28th August 2019: Research Trip/Holiday – Stratford-Upon-Avon: Mary Arden’s Tudor Farm

We decided to leave slightly earlier than planned so we could visit Mary Arden’s Tudor Farm, another of the Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust sites a few miles outside Stratford-Upon-Avon.

After seeing the different approaches to heritage yesterday, I was really keen to visit a living museum. I’d been particularly struck by the replica costumes worn by the guides at Shakespeare’s Birthplace Museum. Thinking more and more about how seeing clothing being worn (as opposed to statically displayed) provided a sense of authenticity, how seeing a thing being used increases our understanding, our ’empathy’, with it and making it easier to grasp the ‘affordances’ offered by the object and giving a sense of how it behaves in motion.

The whole idea behind the farm is to show the visitors, as closely as possible, what a farm of the period would have been like. The first person I encountered was a lady working with textiles, about to apply a piece of Blackwork embroidery to a bag! We had a wonderful conversation about techniques, tool and materials. I was very interested in the hand-made needles and pins – rather thick for what I am looking for, but she did say that steel needles were being produced in the period which would have been much finer and far more expensive! This small insight throws up an interesting point that hadn’t occurred to me about the economics of materials and tools and how these relate to the quality of embroidery – finer needle work not just a demonstration of skill but also the economic status of the embroiderer, or the person commissioning professional embroiderers.

There was also a small display of materials, techniques and mini-costumes – all of which had been made by the staff at the farm – along with a handwritten guidebook to techniques. I was struck by the sense of authenticity these hand-made objects and informal display methods provided. This sort of information would usually be provided in wall texts or digital displays, something quite formal giving a sense of the museum’s authority – this little handmade book and the casual interactive objects seemed somehow more genuine…

Throughout the farm there were demonstrations and opportunities to try traditional craft techniques, I watched people try their hand at stone carving but didn’t have a go myself (not relishing the idea of carrying a lump of rock with me for the next 10 days!) One area that really jumped out at me was the kitchen. I’ve visited a lot of historic houses and museums over the years, and they all have similar display techniques for these domestic spaces – presenting rooms with a mix of genuine and reconstructed furniture, furnishings and objects (usually including plastic fruit and bread!). Walking into a working Tudor kitchen I was struck by the smell and the activity! Experiencing food and woodsmoke, seeing food being cut up, bowels being used and how things were being cooked – cauldrons bubbling away in front of the fire (I’d always assumed they were hung over it) – was an intensely visceral experience. I think it was seeing the action of cooking and experiencing something with all my senses – suddenly I found the distance of display reduced to almost nothing. I could relate the act of cooking to my own experience, I’ve never cooked on an open fire (except when camping), but I could see how the placement of the pots around it distributed the heat, some close to boiling, others further back at a simmer.

What occurred to me about all the displays at this museum was the use of action – the sense of authenticity was evoked by people doing things, wearing clothes, making things, gardening. There is a really key idea here – the sense of authenticity being evoked through action.

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