From the time I was little I was always experimenting with experiential history. I spent my childhood playing olden days in my parent’s house in Slatedale, Pennsylvania. The house I grew up in originally belonged to my great-grandparents. When my father purchased the house in the early 1970s, it had no bathroom, only an outhouse out back. The kitchen was pretty bare boned and the house appeared to be trapped in time. The house was filled with antiques, which in mind equaled toys. While my parents worked on the house, I created my own world. We had a large grapevine covering a pergola in the yard. I remember taking grapes, flowers, and leaves and rubbing them on the white posts of the pergola using the natural dyes to create images. I was in essence experiencing history long before I was aware what that actually meant.
When I was ten, I was chosen to participate in the Girl Scouts Fox Fire House program. The program was very exclusive with only a handful of girls selected for each section. As part of the program we made our own baskets, learned needlepoint, made bonnets, and scherenschnitte(a Pennsylvania Dutch cut paper craft). Next, we spent a weekend living as pioneers in the farm house where we dressed the part, performed daily chores, and made our meals on the wood fire.
At college I became an accidental history major. At first I majored in International Relations/History thinking I wanted a career where I could travel the world. But shortly after, I found the international relations courses boring and my dream perhaps a touch impractical, so it became time to explore what I could do with a history degree. Never having been one to waste time, I soon found a post for summer internships with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. I applied to the program and was accepted at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. At the museum I spent my time working with the curatorial department. We spent the summer searching the museum to resolve collections paperwork problems. While I helped with a variety of other tasks from textile housing to exhibit development; it was really the hunt that drew me in. Imagine looking through everything in a fully stocked luxury rail car searching for the one item accidentally forgotten.
By the end of that summer I had a plan. I went on to get my Masters Degree in Public History while gaining experience in several other institutions including the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, Valley Forge, and the Johnston Heritage Center. Eventually I landed at the Old Cowtown Museum in Wichita, KS, where the concept of experiential history began to form. While the museum is known for its living history interpretation, experience history was developing into its own category of experience, at least for me. My favorite time of day was early in the morning before people arrived when I could just sit and image what a frontier town would have actually looked and felt like. These moments of silence became the inspiration for several new exhibits ranging from period displays to interactive rotating exhibits. Have you ever heard of egg coffee? This was one item that I read about I couldn't wrap my head around until I tried to prepare and taste it for myself. (In theory the egg is supposed to hold the coffee grounds together so coffee could be prepared without a coffee pot.)
By the time I left that museum seven years later, I was ready for new experiences. My husband and I moved to Guthrie, OK, where we found new history to explore. Today, I am the Executive Director of the Logan County Historical Society which is not your typical historical society. The Logan County Historical Society is different because it has no physically presence. That's right no museum, no research center, no collections, and not even a meeting space. So the question becomes how can a historical society be relevant without these things? This is where experiential history comes in.