Thursday, July 16, 2009

Rating history sites, as a general matter.

Having spent my spare time in the last few weeks finally hitting a number of the history museums and other historic sites in this neck of New England, it occurs to me that there is a real need for a forum to discuss the relationship of these sites to what it is that we, as historians, are at least trying to do. It has often occurred to me that the kind of information that one encounters at such sites as, say, the Gilbert Stuart museum outside of Wickford, might actually cause problems that we must fix when we get into the classroom, even as such as sites (especially when they have a working snuff mill from the 1730s!) are invaluable resources as teaching aids. And, frankly, I happen to almost always find them helpful in informing my own research. One can encounter things (like snuff manufacturing in Rhode Island) that just wouldn't cross one's mind sitting in the bowels of a library writing the latest chapter. But the counterintuitive lack of attention to history at such places (the introductory video at the Stuart house is laughable) is troubling when one considers that much of what we face in the classroom is a process of helping our students unlearn what they think they know about the past.

1 comment:

Mandy said...

I wholeheartedly agree that the public does not enjoy the full benefit of many historic houses and museums, especially in New England where our heroes, legends and popular history are firmly entrenched in shallow, romantic notions of what happened in the past. However, I do not think students need to “unlearn” history; rather they need a deeper understanding and engagement with history. The Gilbert Stuart Museum is a perfect example. The “hook” of the site is that it is the birthplace of the famous portraitist. While the house is full of prints of his work, he, in fact, only lived there until the age of six. The focus of the tour and the information conveyed by the junior docents was almost entirely devoted to the work of Gilbert Stuart. Is it equally (if not more so) notable that the first snuff mill in America is located on the property? How can we expect students to fully understand American history when the information they are given at sites such as this is only a cursory view of the past.
Another example of an historic house that is not living up its potential is the Nathan Hale Homestead. Though this house was occupied by the family of Connecticut’s state hero, it was not built until after Nathan Hale joined the rebel cause for which be subsequently regretted he could only give one life. The docent provided an elementary lesson in the history of the late 18th century, considered everything in the house to be exactly how it was when the Hale family built the house in 1776 (regardless of the fact that it as “restored” in the early 20th century), and speculated that a “secret” passageway (with a door to the next room) was a part of the Underground Railroad.
While well-meaning the tour guides and docents may be they assume the general public knows nothing of American history, and it is evident they know little themselves aside from the time honored stories. When research is conducted by means of an EBay search I do not think the full potential of an historic site is realized. These two examples illustrate the need for solid historic research. In order for a museum to survive in these harsh economic times curators must be creative in reaching out to the public, and they must make to the most of the story available to them. Historic house museums must ask themselves: How can we give the best, most accurate information? How can we be sustainable? Are we using our resources to their full potential? Perhaps historic research needs to move beyond the confines of academia and join with the physical spaces where the history was created? Expectations must be raised for the museums that provide an historic experience for the public.