A post by Queen’s University Public History intern, Cliodhna NicBhranair.
For as long as I can remember, to get to work in a folk museum, dress up in period costume and talk to people all day seemed like the dream job! So, when the opportunity arose as part of my MA programme, I grabbed it with both hands. I had the good fortune of getting to intern at the Mellon Centre for Migration Studies, Omagh, which shares the site of the Ulster American Folk Park. When I initially inquired as to what we, as interns, would be working towards, I was told we would be conducting the research behind a 1916 Spring Fair Day re-enactment. I couldn’t refuse. Historical research AND getting to dress up and talk to people – my inner geek was thrilled!
The first few days of our internship focussed largely around discussion with regard to what public history meant – both in theory and reality, what methodology would be practical and reasonable for our task given the time scale, and (the key question!) what would eventually be included on the day.
Our initial discussions were very interesting. As a group that could never be described as ‘shy’, there were plenty of ideas and strong opinions bandied about!
In terms of public history, it became very clear that we, as historians, would have to branch out and start to think outside of the box. We couldn’t, perhaps, go into our usual level of detail (for fear of boring the general public to death!) but, at the same time, we had to include enough information to spark an interest in what we wanted to communicate and make it worthwhile coming to see. One way of doing this, we decided, was to make it relevant to our audience. Given that we knew the majority of those coming to the Spring Fair Day would be from the local area, we wanted to encapsulate local stories that people could relate to, without telling them things they already knew. Our audience would be one who had come to a folk park, not an academic lecture, so to strike the balance between entertainment and historical accuracy was key.
We used local newspapers, archives and historians to gather up the information we would need to piece the Spring Fair Day together. We divided the key topics among ourselves and researched as much as we could before finally meeting with the directors of the re-enactment to share the fruits of our labour.
As I mentioned, the key question in all of this was ‘what to include’. We were extremely aware, of course, that given the sensitivities of the centenary of 1916 we would have to be careful so as not to insult or exclude any party. When presenting historical information to the public, it is really important to take care to present the information openly, making sure it is not slanted in any one direction but embraces a range of perspectives.
As such, we focussed largely on the two major events of the day – the Easter Rising in April 1916 and the ongoing First World War. However, we agreed that what we wanted to portray was the reality for those living in a small northern rural town in Ireland at the time. Therefore, it was equally important to include what might be seen to many as trivial – such as the price of milk, the latest fashions and the fact that such-and-such up the road spent the night in the barracks after singing too loudly on the way home from the pub! We wanted to reiterate the fact that, while one hundred years may have passed we, as people, can still relate to those Spring Fair Day folk of 1916.
What struck me most, however, was the generational gap which I felt was well-bridged on the day. Whether it was a toddler fascinated by the people dressed up in funny clothes, to the slightly older child starting to ask questions about the era which we were portraying, to the grannies and grandas saying ‘sure I remember when we did that!’, everyone could relate to something. It was a fascinating internship and one that opened my eyes greatly to the logistics and reality of public history. The Spring Fair Day of 1916 was a great success and it was lovely to see the work that we had done played out.