Colonel Mustard in the Library with a Wrench
Last month I gave a workshop on museum theatre at the Small Museums Association conference. Museum theatre is a valued part of our interpretation here at the Accokeek Foundation, particularly during the summer when a coterie of museum theatre interns joins us at the National Colonial Farm. To learn more about the field of museum theatre, check out the International Museum Theatre Alliance.
I generally submit proposals to present at a conference for one of two reasons: 1) it’s being held somewhere I’d like to visit (this has gotten me to Ireland, Poland, Italy, Scotland, and Turkey) or 2) it gives me a deadline for writing/planning something I’ve been thinking about. For the Small Museums Association conference, it was not the idea of traveling to Ocean City, Maryland, in February that attracted me (surprise!), but the theme of “Night at the Museum” and the opportunity to give a workshop to museum folk on using museum theatre.
After giving a bit of background on the Foundation and the kinds of museum theatre projects we have done, I asked for volunteers to come up and “perform” the first few pages of last year’s “A Colonial Wedding.” For those of you who missed this stupendous event last July (yes, I’m prejudiced, but it was awesome), visitors became guests at Chloe Bolton’s wedding, witnessing the “behind the scenes” discussions about the young couple’s plans and prospects, and then the wedding ceremony itself (performed verbatim from the 1771 Book of Common Prayer). When the workshop “performers” finished reading the excerpt from “A Colonial Wedding,” I asked the audience what they had learned. Participants immediately named about ten things they had learned. I made the point that theatre, with its focus on story and characters, is an extremely effective and entertaining way for people to learn historical information and appreciate its relevance to their own lives.
Next I asked workshop participants to take out a blank piece of paper and jot down the following:
Current or planned events/programs/exhibits at their site;
Three different locations at their site where a performance could take place other than a room where such programs are usually held;
Three objects at their site that, if the object could talk, would have an amazing story to tell;
Three people that are a part of their site/museum’s story and a question they would ask each of them;
Three sensory experiences that would enrich a visitors experience of their site (e.g., Sound of a bird? Smell of barnyard? Feel of particular fabric?)
Then I asked participants to go through these lists and pick one thing from each list – I compared the exercise to playing a game of Clue that might end with “Colonel Mustard in the library with a wrench.” With these choices having been made, participants divided into small groups, shared their “scenario,” and then chose one scenario from the group to brainstorm further and come up with ideas for turning the idea into a real theatrical event. Finally, the groups shared their prospective “events,” which ranged from visitors at Plimoth Plantation gathering around a campfire as witnesses to a meeting between Wampanoag Indians and English settlers to a performance at the Brunswsick Railroad Museum focused on the dangers of working on the railroad. In the case of the former, the idea was triggered by thinking about the sensory experience of the smell of a campfire and in the case of the latter, inspiration was drawn from an object, that being a wicker body basket in the museum’s collection.
At the end of the workshop, I asked for a show of hands of people who had come up with ideas that they might actually use to create an event at their museum. I was delighted to see so many arms go up. Historical museums and sites will only thrive if we embrace our roles as storytellers and transform our visitors into passionate shepherds of history.