Museum of American Frontier Culture
Since I missed the field trip to this museum, I decided to visit it myself recently and evaluate its exhibitions and programs. I had a brochure about the museum given to me by a friend and I used it along with their web site to plan my visit. The museum is located in Staunton, Virginia one exit north of the intersection of I-64 and I-81. Signs provide ample directions to find the museum, although one has to be careful after exiting I-81 to get into the left lane quickly to make the turn at a stop light. After a short drive down a paved driveway, the museum complex materializes in the distance. During this drive I was intrigued when I noticed the “Perry Building” on the hill, whose similarity to my last name invoked a certain intrigue of its own.
After parking and walking up to the main building, I found the ticket office and then proceeded back to watch a short film about the museum and how it uses costumed interpreters to connect visitors to the cultural mission of the museum. The film provided a good overview of both the mission of the museum as well as background on the structures and design of the various frontier areas in the complex. Through a gate and out around the path, the first area is actually under development as an African farm. The museum is moving structures and re-building some of these on another section of the site.
The interpreter inside was cooking over an open fire and explaining various aspects of the English frontier life to a small family group. The entire place provided an inspirational vignette of English farm life and seemed to be frozen in time. Across the path was a small fenced area containing sheep and lambs. One of the interpreters was explaining how the sheep were sheared and how some were used for “other purposes”. A school group was enjoying their personal time with one small lamb. As I moved along the path, a group of ducks and geese had managed to stake out territory on the path and many of the visitors were having to choose alternate routes to avoid their territorial displays.
The Irish farm was equally as charming as a fiddler and hammer dulcimer musician were entertaining a school group around one side of the farm. The thatch roof, stone fencing, and wonderful authentic music emanating from the corner lent a particular sense of nostalgia to the entire scene. The iron work and unusual front gate also induced some unique questions from some of the young visitors.
The next stop along the path was the German farm. I was fortunate to have the interpreter to myself and he obliged my questions about chickens, houses, and various furniture ideas by allowing me a bit of a behind-the-scenes tour of some parts of this farm. Most of the elements are reproductions, but one particular cupboard was a real antique. I was also quite taken with the design of the upstairs area and how it is similar and different from the English and Irish designs.
A short tram ride takes one out to the American farm area where I met up with an interpreter working on a new cabin. He was gracious enough to invite me to help, but I did not really have on work clothes, so I respectfully declined and explained that I would have to come back and help sometime later. He was patient with my questioning about his plans for the new cabin and how authentic of a representation it would be of a 1740’s cabin. He then directed me up the hill to the American farm areas.
This area is under re-construction as one particular building is in the process of being moved over from the future site of the African farm. The American farm is most familiar to me and I had a good conversation about other similar museums with one of the interpreters. We compared some of those that we had visited with what MAFC is currently doing and discussed the future of this museum and how its mission to preserve the frontier culture overlaps with that of some other historical preservation efforts.
Back on the tram to the main building, and I was able to make a short visit to their gift shop. Apparently, it has excellent fudge, but I don’t usually eat food with this much sugar in it, so I decided to forego the pleasure on this visit. The entire museum was charming and very interesting as a living historical interpretive area for this important period in American history. The addition of the African farm will enhance their efforts further and I look forward to this addition for a future visit.