Thursday, February 07, 2008 • 6:14 PM Comments ()

Historic House Museums: Sites of History and Sites of Conscience?

posted by Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello

Let me say at the outset that 1) I love historic sites and house museums and 2) I believe that there is a woeful lack of creative thinking about how to address and find solutions for local, national and global challenges. With that off my chest, let me proclaim loudly that I see historic sites/museums as one way to diminishing my lament.

Case in point: In 1908 a group of Salem, MA women began soliciting funds for a project that they “sold” to potential donors as one “so full of philanthropicand antiquarian interest...” These women, led by Caroline Emmerton, believed that this pairing would rouse friends and neighbors to open their pocketbooks and support the endeavor. They were right. By 1910 the project they imagined had come to life: The Turner-Ingersoll mansion on Turner St. had been renovated to reflect the mansion made famous in Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, house tours were being offered, and the revenue from these was supporting a settlement house at the Gables. Children, men and women from the large immigrant neighborhood abutting the historic façade could take part in a range of activities from kindergarten and woodworking to English classes and social groups. Today, a full century later, The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association still maintains this two-pronged but single mission: to preserve and interpret the historical and literary past of the house and to serve the needs of the community. Tourists still tromp through the Turner-Ingersoll mansion while children spend their days in the Settlement’s preschool and summer camp programs and area seniors gather for social time and food.

Why am I offering such a detailed look at the founding of one Massachusetts historic house museum? Because the idea of linking historic houses and public needs which fueled the creation of the Gables as we know it today is, in 2008, an idea on the cutting edge of thinking about the value and mission of the nation’s thousands of historic sites and museums. In the past decade there has been more and more discourse in the historical and museum communities about how to make house museums and historic sites relevant and necessary in any given community in an ever tightening “tourist” market and in a day and age in which technology competes for leisure time and in some cases can offer “access” to historic places to those who will never set foot on the premises. Sure, some of the thrust comes from desire for “new audiences” in a competitive “edutainment” market. But market forces are no longer the only engines of change in town.

A 2004 article in History News asked “Does America Need Another House Museum?”. I am not sure where I fall on the need for additional house museums, but I certainly support any and all efforts to keep existing ones open and relevant. A few days ago, Kate Navarra Thibodeau offered us a rich sampling of the ways in which one historic house museum in the Commonwealth (Wistariahurst Museum) is expanding its role and vision and activities to gather, interpret and include the stories and voices of a wider range of individuals than ever before. My hope here is to introduce another approach...one that is related, yes, but one which suggests a new paradigm for the relationship between house museums and the communities in which they exist and from which they draw their stories and meaning.

Last March in Minneapolis, at the 2007 Organization of American Historian Annual meeting, a large group gathered for a “State of the Field” panel on the issue of Pubic History. These sorts of sessions are designed to get people up to speed on the current areas of research, thinking and practice in various sub-fields of history. This particular session featured (The Coalition). Liz had Liz Sevcenko the Director of The International Coalition of Historic Sites and Museums of Consciencebeen asked to speak about its work and its growth over the past decade. In a nutshell The Coalition is a worldwide network of “Sites of Conscience” – historic sites specifically dedicated to remembering past struggles for justice and addressing their contemporary legacies. Here it was on a national stage. A proclamation that the wave of the future for house museums was perhaps going to (and perhaps SHOULD) look very different from its past. The crowd gathered in Minneapolis for this session had seen the future. And for my money, it looked bright. Here is what excites me...

In The Coalition’s model the stories that a site holds and tells about the past shape the topics and angle of their engagement with the here and now. According to The Coalition’s model, Sites of Conscience are sites that “tell stories of mass atrocity or daily, individual struggles” and their programs do the following:

  • draw explicit connections between past and present;
  • foster dialogue among diverse stakeholders; and
  • open avenues for citizen participation in other human rights or transitional justice efforts.

Note: For an overview of The Coalition, see “The Power of Place: How Historic Sites Can Engage Citizens in Human Rights Issues”. It is available for download on the website.

This model makes so much sense to me! It is responsive and accessible to most communities and historic sites and house museums. After all, not every site/museum is tied to well-known individuals or global events such as the Civil Rights Movement or the Holocaust (both the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, GA and the Terezin Memorial in the Czech Republic are Sites of Conscience). But they don’t need to be for this new model to work. “Individual struggles” are enough to make a site a site of conscience and I can’t think of any house museum that does not talk about someone’s individual struggle? In fact the “house museum” that first introduced me to the work of The Coalition was The Lower East Side Tenement Museum in NYC. Here, the stories of “regular” people are told in an award-winning museum and through them/because of them, important contemporary policy and justice issues have found voice in New York’s Lower East Side. For example: the Dialogues for Democracy program (open to the public) uses past stories of immigration as a foundation for discussing current debates about American immigration. Because of the museum’s historic links to the garment industry in New York in the 19th and 20th centuries it also hosts discussions specifically addressing the problems of sweatshops with garment industry workers, designers, manufacturers and policy makers.

But wait, you may be thinking: "Salem or Wenham or Amherst or Andover or Bolton or Billerica or Concord Massachusetts is a long way from being New York City!!!" No worries. Think of it this way: No two sites/museums tell the same stories about the past. As such, no two will engage with or work to meet the same contemporary concerns/issues. But EVERY house museum holds and tells stories of importance to current public policy/social justice issues.

Some ideas: A house museum with a wonderful colonial kitchen whose interpretation focuses on the domestic labor that took place these rooms might find a way to connect with contemporary food service workers or the challenges faced by single parents today who struggle to balance work both in and outside of the home. Historic houses with literary pasts might consider how to contribute to/participate in/serve as a touchstone for the need for literacy initiatives in their community. Thus, by (not “in addition to”) celebrating the uniqueness of each site’s past house museums and historic sites can touch many publics and address many social needs/concerns. The link between the past and the future has never been brighter. At least in my book.

So...back to the Gables. Although the motivations and world view of the founders of the Gables Settlement Association may seem to us to be tinged with paternalism or even nativism (see Joseph Conforti’s Imagining New England for a way into this conversation), Emmerton’s creativity was remarkably ahead of its time and I applaud her work for what it offers those of us who are inclined towards historical thinking. It provides an historical precedent for the work of The Coalition and for the vision of house museums and sites that they promote. If museums, as both trusted keepers of the past (according to the work of Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen in The Presence of the Past) and important civic sites, can engage the issues and concerns of the community in which they exist, they will more and more be seen as critical sites for community interaction and renewal. What more could we ask of or want for our Commonwealth’s treasures?

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