Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Journey Back In Time

Henry, Georgia and Josie are on Spring Break this week, which means that I am not.  We did not go away for vacation, so I filled the time the best way I know how:  I took the children outside and we acted like tourists in our own state.  

On Tuesday, we went to Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, MA.

When you arrive at the Plantation, you are shown an orientation video that lasts about 15 minutes.  During that 15 minute period, I realized that Plimoth Plantation was just as close to my idea of hell as could be realized at a US historical site.

I love history.  I love all historical homes, battle sites and museums.  I even worked in a historical house museum while I lived in DC back in the 90's.  I figured that I would love Plimoth Plantation with its accurately recreated pilgrim life.

I was wrong.  It ends up that Plimoth Plantation includes people who dress, act, talk and work as if they were living in the 1600s.  

This fact did not particularly bother me.  It was the following information that sent shivers down my spine.

Plimoth Plantation employees NEVER BREAK CHARACTER.  Never.  Not when a cell phone rings, not when you tell them that you are from a town that didn't exist in 1620, not when you ask them personal questions.  They never break character.


In other words, Plimoth Plantation workers are the clowns of the historical-recreation world.... and there is nothing scarier than a clown.

The good news was that before you entered the English settlement, you first had to walk through a Wampanoag "village" and the Wampanoags, while dressed in traditional clothes and toiling at traditional tasks, were still modern-day people ready to talk about both their cultural past and present.

The Wampanoags were quite fascinating.

We watched one man hollow out a canoe.

And we sat in a winter house and spoke to a village elder about how modern-day Wampanoag children are raised.

Josie got to crush corn into meal:

and both Henry and Georgia asked pointed and appropriate questions.  So far, my carnival-esque fears went unfounded.  The Wampanoags were keen to talk about their way of life and it was all fascinating.

But then it was time to leave the Wampanoag site and venture forth into the unknown of the Pilgrim village.  To ease our transition back in time, we took a lovely boardwalk path through some marsh land.

I started to get apprehensive about what fate awaited me at the top of the boardwalk stairs.  I knew I had to face a bunch of dramatic folk and I knew that if we mentioned anything modern like an ipod or a mobile phone, we would upset the balance of this crazy world.  

But we actually lucked out.  

Plimoth Plantation was almost completely empty of characters.  And believe it or not, that ended up annoying me greatly.

The orientation video had led us to believe that there would be live pilgrims in every house we entered, but that simply wasn't the case.  Most buildings were empty and outside the homes was no different than in.  The plantation was a relative ghost town.

At first, I couldn't have been more relieved, but I felt badly that the children were disappointed.  

We walked around the empty buildings for awhile until we found a blacksmith cleaning his studio.  We entered, greeted the Scotsman and watched him for awhile.

This is when I realized that Plimoth Plantation and it's band of acting pilgrims is not what it was made out to be.  The orientation video had led me to believe that all the characters were dying to talk to us and answer all of our questions about life in Pilgrim Massachusetts, but this was completely the opposite of what we experienced out of the movie-viewing room.  Our questions - many of them very good and thought provoking - elicited mostly one word answers with absolutely no follow through.  

"What are you doing?' we asked the blacksmith (or the woman tending to the fire, or the man chopping wood, take your pick).  "I'm cleaning my oven.... I'm cooking peas.... I'm chopping wood."  And then...


It was all quite puzzling.

Aren't these people actors earning money during the day before their off-broadway play begins?

Aren't they dramatic types who love nothing than telling a good story?

Where was the story?

Where was the history and the information?

No where, apparently.

After two mono-syllabic encounters, we began to be happy when we found an empty house to explore.  

While I had been dreading the forced interactions and having to listen to people "thou and willist" me for hours on end, it ended up that I got annoyed that no one seemed to want to play act for us after all.

The lack of enthusiasm shown by the pilgrim re creators was shocking.  And yet in some ways, it was kind of funny.  My favorite moment during the day came when Georgia watched a woman sewing a large piece of fabric for five minutes.  Georgia studied the woman intently, waiting for her to say something.  When the woman did NOT say something, Georgia asked, "what are you making?"

The woman looked up and said, "A Sheet."

Then she turned back to her work and continued with her morning.

Georgia looked at me, shrugged her shoulders and moved on.

A sheet?  Seriously?  That's all you can say?  How about "I'm making a sheet for my bed.  First, I wove the cloth using fiber I got from sheering my sheep.  Then I worked for months to make this one piece of fabric which I now sew - by hand - for hours and hours.  This is the only way I know to get sheets for my bed.  My mother taught me how to do it and her mother taught her.  This is what women do in our town.  We sew our clothes and we cook our dinners.  It is a hard life but it is also rewarding as I am a Pilgrim and I want to live a pious life."

Nope.  We just learned that that rectangular piece of cloth is a sheet.

We moved outside for a few minutes - just long enough for me to take some hysterical photos of two of my children being attacked by an insect.

City children are so fun when they are in the country.

We also enjoyed the look-out station.

Well, we think it was the look-out station.  There wasn't anyone around to give us any information about the structure.

We left Plimoth Plantation feeling underwhelmed.  

Luckily, things picked up at the next location:  the craft house and the educational area.

We watched modern people making pottery and a Wampanoag woman making a ball out of deer skin and animal fur.  

At the education area, we found a man thatching a roof and he jumped at the chance to tell us all about thatched roofs, the process involved in maintaining such a roof and the roofs most wonderful traits.

I didn't catch his name, but he was amazing.  I learned more about thatched roofs and about the pilgrims from this man than I did from the entire cast of the plantation.

He even encouraged the kids to climb the ladder and meet his thatching partner in the attic.

Children love a good ladder.

Before we left, we visited the Children's Discovery Center where Henry recreated our favorite joke from the Junie B. Jones book series:

He found a rooster, who pecked his head into a nub.

I guess you had to be there.

Josie tried on a tiny pilgrim costume and both she and Georgia put on a short puppet show.

We left Plimoth Plantation with mixed feelings.  The children enjoyed the day (the Wampanoags were their favorite) but I wasn't impressed.  

I had learned more about American history from the 15 minute Battle of Lexington the day before.

We made our way across town to view the Mayflower next.  

Tune in tomorrow for that recap.


David said...

The Pilgrims were pretty laconic also--remember the "speak for yourself John Alden" line pretty well sums it up.

terri said...

I am so totally with you on all the drama stuff. I live in Virginia and visiting some of the historical plantations, you just want to shake them and say "look, do you really think I'm falling for this?"

Martha said...

Good point, David! I was still annoyed though.

Martha said...

Terri - Ha! That's EXACTLY what I felt like doing!!! What I really wanted to do was have a real conversation with them.... where they actors? did they really come from England or are they just really good at accents? How long do they plan on doing this for a living? Is the pay good?


Thanks so much for stopping by and making me laugh with your comment!

Anonymous said...

I don't know why this is an exciting part of your vaca.
I have two girls who have declared their favorite parts of the week their time with Georgia and Josie!!

DonH said...

Dear Martha,

I happened to stumble upon your blog, when actually looking for something completely different, but I decided to read your blog anyway...hope you don't mind ;-)

I am so sorry to hear of your not-so-good experience at Plimoth Plantation. I happen to be one of those "actors" in the English Village (though I'm currently on the Mayflower). Not being able to have a "modern" conversation is indeed one of the drawbacks of interpreting in first-person (that is, as if we're from the 1620s). But to help with that, we normally have guides at the fort to help answer questions related to 1628 and after. And on the ship, we always have 21st century interpreters every day.

What upsets me most is the one-line-answers you received. That is exactly what we strive NOT to do! Occasionally yes (as would be in normal conversation), but like in a normal conversation, we strive to lead on with the conversation, and in most occasions initiate the conversation for you. Most of us understand that trying to start a conversation with someone 400 years in the past is not exactly easy or even normal ha, so we try to start it for you. It really bothers me to know you did not receive that.

I hope you don't mind, but I am going to print off your blog and let it serve as a reminder to everyone that this is not the experience we want our guests to receive.

I hope you're able to return some day and with it have a much better time.

Don Heminitz

Martha said...

Don - I'm so glad you left this message! I have always wondered if the day we spent at Plimoth Plantation was a typical experience or just an example of a perfect-storm of every employee's worst day. The "conversations" we had with the actors could be described as brief, at best, but the real oddity was that there were so few actors around the village with whom to interact. I took my children to Plimoth Plantation during Massachusetts public school spring vacation week, so I expected the Plantation to be a busy and vibrant place. We enjoyed our trip to the Mayflower (which I blogged about a few days after this post) and we had a marvelous time at the Wapanoag village. Don't worry, I'm too much a sucker for a good historical site to ever give up on Plimoth Plantation. I'm sure we'll be back soon. Thanks so much for stopping by and for leaving a comment. -martha

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