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A Conversation with Liz Mees

Guest post by journalist Brian Hubert, who is chronicling the work of the History Space initiative. He recently interviewed Liz Mees, a regular participant in the Newport Historical Society’s living history programs, about the nature of this work, and how she came into it.

“Today people in the funny clothes just isn’t enough,” said living historian Liz Mees who runs the living history group The Middling Sort with her husband Matthew Mees. The Braintree, Massachusetts-based group, which seeks to recreate 18th-century civilian life, as opposed to recreating battle scenarios, will take part in Newport Historical Society’s Life in Colonial Newport event at Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House on Saturday, October 7, 2017. From noon to 4 p.m., guests can travel back to 1774 and hear gentlemen discuss politics and the latest news or check out the latest fashions at a 18th Century millinery shop in the kitchen.

In August, the couple took part in the Society’s British Occupation 1777 event with Matthew taking on the role of an auctioneer and Elizabeth playing his wife. They’ve participated in living history events at the Newport Historical Society since 2005 when they first came as part of a French regiment reenactment group in an event that featured popular historical writer David McCullough. During the Society’s most recent event, the Mees’s recreated two mock auctions. The public could bid on a wide assortment of items ranging from china and cloth to a loaf of bread with guests encouraged to look on and even take part.

Auction at NHS’s British Occupation 1777 event

But engaging those guests proved a bit more challenging than she thought. “I think it was a good idea, but it was hard to get people to participate in the bidding,” Mees said. “I expected visitors to jump into it. It’s back to the age-old problem of how do we engage the public.” She blamed it in part on a “modern mindset” where people are used to going into an establishment and purchasing goods at a set price. “In this culture, people don’t understand how to negotiate.,” Mees said. “That feels very foreign to them.” She added that with their backgrounds in architecture and service industry careers the bidding process came naturally to them, but perhaps less so to most guests. “We as a society just don’t get it, it’s not part of our culture,” Mees said.

Looking back, Mees thinks the program would’ve run smoother if they’d done more planning and pulled more of the living historians into it. “I think we had to prepare more,” Mees said. “We’re asking for a major cultural shift. The money is also some concern, we could have gotten around that.” Mees said the colonial economy sort of became a fixation for her husband after the economic downturn of 2008. “He was asking questions like how does the money work?” Mees said. Soon she was finding that asking him a question about sugar could turn into an hour-long lecture.

Whenever Mees plans an event for The Middling Sort, she starts by asking a site what their mission statement is. “What are you trying to push,” Mees said. “We use that as the organizing principals.” Whenever they return to a site to repeat a program they think how they can enlarge it. “This requires a lot more thinking on the part of the participants,” Mees said. “It calls upon them to do a lot more thinking, a lot more prep, a lot more research.” She pointed to a 17th-century living history group that turned to basic theater lessons to improve their interaction with the public. “That’s something we can all benefit from,” Mees said. Within their group, they’ve turned to the expertise of one of their members who is an actor. Mees said that member got them asking questions about what kind of rehearsals and preparation they were doing. “Complicated interactions need more preparation, and this isn’t always easy as because these living historians do this as a leisure activity on top of many other things in their lives,” Mees said. “Finding time to participate in an event is very difficult,” Mees said. “Matthew and I have more time now that our children are out of the house.”

Before then they often struggled to find time to organize and plan these events, she added. They’ve also attended seminars on first-person interaction, which she admitted not every living historian is comfortable with. While not every living historian wants to take on first-person roles akin to Colonial Williamsburg’s actor-interpreters or the citizens of Plimoth Plantation’s English Village, she believes living historians will be more successful if they tackle more aspects of colonial life. But she admitted it’s not always easy to convince some reenactors to delve deeper than the funny clothes and gun demonstrations and move towards living historians. “A lot of people in the funny clothes are unwilling to do the research,” Mees said. Mees said few things irk her more than seeing a group of living historians who dodge the public, sit in a circle and talk amongst each other in their tents. “Often people look really good [in their authentic 18th century clothing], but they’re not caring about the people or the site,” Mees said. “It sends me over the edge.”

She recalled when the staff at Fort Ticonderoga told their former regiment that they had a responsibility to talk to the public. “This is what the site is asking you to do,” Mees said. She said they ended up pitching their tent halfway between the British and Patriot camps and encouraged people to touch everything. “People want to see how the sausage is made,” Mees said. While many living historians worry about clothing first, she’d rather see them start with research. “It’s the end, the last thing you do,” Mees said. Mees said all too often living historians seeking to create an 18th-century portrayal place too little emphasis on the importance of presentation, language, deportment and class. “I wish people paid more attention to this,” Mees said. Mees said the differences in language include not using hello to greet someone. Mees said hello is a 20th-century term that came after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Instead, she recommends using 18th-century greetings like “good day” or “how goes it.” “But it all depends on who is addressing whom,” she added. “A washerwoman wouldn’t even show up on the radar of the gentry,” And it also means uncoupling from the 21st century. “That means participants should not talk about what they saw on their friend’s Facebook page during an event,” Mees said.

“Another key part of putting on a great living history event is making it site-specific,” Mees said, likening it to how companies use branding to set their products apart. “Develop something unique,” Mees said. “You can have a militiaman anywhere.” Instead, she prefers to look for specific names in specific towns. She pointed to a program they’ve created for the Loring-Greenough House in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. The program takes guests back to 1774 when loyalist Joshua Loring and his family up and left for England as tensions between Crown officials and rebels ratcheted up, Mees said. “To make matters more complicated some of their relatives sided with the Patriot cause, dividing the family,” she added.

Estelle Barada, who portrayed William Channing’s enslaved cook Charity Duchess Quamino at the NHS’s British Occupation 1777 event, was set to portray an enslaved woman who was taken along with the Loring’s as they fled town. “An indentured servant gets left behind and gets auctioned off,” Mees said. The Lorings had a large family and Mees said she prepared a spreadsheet tracking each of the family members. Soon she became fascinated with genealogy. “Who marries who,” Mees said. “It’s fascinating.” With the spreadsheet done, they turned to finding the right living historians, making sure they’re available, are approximately the right age, and have the right “kit,” which is how living historians refer to a complete set of period clothing.

Matthew Mees as auctioneer at NHS’s British Occupation 1777 event

Mees’ day job is working as a regional historic preservation officer for the federal General Services Administration, which serves as a landlord for government agencies, even collecting rent like a private sector landlord. “The department I work with has architects and engineers who maintain these buildings,” Mees said. Her own work involves working with the agency’s historic buildings. Matthew works for a firm that manages a wide range of projects ranging from desks for TV stations to building museum exhibits down to even handling the artifacts.

They caught the living history bug after they went to Colonial Williamsburg as a family and rented costumes about 15 years ago. “It was so different in costume,” she said. She called the ensuing years a simply amazing experience. Their daughters even ended up working summer jobs at Old North Church. “They learned so much about how to present themselves,” Mees said. “You have these clothes you have to know something.” She said the experience even helped her eldest daughter write a winning college essay.

Mees admitted her training as an architect made her super obsessed about detail. “Just let it go,” she finds herself saying sometimes. “That’s the tricky thing,” Mees said. Mees said even after 15 years of reenacting she still feels like a “college sophomore.”

“I realize how much I’m always learning,” Mees said.

Top image: Liz Mees at NHS’s British Occupation 1777 event