Friday, April 25, 2014

A Victorian Living History Experience

We're soon doing an involved Victorian living history experience, so this docent-led tour of a home from that era and the museum next door seemed like a great opportunity.  It was interesting to tour a house that was built at the exact same time as the house where we live, and while the one in this tour had more beautiful details, recognizing the door frame designs and similarities with some of the other architectural details gave us new appreciation for our own building, which must be one of the oldest homes in the state.  The original owner of the home on the tour, Diana Murphy Hill, was also a graduate of the university where I work (California's fifth oldest), so that detail also brought contemporary relevance to our experience.

We walked through the door and were greeted by many docents, all there to help with different parts of our experience.  We were appreciative of the time and effort these volunteers invested for our small group of seven kids.  They advised us immediately that most of them were former teachers.  The first one was lovely, explaining the history of the house and answering questions.  It was interesting to see the original glass, oh-so-very slowly still flowing down so that it gave a wavy appearance.  And the stained glass was both impressive and gorgeous.  But I overheard another docent telling her that she was getting off schedule, so we ended up rushing through the ends of her section with limited time for our questions, which was unfortunate.

The kids made "calling cards," in very Victorian visiting style, then switched to servant role to help bake cookies in the original-but-updated kitchen.  The kitchen docents made two foul mistakes that began to crumble our emerging experience: 1) in asking the kids to wash their hands before handling the food, they were quite rude.  I'll never understand why some adults think that kids can be spoken to so rudely and how treating people with such rudeness can be expected to beget anything other than more harsh behavior.  2) They assumed that the kids were complete blank slates who had never had any experience with what they were showing them.  I don't understand that, either.  The activities consisted of churning butter, which we have done on multiple occasions and in measuring ingredients for simple cookies, which of course we've done lots of times.  How hard is it to ask and then adapt a teaching approach?

Our next activity was to have tea, switching again to a guest role, presenting a "calling card," and then wearing some of the museum's bonnets and top hats to be in character.  That was fun until 1) they rushed us through the tea before the kids had actually eaten the cookies and they then advised us that they'd be spraying the hats off with disinfectant as soon as we were done.  Nothing like knowing your hosts assume you have cooties to distract from Victorian elegance!  Hee, hee.

We were herded to the next stop, which was the history museum, covering in brief everything from Ohlone/Costanoan history to the present.  They had some interesting artifacts, but the Director of the museum, who led the tour, had a voice that sounded so incredibly bored that it was hard to stay engaged.  She also made statements of dubious historic accuracy, such as telling us that the baskets in the display case - which were perfectly intact - were "thousands of years old."  Several kids rolled their eyes and a mom friend whispered in my ear, "I seriously doubt that!"  The museum activity consisted of sitting in the archive room - always an interesting place for me with my love of learning about history - and creating a "creation myth" around the assigned topic, "how the hummingbird got its red neck."  Unfortunately, they told us the actual Ohlone story first, so that hindered creativity, then, before we could even get started, she called time and had us pack up our papers.

We were then sent back to the historic house and, "because it is raining" (though it wasn't), instructed that it was too wet to do the planned scavenger hunt.  Instead, she gave us pieces of paper and read us the answers.  The kids then made cardboard "whirlygigs," which were pretty cool and something we might duplicate in wood for a future historic experience.  This final docent was nice, but oh-so-very concerned about strangers; when a visitor came up to the porch, she rudely asked, "who are you?" and then warned us, "he might be legitimate, but stay away from him."  Later, when K was checking our snails about 40 feet away from me, she warned her not to be too far from me "because there are a lot of strangers around."  I couldn't help to giggle to imagine her reaction had she seen us with the kids in the gritty heart of San Francisco's Mission district two days prior, surrounded by "strangers," some openly engaged in clearly questionable behavior and juxtapose that concern projected in this lovely and peaceful rose garden.

So, overall, a bit learned, though a bit too much of it in the educating for disrespect category. Ah well, being with friends makes the trip always worthwhile.

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