Who cares if I can make a chair without electric machinery?
Oddly, I ask myself this question all of the time. As a member of the team at a living history site, where among other things, we do show people how to make things by hand and without machinery, other than as a novelty, what importance might this have on contemporary visitors? How might my newfound knowledge of how a foot-powered lath benefit my thinking in 2018? Could the answer to this question affect how I vote? What policies I promote? What I eventually do in my life?
Like a dandelion seed floating through the breeze, the answer to this question has far-reaching and unforeseen results.
I don’t know if I actually have an answer. I understand why being knowledgeable about the tactics and strategies of history could better inform your decisions today, but I feel less firm on why the physicality of everyday life is an important thing to know.
I watch, stunned, as kids are presented with a rotary phone and asked to place a call. The young minds have no concept of how the phone works. “How do you text?” one young girl asks. Another, instead of rotating the dial, continuously pushes the holes of the rotary dial expecting the call to go through. Will they ever be expected to use a rotary phone?
I know how all of this must seem. It’s not even an issue for the everyday person. For a visitor to a living history site, it’s all novelty and visually arresting. To those of us who really work at making these experiences meaningful beyond simply the cool-ness of the interaction, it weighs heavy on our minds. Is it good enough to simply be compelling? Is it Ok to also be thought-provoking; challenging; and sometimes adversarial?
I am fundamentally a sculptor. I make things ( https://franklinvagnone.org/ ). Watching people make things, and even better making the things myself, can be one of the most satisfying experiences at a living history site. In fact, I often find myself sitting and chatting with the woodworkers at history sites – asking them questions. Why? What about this behavior fulfills something in the modern mind that is missing? At a most basic level it is tactile. Sensory engagement matters. Is that all there is?
What’s the next level of benefit of this experience – how can an obsolete action inform my life today in a useful and substantive way?