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May 19, 2014 Ellen MacLeish Zale

Learning Silver

As a continuation of my learning at Historic Deerfield, with an eye toward becoming a master guide sooner rather than later, I decided to start learning about our silver collection in the spring of 2012. I guide mostly in the summers, as I teach during the academic year. In order to start guiding in a new house or other museum space, a Deerfield guide has to ‘learn’ that space, and then pass a test in it. This process entails an initial tour with the lead guide of that house, plenty of reading, listening to tours by other guides, more reading, more listening, learning about each object in the space…a process that can take many months before as guides feel we have reached that level of readiness that means we can take a very deep breath and give a tour as a ‘pre-test’ to the lead guide. Then, if we are deemed fit, we are passed on to a couple of curators, for a final tour.  Let me assure you that these tests are occasions of great nervousness among the intelligent and competent guiding staff!

Be that as it may, I arranged for my initial tour of our amazing silver collection with the lead guide. This was my first alert that this would be no ordinary undertaking.

“I am passionate about silver!” she enthused. “Are you an objects person? I’m an objects person.”  My heart commenced to sink. I didn’t think I was an objects person, though I wasn’t quite sure quite what sort of person I was as a guide. At that point, I had been guiding in Deerfield for over twenty years, had learned to guide in all of the houses, and had been doing hearth cooking as well. Maybe I was a story-telling person? But the silver collection is a very different place, and I needed to get to work.

I started with reading and an initial tour of the collection with the lead guide, and soon realized that I would never finish this task by the end of that first summer. There are many objects, many silversmiths, many types of metals, in fact. During that initial tour, we went into the pewter room, a room that I never knew existed in all of my years in Deerfield! There was some serious brain work that awaited me in undertaking this task, and I was feeling very sympathetic toward my high school students, who have to study like this (with much younger brains, to be sure) all the time.  And, in fact, I too became passionate about silver.  It is beautiful, and the objects that we have are lovely in themselves. But the more you know, the more you appreciate what you see. I came to know a lot (though, as always, guiding in a space after you pass your test there gives you the opportunity to learn much more) and I appreciated those lustrous objects and their history.

My goal became to take my test early in the summer of 2013. I kept reading and re-reading, listening to different guides give tours, and simply spending time there, soaking it up. When I felt (hoped) that I was ready, I did my ‘pre-test’, and the lead guide kindly told me I had passed, after giving me some crucial tips. I then made a date with two of the curators for the final test. One of them had already told me she was sure I’d pass, when I had asked her a question during my studies, so I was feeling semi-confident, and I did in fact pass. I don’t think I have ever felt such a fine glow of accomplishment as I did after completing this task.

Now, on to textiles!

Ellen MacLeish Zale has been a guide and hearth cook at Historic Deerfield for over twenty years, and has been teaching French at the Academy at Charlemont for even longer. She lives in Conway with her husband and assorted other animals.