Immersive Visitor Involvement at Living History Museums, or, Blacksmithing and You!

One of the things that always gathers crowds at living history museums are blacksmiths at work. It’s easy to understand why. Smithing isn’t often practiced these days. My spellcheck doesn’t even recognize it as a word. In this industrial age I’d wager the vast majority of the objects in your house, from the clothes you wear to the computer you’re using to read this blog entry, were created in a distant, far off land so far removed from where these goods ended up that it takes some prompting to remember that these objects were produced by human hands and machines in a process that took time and energy. It’s fascinating to watch something take shape on the anvil under the hammer and in the blacksmith’s fires, to go from raw material to finished product.

At Fort Edmonton Park, there are two smithies: one on 1885 street, home to a blacksmith I know for a fact has made it a personal goal to become competent in almost every skill possible before he dies, and in the 1846 fur trading fort, which is used by several more blacksmiths, including this awesome volunteer who often comes to staff parties dressed in costumes that include a minotaur and Robert the Bruce, complete with broadsword. He’s also skilled at leatherworking. Our blacksmiths tend to be a skilled bunch all around.

Here is the longtime Fort blacksmith, pictured wearing a lady’s hat from 1885 street wielding a dag he forged himself, because he is an awesome human being. Photo from 2009 by Lauren Markewicz.

Now, as I may have mentioned before in my heavy post on “historical authenticity”, at Fort Edmonton and many other living history museums, health and safety always trumps the nebulous concept of “historical accuracy.” The forges at Fort Edmonton remain roped off to visitors at almost all times, whether or not the site is in use – even with no fires lit, it still contains numerous sharp/heavy/dirty implements and many dark corners and tripping hazards. Enter at your own risk. The blacksmiths have special health and safety training as well, and I’m going to burst the historical bubble just slightly here… there are always modern fire extinguishers hidden just within reach inside the blacksmith’s work space. Always. And they’re regularly checked. And everyone in costume aside from the junior volunteers needs to have up to date First Aid certifications. So that nurse I portrayed last year on 1920s street, and the nurse who’s there this year? They can actually help you if you’re in the park with a first aid emergency, and will rely on modern first aid training not historically accurate procedures. Just in case you were wondering.

So what am I getting at here with all of this health and safety talk? If you wanted to come into the forge and try your hand at blacksmithing at Fort Edmonton? Sorry, no can do. And for good reason. Please be content to watch metal take shape in the skillful hands of the trained blacksmith behind the safety lines.

This isn’t the case at other parks. I visited Fort Langley in the summer of 2011 with a friend.  (And got pretend-married à la façon du pays to my friend in a fur trade style marriage program: perhaps more on that in a later post.) Fort Langley (near Vancouver) is also a living history museum, centered around a single fur trade era fort. They are all about visitor inclusion in their programs. Not that Fort Edmonton isn’t, but those at Langley involve their visitors in some programs in a more extensive way than Fort Edmonton  that gives them more of an experiential encounter with living history than they would as a spectator. One of the things I was shocked, and then pleased, to see, was visitors being allowed into the smithy. Observe:

Forging a metal hook at Fort Langley. Interpreter on the right, inexperienced visitor on the left. Note safety precautions and close supervision. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz.

You will note that my friend is wearing an apron, heavy gloves, and protective glasses. I wasn’t even allowed inside the building (the photos were taken from an open wall) because I was wearing sandals: closed toed shoes only, a sensible policy which I completely agreed with. My friend made a pretty nifty burnished metal hook (with a decorative twisted stem) in less than fifteen minutes under the close supervision of the blacksmith. And it was awesome.

Now, I’m sure that there are tons of insurance factors at work – Fort Langley is also a federal institution, whereas Fort Edmonton is run by the city that bears its name, and their funding and policies come from very different sources. (Some parks take insurance considerations to an extreme, and won’t serve food made in stoves by costumed interpreters to visitors, though thankfully Fort Edmonton continues, as far as I am aware, to happily serve visitors bannock and other dishes made by interpreters.) I’m sure it took a lot of negotiation and paperwork from someone on site at Langley to get such a program up and running, even with safety precautions. I’m not saying that Fort Edmonton should start putting that kind of visitor inclusion in practice. I’m not sure it would work in that context, considering the larger numbers that Fort Edmonton gets. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from observing and being a visitor, if you see one visitor doing something cool, everyone wants to try it, particularly if it’s free. This is the case with 1920s motorcar or horse rides, climbing on the palisades of the fort, or blacksmithing. It would be impractical in the Fort Edmonton situation: the blacksmith would do nothing but teach visitors how to smith, and coal and other supplies are expensive. That’s not to mention the insurance paperwork. However, this program worked extremely well at Fort Langley during a slow time of the season where there wasn’t the expectation that everyone would be able to try their hand. The exclusivity of the experience also added to visitor enjoyment: we felt special. We (he) had acquired a new skill and he probably remembers the experience – and the procedure – of blacksmithing far more than I did as an observer and photographer.

Testing the strength of the newly-forged hook by hanging one of the heavy metal tongs on it. Success! Photo by Lauren Markewicz.

Experiencing living history should not be limited to the interpreters in costume. Actually forging a clothes pin yourself is a very different experience from watching someone else, no matter how skilled, do it. It’s why interpreters at Fort Edmonton are encouraged to involve visitors in any activity they are doing, be it beadwork, knitting, pie baking, or (sometimes) driving an antique car. (Though, sorry, no getting behind the wheel unless the car is off and it’s for photographs… and you have the express permission of a person in costume.) Immersing oneself in history is much more easily done if the visitor is not simply an observer, but an active participant in the proceedings. That’s one of the main advantages of living history over, say, historical documentaries: visitor involvement and immersion in the experience of being in the past. (Or at least an approximation of it.) Being a blacksmith – being capable of the act of smithing something – is extremely cool, and extremely rare in North America in the twenty-first century.

Disclaimer #1: I am no longer an employee at Fort Edmonton Park. I am currently employed at Library and Archives Canada for the summer, mostly working in a cubicle with super cool classified documents that I can’t tell you about without having to kill you after to preserve secrets. (Different kinds of shenanigans are going on behind the scenes at LAC, though, in ways that I can’t talk about yet.) I miss being paid to bake pies, knit socks, drive motorcars from the 1920s and chat with visitors about fun historical facts. Hence, the blog: I miss you guys! But my bigger point is that I am no longer officially affiliated with Fort Edmonton, so anything I say about the inner workings or policies of the park should in no way be taken as an official endorsement of any type of behaviour or park policy or anything at all really. But please enjoy them nonetheless!

Disclaimer #2: My friend got to try his hand at smithing at Fort Langley several years ago. Please do not travel to Fort Langley expecting/demanding the full blacksmith experience and cite me as the person that promised you this. I have no idea if they still follow this policy or perform this program. But hey, maybe they do! If you’re in the Vancouver area this summer, you should check it out. Just in case you can forge your own metal object. Because it was awesome.


8 thoughts on “Immersive Visitor Involvement at Living History Museums, or, Blacksmithing and You!

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  2. Pingback: (Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part I: 1920s Street | History Research Shenanigans

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  7. I’m interested in your thoughts on volunteers in period costumes (1890’s) wearing name tags? (security of volunteers, authenticity, etc) Thanks

    1. Hmm… a very good question! In my mind, wearing an historical costume affiliates you with whatever park or historic site you are working for. Requiring volunteers to wear name tags would of course call in questions of “historical authenticity” (no “modern” name tags visible on employees) – but most historical interpreters do not display identification. Why, then, would you need volunteers to do so? Do you regularly distinguish between volunteers and paid employees? In either case, volunteers still provide a service (interpretation/education in this case) and visitors will not make a distinction between paid and unpaid staff. Taken in that light, I would probably not provide some “employees”/people in costume (volunteers) with name tags and not others. I think that it is totally valid for volunteers to have identification with them (hidden in basket/petticoats/pocket) that they could produce if needed, but they are already clearly identified because they are in costume as affiliates of the site. Not knowing further specifics, I can’t comment further…?

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