Working on a Historical Film: An Unconventional Use of the History Major

Isabel Merrell’s (‘19.5) Internship, by Victoria Albert

What were you up to last spring?

So basically, I took off last spring from Middlebury to work on historical research for a film. The film is a period piece set in the US in 1910, called Martin Eden. It’s a feature film coming out next year.

What kind of work did you do?

The first eight weeks I was helping with development—script rewrites, plus a ton of research for the art department. I was looking at when certain things were invented so we could incorporate those into rooms, when certain fabrics were popular, what etiquette was used. This script was very political, so I was also doing research on socialism and the women’s suffrage movement.

Another part of my work was that I ended up getting cast in the movie as Geraldine, the Irish housemaid. I did a lot of research on her character—we decided to make her Irish based on the immigration patterns and the exceptional case of Irish non-whiteness at the time. And then I got cast in that role, which was kind of ironic because two weeks before, I had given her a 1910 Irish accent, and I had no abilities myself in that department.

The next six weeks we did the actual shooting of the film. There wasn’t as much research during that stage, but there was a lot of debate over what the emotions and conflicts of the time were and how that would inform the acting, and that was really cool.

What were some of the frustrations you encountered?

It was a pretty low budget film, but it had a one-hundred-and-thirty-page script and almost forty locations. To make a period piece with that scope on a small budget was crazy hard. I was also the set decorator, so I was procuring props and getting sets ready, and it was treacherous. Anytime you shoot outside, any cables or air conditioners have to be covered, and any cars have to be removed, which is a lot of work.

Also, my acting is bad. I’ve never had to act a role that is not myself really, and Geraldine—she and I do not overlap too much in our lived experience!

Was there anything that surprised you about your work on the film?

I didn’t go into the semester thinking it would be an “academic” endeavor. I chose to do this project because I am interested in film and television. But I didn’t realize that field could be an applicable use of the history major. There is actually a lot about media work that overlaps with the history major—like research skills and understanding issues of representation.

What did working on this film teach you about history or the study of history?

I’ve read a lot of articles that discuss historical fiction pieces as projections of the period they are produced in. I was definitely feeling that during my work on Martin Eden. We were going out of our way to research things that were interesting to us, perhaps rather than letting the period speak for itself. For instance, the director was really interested in political debates in the early twentieth century, and it was obviously a reflection of his concerns about the upcoming election. That just reminded me how selective history is. What we choose to see in history is often influenced by what matters to us, what’s confusing or compelling in the present tense.

With that being said, do you think the film will still help educate its viewers about history?

I do not anticipate this movie having a large viewership, but I think anybody who watches it will at least walk away with some semblance of the feeling of the era or the debates of the time. And the research I did about the period really did end up informing the script, so it feels great to know that my work will have an impact.

History Internships – Working at a Living History Museum

Victoria Albert (2021.5)

For my first few months of college, I tried to avoid telling people I was a Feb, because they would inevitably ask, “What did you do over your Feb-mester?” and I would have to say, “I worked at a living history museum.” And then I would explain, “That’s like where you dress up in a costume and cook and do farm chores and show people what life was like in the past.” And then I would be met by confused looks, which I deserved, because who would want to give up running water and food hygiene for the sole purpose of letting other people chuckle at you and say, “Yeah, life was harder back then”?

As insane as it sounds, working or interning in living history can be a really enriching experience, and I would especially recommend it to history majors. Even if you aren’t crazy enough to want to pursue a career in public history, it can provide you with a different perspective, a complement, on academic history. My ideas about how the past should be studied, taught, and understood have been shaped by my experiences in public history.

First, a little more about what living history actually entails. You do have to wear a costume, even if it’s hot. On my first day at the living history village I worked at, I was fitted with dresses, petticoats, and a hat. Some living history interpreters are very meticulous about their attire and actually oppose the term “costume.” They sew all their clothes by hand, using period-appropriate fabric, sewing techniques, needles, and thread. The village where I worked was not like this: interpreters were expected to provide their own shoes, for example, so some volunteers wore sneakers. All of which is to say, there is a balance in living history between accuracy and comfort, and you can usually make your own choices about where you want to stand on that spectrum.

At the village, I split my time between a farm and a tradesman’s home. I did a lot of cooking demonstrations at both: each day, the village administration would give us a cooking project which took us most of the day to complete. Visitors would witness whatever stage of the process we happened to be at when they arrived. If they came early in the morning, they could watch us building a fire, whereas if they arrived late in the afternoon, they might see us washing dishes. While we cooked, we would talk to visitors about the meaning of our work, what it reflected about daily life, mindsets, social relations, or economics at the time, and take questions. When we finished cooking, we demonstrated crafts like straw braiding and knitting, and sometimes we did cleaning. At the farm, I also fed the chickens, cows, and pigs, which was actually a highlight of my job. There was a one-year-old calf and a brood of newly-hatched chicks at the farm when I was there, and I think spending time around them was good for my soul.

Aside from bonding with baby animals, which is an obvious advantage of living history work, you learn to interact with history in a very different way from the research-it-and-write-a-paper-about-it method we use here. You have to read and research on your time period, of course, but you use the information very differently. Living history interpreters build stories and arguments out of seemingly simple objects and actions. For example, straw-braiding can be a portal to talk about the process of industrialization and how it affected women’s work in the home. At the same time, you have to be subtle and deft, and work with the interests of the visitor in front of you. You have to use their questions and comments as a base to weave in facts and anecdotes that grab their interest and gently point them toward the idea you want them to understand. In this way, living history is a dialogue. Visitors bring their memories, beliefs, and personal experiences, and as an interpreter your job is to use those beliefs and experiences, plus your knowledge of history, to help make history mean something to the visitors. Yet living history also offers the opportunity to change the way people think. I have had powerful moments as a living history interpreter explaining how women did have opportunities to express their autonomy “back then,” and watching people think, or smile in surprise, and say, “Wow—I never realized that.”

As a living history interpreter, you develop excellent soft skills. You get to meet and talk with people from all over the world, and so you learn to form connections across difference. On the less-appealing side, you also have to learn not to automatically disengage when people irritate you. You have to respond patiently and politely when a hundred visitors ask the same question in a day or when someone comments, “Women back then wouldn’t be strong enough to lift those kettles.”

Finally, as a living history interpreter you get a sense of the texture of life in the period you portray. Being immersed in the sounds, sights, and smells of the time gives you a tangible, experiential taste of the past you can’t get from a textbook. For me, living history work illuminated the similarities and differences between the human experience in the 19th century and today. Coming into the internship, I felt distanced from the past. Everything seemed alien, from the dusty root cellars to the fly-ridden apple rings hanging from the kitchen ceiling. But as I went on, building fires, getting sooty, cooking, scrubbing, harvesting apples in the sunshine, I also felt a little closer to the past, as if I was peering through a window, just glimpsing the frustrations, worries, and joys people felt then.

Living history internships aren’t for everyone. But if you have an interest in material culture, public history, or museum studies—or even if you don’t—it’s worth a try. You might end up overheated, worked off your feet, and talked hoarse, but you might—like me—end up falling in love, and coming back for more.

Professor Ward’s Sabbatical in Tokyo

Professor Max Ward just returned from his year-long sabbatical in Tokyo, here is an update on some of his work while he was abroad!

Where did you spend your sabbatical and what were you working on?

I was in Tokyo at Waseda University working on a second book project on the police in modern Japan. Since my first book is on the interwar and the pre-war period, I wanted to do the post-war era for my second. As I looked at my materials, I started to realize that I wanted to write a history of modern Japan through the lens of the police both as a concept and an institution.

What is your favorite memory from your time there?

My fondest memory is just starting a new book project and realizing how many interesting and new things are out there. When you’ve spent ten years working on something, you’re so completely immersed in that. When you start a second project, you find that there are new documents or new historical figures that you discover. Even if they have been written on by other people, discovering them for yourself for the first time is really exciting, and I was very inspired by a lot of the primary documents I was reading. This gave me a little more incentive to expand the project beyond an organizational history, as I’m focused on not just the police as an institution but the conception of it by society.

*Though Professor Ward also noted that the time he spent playing in a punk rock band was pretty nice too*

What is an example of these new documents you found?

Something new I have discovered that was really interesting was this discourse in the 1910s and 1920s by police educators called minshū no keisatsuka, where the state wanted to create a situation in which society policed itself so that the police as a separate institution would no longer need to exist. I think it reveals a lot of things about society-police relations and makes us think about how we distribute police power in society.

How will this new research contribute to your teaching going forward?

This winter term I’m already teaching a course called “Police Aesthetics in Japanese Cinema” and I’m conceiving this as a component of my research project. Thinking about how the police are portrayed within film, and how film shaped conceptions of police in the post-war period is interesting since there is so much post-war Japanese Cinema. I’m also thinking of integrating crime novels and film in my teaching and research. In the future I’d like to propose courses about theories of police and perhaps comparative histories of policing and control over society based on my research.

This sounds like an exciting sabbatical! What did you miss the most about Middlebury while you were away?

I didn’t miss the winters, that’s for sure! I miss the students, though. I enjoyed teaching in small classes where each week everybody has read the book, and you sit down for three hours and try to work through the author’s argument together. I didn’t have that in Tokyo. I participated in some reading groups with colleagues, but these small discussions among scholars is just a different dynamic. I think the students bring a completely different level of energy and new perspectives to the table.