Friday, September 30, 2016

STEAM and Nautical Interpretation

A quick note: my name is Mike Romero, and I'm a Historic Interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg.  The postings I make on this site are my own personal opinions and research, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Colonial Williamsburg.  With that said, enjoy the read!

It's no secret that I'm fairly new to nautical interpretations and all the research it entails, but given some recent developments at work, I'm inclined to do some hard thinking on what I'm doing.  What am I hoping to impart to guests at Colonial Williamsburg in representing a sailor?  How can I enhance the guest's immersive experience of the 18th century?  What can I do to contribute more directly to CW's mission and goals regarding education.

Those that decide to follow this blog regularly will often see me cite the blog British Tars: 1740-1790, mainly because it's proven an excellent link to various sources of information.  Back in June, the Esteem'd Blogger posted a fine article on Effective Nautical Interpretation that resonated with me almost immediately.  The article suggested that if you really want to interpret an 18th century mariner, simply looking the part is not have to find a way of demonstrating those skills unique to sailors of the time.  Right around the same time, I came across another article describing The Tools Needed For Dead Reckoning, and I found a nautical skill I was able to learn and interpret fairly quickly and easily.

My own tools for dead reckoning.
My funds are sadly limited at this time, but I was able to improvise some tools: playing cards were cut and trimmed to rig a protractor and measuring scale, a dowel with string and another cut playing card became my chip log, a slate easily became my log board, and my supervisor was kind enough to issue me a 1715 chart of the Caribbean.  With these tools, during the early summer, guests and their families got a kick out of learning how mariners could roughly estimate their position based on course, speed, and leeway tracked throughout the day...groups of guests gathered together to determine an initial course, work the log, record the data, and plot their way across the chart.  It was really interesting to see where the kids ended up putting us throughout the day.  As the summer continued and I posted about my ongoing success with the activity on Facebook, I found a mysterious package on my doorstep one day:

Reproduction 1753 sextant, apparently from J. Scott in London.
I still haven't found out who was kind enough to send me the sextant, but that got me into learning the basics of celestial navigation.  An informative series of videos on YouTube showed me how to use the sextant and take a sighting of the sun at noon, and a search of Google Books turned up a copy of a nautical almanac from 1767...complete with information on the declination of the sun, notes on other celestial bodies, tables of proportional logarithms, information on how to take lunar observations to determine longitude, etc.  Several more rewarding weeks of interpretation followed as I taught guests how to use the sextant and almanac to calculate latitude...incidentally, this was just in time for Home Educator's Week at work, leading to a number of discussions about Nathaniel Bowditch and John Harrison with some really sharp kids and their families.

At about this time, one of the newer VP's at Colonial Williamsburg was making his usual rounds through the Historic Area, and he comes across me interpreting and teaching a family to use the sextant.  He was ecstatic; apparently, he's a major proponent of STEM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics) in education, and he's been wanting CW to represent topics and activities along these lines from the 18th century perspective.  He put me in touch with several members of our Teacher's Institute and educational outreach departments, and they were in turn impressed with how I was applying STEM principles; it's one thing to teach the basics of the math and what tools were used throughout history, but how to apply this information?  Interpreting celestial navigation gave the guests and I a problem to solve (navigating safely across the ocean) and the tools to solve it.  Everything is very much in the pre-planning stages at the moment, but there's a possibility that I might be called upon to demonstrate these activities to groups of teachers and school kids that come to town several times a year.

There's been a lot of talk recently about STEM focused programs in schools, and in general, I find myself supporting it.  With two young girls of my own in early grade school, I want them to have as an enriched and varied education is possible...fortunately they're in a phenomenal local school and are off to a great start.  However, STEM by itself is not enough.  I've got a Theatre Arts degree and draw on it almost daily at work.  Not too long ago, Keith Flippen, owner and manager of an acting school I've taken several classes from in recent years, posted on how he thinks the arts are an integral part of education and shouldn't be tossed aside.  I agree completely.  In talking with a colleague at work, she brought up the growing concept of STEAM (Science-Technology-Engineering-Arts/Music-Mathematics), and that seems like a much more rounded focus in education to me.  To that end, I've decided that as much of my work as possible will relate in some way to at least one aspect of STEAM (I'm rapidly filling a three ring binder with interpretive ideas and activities along these lines) and encourage my coworkers to do the same.  Quite a few of my future posts should flesh this goal out a bit further.

All right, so this post has been more of a mission statement than anything, and I thank you all for sticking with me.  I promise the next one will dive a little deeper into nautical interpretation itself.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

James Wyatt: Rennaissance Sailor

A quick note: my name is Mike Romero, and I'm a Historic Interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg.  The postings I make on this site are my own personal opinions and research, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Colonial Williamsburg.  With that said, enjoy the read!

Greetings, everyone!

Allow me a brief introduction: my name is Mike Romero, an Orientation Interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.  Since the start of this year, I have slowly been issued bits of clothing (petticoat breeches, checked shirt, double-breasted waistcoat, etc) to present the image of an eighteenth century sailor to our guests.  I hope to eventually portray a named character along these lines, but it will take some time to get there.  In the meantime, I am trying to research the history, traditions, clothing, skills, ANYTHING having to do with sailors of the period to more fully develop my persona and interpretations.  I'm not often able to grab research time on the clock due to guest service needs, I usually snatch time during breaks or days off, so I may not update fairly regularly. I'm also fairly new to the Blogger system, so please bear with me if the page goes through a number of design changes in the near future.

At any rate, on to my inaugural post!

A few weeks back, I was visiting the British Tars blog and discovered the memoirs of James Wyatt, a British Privateersman during the mid-1740's. (His memoirs are available as a free download from Google Books.) Despite being over 200 years old, Wyatt's memoirs read like something out of Forester or O'Brian, and were great fun to read.  Through various vicissitudes of fortune, Wyatt begins as a trumpeter on the privateer vessel Revenge, is captured by the Spanish, escapes with several other men, driven by contrary winds onto the Barbary Coast, is captured and enslaved by Moors, eventually ordered released by the King of the Gum Coast, travels three hundred miles across the desert to Senegal and Gambia, and eventually makes his way back to England.

What fascinates me most about Wyatt's story is the sheer number of occupations he has during his life. At various points in the story, Wyatt is:

-A farm laborer.
-Apprentice dyer/woolcomber.
-Servant to various warrant officers of a British man-of-war.
-Musician to a travelling puppet show, learning the drum and trumpet.
-Trumpeter aboard the privateer Revenge.
-Drum instructor while captive on the Canary Islands.
-Carpenter and gardener while captive on the Canary Islands.
-Dyer and hat dresser while captive on the Canary Islands.
-Operator/demonstrator of an 'Electrical Machine' upon his return to England, soon to travel to Jamaica to pursue this career further.

Oddly enough, I'm pretty sure I can use this at work!  In my position, I'm assigned to work the door of a different historic site at CW every day: you might find me at the entrance to the Capitol, the wigmaker, printing office, tailor, Governor's Palace, etc, orienting the guests to what's happening inside and generally being helpful.  This year, the upper management has been wanting to show more life on the streets by having my fellow OI's and I do various activities at our sites, related to the site itself whenever possible.  Earlier this summer, I began demonstrating dead reckoning skills with a chart and improvised chip log, before being generously gifted a sextant and moving on to the basics of celestial navigation.  One or two of the sites have specifically mandated activities, like washing and combing wigs.  The point is, using Wyatt as an example, it could well be feasible for a sailor between commissions/cruises to be performing these or other odd jobs in town to keep in coin.  I can continue to show the sailor specific clothing and still give guests a more tangible interaction with the various sites in town.

As an OI, I'm not assigned a specific persona, nor expected to be purely 'in character;' first and foremost, I'm there to help the guests.  Naturally, we get quite a few people who want to believe everyone is a person right out of history, and want to play along: "So who are you?" I give them my usual line about being Michael, a sailor in the service of Virginia. "But why is a sailor working at the wigmaker/printer/coffeehouse?"  Basically, because I have to. :) Whether I'm doing some form of nautical activity or one put out by the trade itself, Wyatt's story gives me a means of remaining a sailor while doing these things while turning our guests on to a true 'Hornblower' type story.  I've already shared Wyatt's information with several interested guests who are thrilled that they can get such a unique 18th century story so easily.

Moving on, I wonder if my supervisor will let me have an Electrical Machine...