“Digitally” Engaged (with Oxen & Mirrors)

A member of the Banner Star & Bright Oxen Team, Hale Farm & Village. PO Box 296 2686 Oak Hill Road Bath, Ohio

A couple of months ago someone (or more likely someone posting) drew my attend to The Digital Engagement Framework.  Always looking for tools that help museums do what they do more effectively and more efficiently, it has–as a side effect–helped me think about my own work differently.

I post to MIDEA less frequently than I have in the past because for the past three years–and actively for the past year–I’ve been transition away from art museums and new technologies towards 19th century cultural history in an attempt to better understand how Americans felt about museums before the building of the “great museums” in the last quarter of the 19th century.    I spend more time exploring the expanding cultural horizons in 1850 than those in 2014 and beyond.

In mid-December I was talk to some folks from Hale Farm and Village, an outdoor living and history museum, part of the Western Reserve Historical Society.  We were talking about assets and Hale Farm and Village has any number of them a pair of the assets that the HFV folks are really pleased are their oxen.  Got to admit this is the first time in more than 30 years of museum work that the topic of Oxen as key assets has come up.  Turns out oxen are a pretty significant acquisition for a 19th century America living history center because there aren’t many places folks can see oxen live and in person in 2014.   It’s not that most of us don’t realize that at some point in North American history oxen were important, the oxen topic just doesn’t come up in conversation much anymore.

My entire experience of the role of oxen in American history is derived from reading and re-reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1933 “Farmer Boy,” the volume that tells about Almanzo Wilder’s childhood experiences growing up near the town of Malone in upstate New York.   On his 9th birthday Almanzo’s father gives him two calves–Star and Bright.  I dredged that little detail out of my memory this morning when I was thinking about this post and then had a good laugh when I discovered that the Hale Farm team are called “Banner Star and Bright.”

Turns out, of course, that oxen are hugely important in the development of this country.  Stronger and steadier than horses they were sued for plowing and transport.  They powered machines and were even occasionally used for threshing grain, their heavy  hooves winnowing the wheat from the chaff.  Just as many of us occasionally look up from our phones and across a Starbuck’s table at a friend or partner and ask “what did we ever do without smartphones?”  Hundreds and even thousands of farmers must have looked across the dinner table at the end of a long day and asked “Can you imagine how hard this life would be if we didn’t have a pair of oxen?”

And now mirrors.   Mirrors are ubiquitous in the world today.  They are everywhere.  And in the unlikely circumstance that one is not standing somewhere near mirrors or reflective glass, I have seen my son and his twenty-something friends take photographs to make sure the look is right.  But mirrors–or at least good mirrors–have not always been a readily accessible technology.

I  have spent the better part of three years transcribing a travel journal that records the adventures of Randall Wade and his family who  spent 15 months traveling across Europe, visiting museums, historic sites, cathedrals, and palaces and staying in hotels horrendous and delightful.   In Rome he is ever so excited by a new technology standard in the Rome hotel–the full length cheval glass mirror.  The mirror is more than a vanity item, Randall discovers a hidden utility.   It allows the weary traveler to easily identify and remove fleas from “hard to see” parts of the anatomy.   In the sketch below, Randall catches his wife “Anna” in the act of discovery and removal. “Digital” technology–old school.


"Fleas" by Randall Wade, from Mss. 3934 "Randall Wade Travel Journals" Western Reserve Historical Society




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