the simpler your costume the less chance for glaring error. Polyester fabrics, plastic eyeglasses (squinting is permissible and timelessly authentic), athletic shoes (bare feet are classic), fluorescent colors, wristwatches, lipstick and eyeliner, modern perfumes, and twentieth century slang can be jarring.
Most importantly, be yourself and use your own assets. If you’re a grey-haired grandma, then relax and be a grey-haired grandma in the period. It mil work; it works for me.
Geraldine Willoughby Kavanagh, docent, The High Desert Museum, Bend, OR.
Willoughby Kavanagh, Gerladine. “It Works for Me…Docents share techniques they find successful.,” The Docent Educator 1.3 (Spring 1992): 12.