For many eager to venture out in an ever-evolving pandemic world, but perhaps still feeling a bit leery about public spaces, visiting an outdoor living history museum might be just the ticket to get out of the house and enjoy a little travel.
Museums comprised of historic houses, churches, and farms have long held many of their programs outside. The distance between buildings offers natural social distancing. And leading living history museums, such as Genesee Country Village & Museum in Mumford, New York, have adopted many of their go-to activities around current public health directives. In fact, the temporary changes have actually created some short-term advantages for visits by older adults, though COVID-avoidance adjustments have also created some barriers.
Calico face masks are more historically accurate than one might think, given that such masks were one of the few modes of personal protection in the 19th century. That’s why it’s actually in character for costumed interpreters at the Genesee Country to wear bright calico masks that match their print dresses.
“Mask-making was a piece of cake for our staff, mainly for the women, who often sew their own costumes,” says Becky Wehle, president and CEO of the living history complex, which includes a village that demonstrates daily life 150 years ago. “Our interpreter staff is conscientious about their costumes being authentic. To have a mask that fits with the times as well as it could is important.”
With 500 acres, Genesee Country offers wide open spaces for visitors who want to keep their distance, says Wehle. Genesee Country, like other leading living history museums, such as Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Old Sturbridge Village in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, have scaled back performances and demonstrations designed to attract crowds, even outdoor crowds. But, plenty of options exist to make your visit worthwhile.
Touring historic houses is selective and, surprisingly, even easier. For instance, at Colonial Williamsburg, a restored Colonial-era historic district in the eastern Virginia hamlet of Williamsburg guides direct visitors to space themselves along rows of benches outside the doors of historic buildings. While the guides provide a kind of detailed introduction to the lives of the people who once lived, worked, played, and legislated in the buildings, one small group is invited inside at a time.
Once in, visitors are asked to look around quickly and keep moving. Admire the aquamarine carpet in the Governor’s Mansion or ask costumed interpreters about the traveling outfit they are hand-sewing in the milliner’s shop, but understand that no other visitors can enter until you leave.
The same public health guidelines translate to closed-off second floors. That makes it easier for visitors with limited mobility or stamina to keep up with their companions. And, many historic houses are flanked by equally historic gardens where visitors can ask follow-up questions of interpreters stationed among the rosemary and strawberry plants.
Rhys Simmons, director of interpretation for Old Sturbridge Village, says the staff is constantly rebalancing its mission with public and staff safety. For many activities, the adjustments are nominal. For instance, the front and back doors to the OSV blacksmith shop are now kept open, creating a constant flow of fresh air. Blacksmiths still hammer iron bars on an anvil but rotate to the crowd to explain what they are doing, instead of letting the crowds gather close around them.
Tasting history at onsite taverns is a more rarified experience than ever, given that most eateries may be operating at half-capacity. Many Colonial Williamsburg onsite restaurants are closed and the only way to have a meal at the few that are open is by reservation. Even then, visitors must be prepared for close quarters.
In The King’s Arms restaurant in Williamsburg, social distancing is nigh impossible, even with tables in opposing corners of the small interior, candle-lit rooms of the historic tavern. It’s worth it, though, for a leg of lamb so tender you can nearly hear it bleat, followed by blackberry crumble, all served with cheerful efficiency by a costumed server who provides instructions in how to use wedges of toast as spoons.
As the pandemic morphs into new ways of operating, Strawbery Banke, for one, is finding a fresh way forward, says Veronica Lester, director of marketing. The museum fast-tracked its expansion of a new exhibit, People of the Dawnland, which shows and tells the history of the Abenaki, the Native Americans who originally occupied the site. This year, says Lester, the Strawbery Banke staff is building a birchbark wigwam outside, making the process part of the exhibit. It’s an innovation that might otherwise have been kept inside, she says, but, thanks to new public health directives, is outdoors where it belonged all along.
Preparation is key when visiting any outdoor living history museum.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind. Don’t expect:
- Water fountains and easily purchased bottled water. Fountains are shut off and many small beverage outposts are not open. Bring your own water.
- Rich inventories for shopping. Iffy attendance has translated to weak sales of souvenirs, art, hand crafts, and toys, and selection is spotty.
- Drop-in fine dining. If eating at a tavern with a vintage menu is a priority, make dinner reservations as soon as you have secured your lodging.
If the pandemic has shown one thing, it’s that COVID-19 protocols change regularly. Please check ahead to learn the latest details and options for your visit.
Outdoor Living History Spots Within Driving Distance
Canterbury Shaker Village, Canterbury, New Hampshire
Fortunately, the Shakers, a 19th-century religious sect known for their austere lifestyle and prescient design, loved big, open indoor spaces that are more accommodating of pandemic protocols than most. The village has 700 acres that include a network of nature trails and ponds, leaving room for plenty of outdoor exploration beyond the historic buildings.
Colonial Williamsburg, Williamsburg, Virginia
Adjacent lodging lets you park the car for the duration of your visit to this restored pre-Revolutionary former state capital with its 600 historic buildings. Plenty of outdoor activities are happening, including nightly haunted walks in the historic village.
Genesee Country Village & Museum, Mumford, New York
As the largest living history museum in New York State, this sprawling complex is open through fall and centers around pioneer farm life. Wednesdays are Senior Days, with $10 admission for people 62 and older. Events include Civil War Living History Days in July.
Hancock Shaker Village, Pittsfield, Massachusetts
Run by the National Park Service, the village complies with federal standards for COVID safety, which translates to strict mask and access rules.
Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, Massachusetts
The village green and farm fields offer open-air venues for a revolving slate of activities. Check the website to see what events are occurring on the day you’ll be visiting. Be aware that onsite dining has been reorganized around public health priorities.
Strawbery Banke, Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Integrated into historic downtown Portsmouth, the museum complex features historic homes as well as four centuries of gardens, ranging from a colonial kitchen garden to a 1943 Victory Garden.