Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Living History

I'm not sure whether it's still there, but a few years back the museum's brochure included the line "Ride our time machines!"  We have an opportunity many non-rail museums don't have: to provide a relatively immersive experience to our visitors during their time at the museum.  Of course, we wouldn't want it to be completely immersive; nobody particularly wants to eschew an air-conditioned diner for a 1950s version cooled only by fans, or to push a wheelchair over cobblestones instead of a smooth asphalt surface.  But the idea of living history, of not simply placing historic objects in front of people but rather placing them in the midst of a larger historic context, seems to me a laudable goal.

Over the weekend my wife and I drove to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where a reenactment commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg was taking place.  Around 10,000 reenactors (!) participated and the effect was stunning.  While I'd seen Civil War reenactments done with a dozen or two dozen men, seeing thousands of men on the field at once - as was the case with the original battle - was completely different and was a truly moving experience.

So where's the lesson for IRM?  Well, I believe that the success of Civil War events belies the suggestion of some that a decline in our attendance is inevitable as the golden age of streetcars, steam, passenger trains, etc begins to pass from living memory.  Seeing the thousands of spectators at the Gettysburg event was pretty persuasive that one doesn't have to be personally nostalgic for something to be interested in seeing it replicated.
More than that, though, I feel that the living history aspect of Civil War reenactments suggests that we should aim for more of an immersive and authentic experience.  There's a good reason, I feel, that more people go to Civil War encampments and reenactments than to lectures.  It's much more interesting and meaningful to be placed in the middle of the history - even if it's just being replicated - than to simply read about it in a book.  And perhaps by immersing people in the history we can even instill a little bit of that nostalgia into people too young to have lived through these experiences originally.
So it's wonderful that IRM has a mainline that, with the exception of the occasional high-tension tower, looks exactly the same from the train window as it did a century ago.  It's wonderful that we're working on developing a Main Street scene where people will be able to see streetcars in context and experience a slice of our cities when they revolved around transit; that we restore our equipment accurately and not to some cartoonish Hollywood version of what people think the past looked like; that our property has so many old-fashioned touches, from the garbage can stickers to the yellow street signs; that our volunteers strive to make visitors' experience more realistic by punching tickets and dressing in authentic uniforms.  All of these pieces add to the puzzle of teaching people history not simply by explaining it but by placing them bodily into its midst.

And as volunteers I am hopeful that we'll continue to consider the experience our visitors have, and how much it can teach them about the past.  How we dress, act, present ourselves and relate to the public are vitally important to what people take away fro their experience when they drive off of the property.  If they felt like they've peeked into the past, even if just briefly, it will be more memorable than just a bunch of dates, facts and figures.  And with luck, it will keep them coming back.  "Time machines?"  Why not?


Anonymous said...

Well said Frank. As someone who grew up after the era of the streetcar or the interurban was over, it brings me (and it sounds like you) closer to those who actually lived in that era. Growing up I always wondering what the Great Western bike trail or the Illinois Prairie Path would have been like to ride. The IRM mainline as close as you can get to it today. Thanks to you, the rest of the Hicks crew, and the many volunteers at IRM.


Anonymous said...

People notice things like proper uniforms (especially if they're matched to the train) and punching tickets. I've gotten favorable comments on both.

Anonymous said...

Now that the California Adventure part of Disneyland in Anaheim, CA is running semi-replica "Big Red Cars" without trolley poles or ticket takers it is more important for the museums to get it right.

And trains of Interurbans are so very much the real deal! Long live the North Shore and the C,A &E at IRM!

Ted Miles
IRM Member