(This post is originally from my old blog, summer 2013)
The sun sits closer to the earth at St. Mary’s City. In all my experiences there it is hot place. Hotter than hot. The kind of weather that makes me, a Floridian citizen, think “My god it is warm here.” It is not quite a swelter but the air moves when it wants to, which is to say not that often. I imagine St. Mary’s City is not boiling during the winter, fall, and spring months, but it is now summer so molecules are moving and the air is sizzling. This is a fact of life; this is a fact of St. Mary’s City. Which I consider one of my favorite summer field trips.
St. Mary’s City is simply wonderful. And when I went a few weeks ago my experience became exponentially better….I got sit in on tours for school children. What an excellent opportunity to experience public history in action– And because I went with the USF Ferry Farm Field School Students, my advisor and my USF/GEWA Forensic Anthropology co-workers the air was ripe for conversation. (The air was also hot, stale, and slightly musty)
For background- St. Mary’s City was Maryland’s original capitol, it was Catholic but notably religiously diverse. (and racially if you happen to read their place marker celebrating the first Black person in Maryland..yes that exists). Fast forward- Since the 1970’s St. Mary’s City has hosted many archeological field schools. There are a lot of reconstructed buildings, some of them filled with objects, settings, and other fun building accompaniments, others are wooden structures, outlines of buildings, like a stick drawing. (It creates a peculiar but not upsetting visual landscape). There are farm animals, tobacco fields, and a ship, a rather neat ship. There is also a building with an uncovered dig site in it, that is phenomenally neat, but we did not hit it this time around so I will not talk about- but trust me it’s neat.
Alright, School Tours at St. Mary’s City
We sat in the Ordinary (basically colonial motel) for three tours, each lead by a different guide. The first tour guide explained how the accommodations in the Ordinary were better than sleeping outside. You can imagine seven year old being turned off by the idea of sleeping in a “rustic” motel, on a mat on the floor with other guests. Naturally the guide capitalized on the well trodden idea that the past was a hard place to live in, and we have it just so freaking sweet now.
Now that’s what I take issue with. Tour guides (not just one) like to play up the idea of how hard life was “back then”, but they fail to realize or teach the children that this was a good system, and it worked for many years (decades).
Sleeping on the floor, yea that works, this was pretty nice for them. We don’t need to talk about “they did not know any better than to think sleeping on the floor was okay,” because 17th/18th c people knew it was okay to sleep on the floor, it was okay it was normal.
I don’t think we need to explain the past to children in comparison, honestly we don’t need to teach them to compare themselves to others, especially when you expect them to feel superior to others. The goal here is not to have the children think “Wow I am SO much better than these colonial folks, I am so lucky.” No no no, their worked, this was the good stuff. AND people still live this way. People still share bedrolls and sleep on the floor. It is not hard to see that guides are creating a continuum in the children’s mind where they see themselves as an evolved form of Marylanders. “Early Marylanders slept on the floor with strangers I don’t, I’m better, I’m better off” or worse “I could not do this, this is impossible for anyone to handle this type of living, how odd, how quaint” (though they would prob. not say quaint). The people who grew up in the colonies knew, understood and lived within this system, this was life, this was normal this worked, it was not hard, it was normal, it was life. There are plenty of problems with our society now that we are encouraged to ignore in favor of comparing ourselves to a past we cannot possibly fully comprehend. We are not perfect we are not the society perfected from the past’s mistakes, we are just as messed up as we can cast the past as.
Now let’s take this one step further-let’s go there. Together.
So what is meant when a dichotomy is created between the living conditions in St. Mary’s City historical recreations and 2013 school students? Well you are saying people don’t live like this now. (I say) Oh but they do! So what does this say of the people who live this way? It says they are not civilized, they are behind. Jeepers! Why do people not live like this now? Why don’t we share beds, and space with strangers. Who else shares space with strangers, communal living….oh communism Eek! Thank God we are live in the fully evolved capitol world that is the US of A!
All sarcasm aside, the image that is portrayed in the interpretation of colonial spaces as subpar is generally false. The people who occupied these spaces did not see them as half-decent replacements for the wilderness. Ordinarys like the one in St. Mary’s City were frequented by the people who were able to stay there, not the desperate. And it was not unpleasant, it was normal, it may have been nice. We as the comparative future should not look down upon the past in pity, they were doing just fine, they survived that is why we are here to dig up their trash, faun over their stuff, and talk crap about their living conditions.
Other things about St. Mary’s City
Best Smelling Gift Shop! And that is not a direct comparison to the pigs I had saw before going in the gift shop. The store smelled clean and wonderful, independent from prior smells.
No one is around when you go into the recreated historical buildings. You can, as long as no one is around to tell you “no”, touch EVERYTHING! When do you get this opportunity! Touch it, smell it, trying it on. I love it. The past is sensual at St. Mary’s City.