by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It was another beautiful spring day at the Homestead as we concluded our Victorian Fair of the Far West. While attendance was not quite what we hoped, there were approximately 2,000 visitors over the weekend and, from the qualitative side, it seemed like the vast majority had a great time.
Amid the green glow of the Homestead Museum Gallery auditorium’s overhead lighting system, Misty Lee uses audience participation to demonstrate a “proof” of a successful séance involving offering tea to a spirit as part of her discussion of the history of spiritualism.
In fact, one of my colleagues pointed out that a visitor literally ran to her during today’s festivities to rave about the experience he and his wife had in talking with Matthew Teutimez of the Kizh-Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians, which had a series of tables in the Workman House courtyard over the weekend at which they discussed tribal history and customs.
The couple was talking to Matt about native plants and how the indigenous people utilized them and the husband expressed how impressed they were with his knowledge and unbounded enthusiasm on the subject, adding that his wife was a doctor and was not at all prepared to have that level of expertise and passion brought into the discussion.
Similarly, I had the pleasure of overseeing on both days the presentations given at the Homestead Museum Gallery and today’s featured speaker was Misty Lee, who gives highly informative and exuberant talks about the history of American spiritualism and séances.
Misty kept audiences spellbound and fascinated as she talked about the topic, emphasizing the societal conditions that fostered Americans’ interest in spiritualism, while maintaining the balance of understanding the desire to believe with the question of authenticity. Hearing people come out of these talks with expressions of appreciation for her expertise and enthusiasm resonated with me in terms of understanding the power of direct human contact in conveying the importance of history.
So, while we do want to see increased attendance at our events whenever possible, we are also very mindful of the importance of putting quality about quantity. This happened in so many other ways: from the quilters and lace makers who directly engaged in showing visitors what are rapidly disappearing practices; to Natalie Meyer’s discussions of women’s fashions including fitting of corsets so that modern women have some idea of what was involved in getting properly dressed in bygone days; to the historical societies and organizations who explain what they do to keep our regional history alive and thriving; to the musicians and dancers who perform Victorian music so that our guests have some appreciation of what took place in those areas 140 years or more ago.
We can read books or watch documentaries about the Victorian era, but to have a direct, visceral experience with aspects of that period gives an entirely different perspective and sense of appreciation that you can’t otherwise get from the other sources of information. Educators frequently remind us that we learn more by doing than by reading or hearing, so a major part of the effort that goes into events like the Victorian Fair is directed toward experiential learning, involving hand-on, participatory activities that are far more likely to resonate.
Sarah Chavez had fascinating materials and information on hand at El Campo Santo Cemetery as she shared mourning and funeral practices of the Victorian era with visitors. Using post-mortem photos, for example, including ones from Mexico that showed different cultural perspectives on how the dead were honored, she was able to compare and contrast what was done in an earlier era and a different country to what we experience today.
My colleagues Jennifer Scerra and Isis Quan created another fascinating display and interactive element dealing with the use of plants, both in terms of how widely and rapidly species have moved across the world and how Victorians utilized plant materials for a wide variety of practical and ornamental purposes. Isis used 3-D printing to create “Wardian Cases”, enclosures developed by Dr. Nathaniel Ward in 1840s London to protect plants from pollution. These were used for display in homes, but also the transport of plants to other parts of the world, which, in turn, created special challenges in terms of native versus invasive species.
There were also plenty of hands-on opportunities for visitors, whether it was making crafts developed by my talented colleagues, handling materials brought by the Kizh, creating paper quilts, or trying out those tight corsets that Natalie Meyer brought to show how Victorian women suffered trying to keep up with restrictive conceptions of beauty.
Even so, done well, talks and lectures can also be highly effective, whether it was Misty’s evocation of spiritualism, Tim Poyorena-Miguel’s explanation of the main themes of indigenous life, or Dr. Bert Davidson’s discussion of medical practices of the period. They key to all of those is to reach out to the listener and engage them with humor and relevance, as well as an appreciation for the lessons of history.
So, yes, we would have liked to see higher attendance numbers (and who knows what effect the massive box-office opening weekend for the latest [and, supposedly, final] Avengers film had], but we were particularly pleased to see how engaged our visitors were over the weekend. The quantitative, in terms of pure visitation statistics, has to be carefully compared and contrasted to the qualitative, with respect to the experiences those visitors have.
Given this, we were happy with how well the Victorian Fair fared overall. Thanks to many demonstrators, presenters and performers, dozens of Homestead and community volunteers, such as from the National Charity League, and the untiring efforts of my talented and dedicated colleagues on the museum’s paid staff, we were able to provide this quality program for our guests.
And, to those who visited this weekend, many thanks as well for your support of the Homestead and its programs. It’s been a pleasure to offer the Victorian Fair and other programs and we look forward to doing what we can to, as our mission statement states, “create advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.”