Tuesday, December 29, 2009

I'm Published!

Some of you might recall the post I wrote in May, pleased as punch that I passed my thesis defense and completed my thesis project. Well, I'm happy to report that after some revision over the summer and into the fall, the project has now gone online!

In the words of the museum's website:
Discover the life and times of Midshipman Pardon Mawney Whipple as he participates in some of Old Ironsides’ most daring exploits. Encounter a lost world of heroism, sacrifice, and determination – a world brought to life by Whipple’s own letters and personal possessions.
Without further ado, may I present "In the Zenith of his Glory: Pardon Mawney Whipple, United States Navy"? The exhibit is currently featured on the museum's main page, as well as its permanent home in the "Collections and Library" section of the website. How very exciting!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Artifact Repatriation

A year and a half ago, I wrote a post about "The Restitution of Cultural Property in the Modern Age." It was a post sparked in large part by meeting Dr. Robert Anderson, former director of the British Museum. He spoke at my graduate university that spring and then later joined my classmates and I in our museum studies class. It was supremely interesting to get a perspective on artifacts like the Elgin Marbles from someone who once actually had power over said artifacts.

Last Monday, I came across two stories on Reuters and BBC News detailing more nationalistic conflict in the museum world centering upon the "return" of certain artifacts. From the BBC, "France's Louvre museum returns five frescoes to Egypt." And from Reuters online, "Egypt to ask British Museum for Rosetta Stone."

Now, here's the thing about "returning" objects to countries where they were excavated. On the one hand, I completely understand the desire of a country to have intellectual and physical control over an object - a thing of wood or bone or stone or something else entirely - that hails from their shores. I do.

However, isn't it of some significance that most of these objects were excavated and placed in the stewardship of a museum solely because some first world nation provided the funding and vision to do so? And that most of these objects are better cared for in their current (non-original) countries than they would likely be in their "home" nations?

I understand that this issue often becomes about the White Man and his history of very very bad interactions with poorer nations. And for good reason, I know. However, as a museum professional, I keep coming around to some of the basic tenets of collections care: care & preservation of artifacts and public access to said items. These ideals are painfully practical but, to me at least, incredibly important. I say whoever can care for the collections better and ensure greater public access (the eternal Sophie's choice) - wins them all!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Lincoln in Dance Form

Now, as a museum professional, I normally turn to things like exhibits (brick-and-mortar or online), educational programs, and publications to educate the public about an historical topic. However, I recently reconsidered historical learning based on something written by an old friend of mine, Anna.

We've known each other since we were about two years old and she recently completed her MFA in dance performance. She's since moved to L.A. and started a blog featuring her thoughtful reviews of local dance performances. In October, she posted a review of a performance called "
Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray," danced at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. As she so aptly puts it:
Bill T. Jones’ Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray moves through the legends, impressions and famous words of Abraham Lincoln to discover a man and his enduring relevance and challenge to America. Fondly Do We Hope pursues this admirably ambitious vision with a deluge of projected and spoken text, riveting performance of an original musical score, bits of video, and glorious dancing.
I think I like this. Anna's review of the performance does a great job assessing its merits from the perspective of a dance scholar. I would obviously have to see the performance myself to sum it up from a historian's point of view, but I like the idea, at least.

I'm sure I'm oversimplifying things, but it seems to me that one of the great things dance can do is convey emotion. And one of the great things the teaching of history can do is help us connect with people in the past. So, accompanied with the proper framework of historical context, I can see a performance like this as a powerful tool to both teach about history and help the audience relate to a great man like Lincoln and the very human emotions he experienced in his vaunted life.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Curators in the 21 Century

It was called "The Romance and the Reality: Curating at Small Museums" and the title drew me right away. The session description in the NEMA conference booklet helped, too:
The romantic view of a curator is often one of a scholar researching and studying his or her collection, organizing exhibitions, publishing catalogs, and presenting all of it to the public in the museum setting—oftentimes, nothing could be further from the truth. Join three Nantucket curators, from three different museums, as they lead a roundtable discussion of the reality of the curator’s role in the 21st century. This discussion will be particularly useful to new curators but all are welcome.
When I first decided to go to grad school and earn my master's in museum studies, I was not sure at all what area on which I wanted to focus. Until I began work at Strawbery Banke in May of 2007, I had never actually been paid to work in a museum, as such. I had worked in my undergraduate college's archives and interned at a national historic park, but I didn't have a strong sense of the different types of jobs available in a museum or what path I wanted to follow.

In the winter of 2008, I began an internship with SBM's curatorial department, which led to a part-time position as a curatorial assistant for close to a year. This was a wonderful experience for me, as the folks in that department are both eminently knowledgeable and extremely approachable. I then went on to intern for about nine months in the curatorial department at the USS Constitution Museum. Again, this was a great opportunity to work with very smart people at a very cool museum.

Now, I work one afternoon a week as the Curator at New Castle Historical Society, manage the Wentworth-Gardner and Tobias Lear houses (which involves some light curatorial work), and, in my unrelated role as Program Coordinator, observe the curatorial activities at Haverhill Historical Society.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, I'd like to think that in the last few years, I've gotten a pretty good sense of how curators operate in New England museums. And what that NEMA panel discussion and my own experience have proved is that no two curatorial positions are exactly alike. This is a role that shifts and moves depending on the museum. However, one of the themes of the panel was the definition of the role. It will change as we move more into a world of online exhibits and sensory interactivity and new technology. The important thing, all of the panelists seemed to agree, is that curators take an active part in defining their new roles.

We must embrace the ease of access inherent with online exhibits, while fiercely protecting the idea that there is no substitute for seeing the actual object. We must continue to produce fine scholarship on the artifacts of our past, while acknowledging the breakthroughs of the present and the future. Above all, one panelist pointed out, we must (to some degree at least) break out of our mold as the omniscient experts and learn to learn from visitors and others something about what we hold in our collections.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

NEMA 2009

Long day today. I attended the New England Museum Assocation conference in Nashua, NH. Usually, I try to go for at least two days, the Wednesday and Thursday sessions of the conference. This year, however, I had too much going on with two of my jobs to take the time off for more than one day.

The conference today was interesting and it was nice to see people and do some networking. I've gotten some great ideas for posts from some of the sessions I attended, so expect to see some of those soon. However, since I was on the road to Nashua before 8am and just got home an hour or so ago, I'm off to bed for now!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Job/Blog Confidentiality

It's a tricky issue. Because I am no longer in school and the museum-related ideas I have are tied to my paying jobs, the issue of confidentiality has come up. On the one hand, I enjoy tackling challenges and coming up with new ideas at each of my (many) jobs. I'd like to be able to write about those issues here.

On the other hand, there are too many horror stories in the blogging world of people fired for their personal blogs, never mind their professional ones. Would I be taking a risk by writing about the details of my work at various historical organizations?

A few museum professional friends and I were discussing this very thing at lunch this week. It's a hard issue to penetrate, due to the as-yet-unestablished rules regarding blogging in the museum world. Unlike the tech world, where professionals have been utilizing Web 2.0 social technologies in their work for so long that it's passe to even say "Web 2.0," the museum world is still easing into this technological media thing slowly.

So where does that leave those of us who, by chance or design, have ended up slightly ahead of that curve? At last year's NEMA conference, one of the session panels included a gentleman from Connecticut who started a blog about his attempt to visit every single museum in CT. Now - this, I think, is wonderful. And in a way, I'm jealous of his ability to be completely candid in his opinions of the museums he visits. I am not, however, confident that it's entirely wise for me to do the same.

If you look to the right sidebar of the blog, you can read the disclaimer that I set up for myself when I first began in January 2008. I figured this was a way to mention where I worked in the course of writing the blog without assigning any culpability to those organizations when it came to what I posted here. That system seems to have worked until now, but I'm chafing a bit when it comes to really digging into the work that I do day to day in various museums. I'll continue to ponder this issue (and I welcome any feedback) and let you know what I eventually decide to do.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

History Science Theatre 3000

I sat down on October 6th to write a post about the preview performance of "Lamplight Dialogues" at Strawbery Banke. Turns out it is now November 3rd and I have yet to write it, so I thought I'd leave you with some of the press from the museum's website:


When the final curtain fell on "Lamplight Dialogues: The Ghosts of Puddle Dock Come to Life" on Sunday, October 25th, it was clear the second production of Strawbery Banke Museum's History Theatre project was a tremendous success. "Lamplight Dialogues" continued the unique collaboration between Strawbery Banke Museum and Harbor Light Stage, the Kittery, Maine based professional theatre company. In 2008, "Pirates or Patriots? The Private Wars of Capt. John Paul Jones and Col. John Langdon" launched History Theatre at Strawbery Banke Museum to glowing reviews. With "Lamplight Dialogues," playwright and Harbor Light Stage producer Kent Stephens masterfully dramatized the untold tales of the historic port city and gave the ghosts of Puddle Dock's former residents a stage and an audience to share their stories with. In the parlor before the fire or around the dining table by candlelight, stolen secrets, haunted pasts, and family feuds and reconciliations played out on their original stages at Strawbery Banke.

Composed of six short acts in six separate historic properties at the museum, "Lamplight Dialogues" was presented as "promenade theatre" and gave audiences an enchanting experience that combined history, drama, excitement, and entertainment. Rave reviews from arts and entertainment reviewers from Spotlight and Showcase, combined with audience accolades, created a significant buzz about the production from the very first weekend. All 12 performances quickly sold out and well over 500 people were guided by lamplight from one scene to the next across the museum grounds, where they witnessed dramas that spanned the history of Portsmouth from 1789 to World War II.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Museums in the News

Since we're now at the last day of the month, I thought I'd present you with a end-of-month news round-up. Articles are from the New York Times, as usual.

Expect more posts in the month of November than in the month of October, as I've settled into my new positions a bit and should have more time to dedicate to blogging.

And now, the news . . .

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Real Tavern

Sometime over the summer, my dear friend Andrew and I were walking past Pitt Tavern at Strawbery Banke. We got to talking about how neat it would be if the tavern was open for business as an actual, drinks-serving establishments. However, we both had slightly different visions for how this would work. I think we'd be mostly in agreement on decor (lots of wood, fires in each room, and yes to historically appropriate china punch bowls, delicate wine glasses, and hearty pewter ale mugs).

Andrew, though, leaned more towards a modern rendition of a tavern drinks menu - a few key drinks from the 18th century, but a selection of more modern beverages, including possibly themed beverages like a "John Paul Jones." Andrew, if you're reading this, correct me if I'm wrong, ok?

Being a museum professional and a bit of a purist, I insisted that a town like Portsmouth would have been able to support a drink menu varied enough to appeal to a modern consumer. And so, to support my theory, I've done a bit of preliminary research. More could be done by scouring 18th and early 19 century newspaper and tavern records and I won't rule that out in the future. But for now, let's consider the beverages possibly available in the 18th or 19th century in a seaport town like P'mouth:
  • cider

  • whiskey: corn, wheat, rye & potato varieties

  • beer: from local ales to imported London porters

  • rum and such variations as rum punch, rum & cider, rum & molasses, and flip (beer, rum, and sugar, heated with a red hot poker)

  • elderberry or currant wine

  • fruit cordials

  • claret

  • port

  • Madeira wine

  • gin

  • brandy
In addition, I found a list that Charles Dickens made of the drinks available in an 1842 Boston hotel: gin-sling, "cocktail," sangaree (wine w/ sugar, ice & nutmeg), mint julep, sherry-cobbler, and "timber doodle." No idea what some of these are, but I'm impressed with the selection!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

May I Present . . . Baked Apples!

Even though they sort of look like doughnuts. :)

These are surprisingly easy to make over the open hearth, which I did a few weeks ago. I took two Macintosh apples, cored them, and filled the cores with brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and butter. Then, after the fire had given me some lovely coals to work with, I put the dish with the apples into the Dutch oven, added coals below and above, and let them bake for about an hour. Perfection!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Museums in the News

Sorry for the silence over the last few weeks. I snuck up to Prince Edward Island for vacation without telling you. I also had my first week at my new job this week. However, I'm back now and here is some of the last week's museum news!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Putting the "port" back in Portsmouth

This is a post that I started back on May 17th of 2008, according to my saved draft. I remember that it was sparked by an article I read in one of the free local papers, written by a well-known professor of maritime history at UNH, Jeffrey Bolster (who later served on my thesis committee). The article addressed the maritime history of Portsmouth and it inspired me to begin this post (though apparently not to finish it).

At any rate, I believe I remember a few sentences and the general thrust of the article. Bolster pointed out the odd conundrum of Portsmouth as a tourist destination - it's a seaport city, but without a beach. The nearest beaches are in Rye (to the south) and Kittery (to the north). However, Portsmouth is still a working port and its bridges, cargo ships, tugs, and old warehouses seem to be a good starting point for reminding visitors to the city of its maritime heritage.

I attended the Tall Ships event at the state pier a couple of weekends ago and it was neat to see all the local organizations that have some connection to the maritime history and environment in this region. They ranged from historical organizations like Strawbery Banke and the Gundalow Company to scientific/environmental organizations like Great Bay Stewards and University of New Hampshire Marine Docents and business organizations like the Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce. And the whole event was made possible by the Piscataqua Maritime Commission.

It seemed to me that the large turnout at the event and the good number of organizations in the NH Seacoast for promoting and interpreting the region's maritime history were a perfect match. It's reassuring, in a way, to see that there are many others who care about ensuring that both visitors and locals understand and appreciate the ways in which Portsmouth, and other towns along the Piscataqua, have always been connected to the sea.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Love this!

The Massachusetts Historical Society recently started twittering the short entries that John Quincy Adams penned in his journal during his time in Russia in the early 1800s. His short, one or two line entries lend themselves well to the "short update" style of the medium. These early entries recording his trip to Russia tend to include the current location of their ship (the Horace), an observation about the weather, and a notation of what he was reading at the time. For example, one of my favorites to date, "8/6/1809: Thick fog. Scanty Wind - On George’s Bank. Lat: 42-34. Read Massillon’s CarĂªme Sermons 2 & 3. Ladies &c. Sick."

I think this is a wonderful way to connect with people who might never be interested in a former president's journals. It's also a smart way to marry Web 2.0 technology with traditional methods of historical research. And I'm sure it doesn't hurt that they have received a lot of publicity about the project & donations to help support it - certainly two things all museums can appreciate.

Cheers to the Mass. Historical Society for this exciting project!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

I'm Back!

Had a wonderful time on vacation, but happy to be back for a bit. As you probably noticed, I did not have any internet connection on vacation & therefore did not post at all. Hope you were able to survive without me!

I came home to a really interesting post on one of my favorite blogs, Curious Expeditions. They wrote about the history of scrimshaw and posted some lovely examples from the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath. Check it out.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Vacation Break

I'll be away from tomorrow (the 25th) until August 2nd, spending time with my family at our summer house on Prince Edward Island, Canada. I should have limited internet access while at the cottage, so I may pop in here for a post or two. If not, see you the first week of August!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Action Alerts for Museum Issues

I recently received a newsletter from the American Association of Museums (AAM), detailing the current legislative motions that have an impact on museums. It's interesting to see how Congress handles issues like funding for museums, which are not always considered charities as such, but are certainly important for the greater good. If you want to find out more about museum funding currently up for debate in Congress, check out the AAM's special section on this topic.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Red Guggenheim?

Interesting story about Frank Lloyd Wright's original design for the Guggenheim: Fifth Avenue Shocker: The Building Wore Red.

Friday, July 17, 2009


I got it! I got the job I interviewed for a couple of weeks ago. What a wonderful relief. The position is part-time, but it's year-round, permanent, and pays well. I'm very happy to have it, particularly in this job market. Once I decide how much detail I'm going to share about the position, I'll update more!

In the meantime, here are some interesting news stories involving museums (from - surprise, surprise! - the NY Times):

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Good News on the Job Front?

It's within the realm of possibility. For most of the spring, I've been applying for both full- and part-time positions throughout New England. Because the economy is in such bad shape and so many museums have instituted hiring freezes, I knew this was going to be a hard time to get a job. I'd sent out many, many cover letters and resumes since January and had yet to score an interview.

Until last week. I met with an organization in Massachusetts about a part-time position coordinating museum education programs, and I think it went pretty well. I hope to find out within the next week or so. Fingers crossed!

Monday, June 29, 2009

More Hearth Cooking!

A couple of weeks ago, on a whim, I made cheese during my hearth cooking shift. A colleague had mentioned how to make it and wrote down the ingredients, so I had a go. And, surprisingly, it turned out pretty well.

The ingredients: whole milk, salt, lemon juice, and herbs from the kitchen garden. The equipment: kettle, fire, wooden spoon, and cheesecloth.

After adding the lemon juice to the warmed milk, it curdles. Then after letting it sit for awhile, I poured the already-separating mix through a cheesecloth.

The whey drained through into the bowl and the cheese stayed on top.

I took the cheese home and after letting it drain in the refrigerator for a day or so, seasoned it with the above herbs: sage, dill, and chive. Yum!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What I did at work last week

This, right here, people, is one of the reasons why I do what I do. Last week, I learned how to make Indian slapjacks on an open hearth at Strawbery Banke! I took some photos, so you can follow along at home.

Here we have the mixin's: equal parts wheat flour and corn meal (where the "Indian" in the title comes from, as that was the 18th century nickname for corn meal), two eggs, a cup & a half of milk, and a pinch or so of salt. We also have my Dunkin' Donuts coffee, poured into that brown ceramic mug to look more "period."
The mixin's, all mixed up. The consistency is something like pancake batter.

First slapjack on the "spider," a frying pan with legs so you can place burning coals underneath it. Actually, I think this is the third or fourth slapjack - the first one didn't look nearly this good!

And the finished product. These slapjacks were a bit bigger than the normal size, but on the whole, I was pretty happy with my first hearth cooking experiment! Stay tuned for more. :)

Friday, May 8, 2009

Break Out the Bubbly . . .

I'm celebrating my successful thesis defense. :)

This afternoon, I presented my thesis project to a committee of professors and museum professionals. I, and it, passed muster and I'm now officially a master!

The project is an online exhibit at the USS Constitution Museum, showcasing the letterbook of Rhode Island sailor Pardon Mawney Whipple, who served on Constitution from 1813-1815. There are a few changes I need to make before the exhibit officially launches, but I will be sure to post the link once it does.

In the meantime, if you live in New England, two of my dear friends recently opened brick-and-mortar exhibits. One is at the Tufts University Art Gallery, called "
An Artist's Sense of Place: The Watercolors of Gertrude Beals Bourne (1868-1962)." It runs from May 7-August 2, 2009.

The other exhibit is at Rye Historical Society, called "Rye on the Rocks: Stories from 400 Years on the Land
."The opening reception is May 22nd and the exhibit has no set closing date. Both exhibits are free to the public (though the Tufts gallery does ask for a suggested donation of $3). Be sure to check them both out!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sites of Conscience

For class this past week, we read an article on the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and its work with differing factions in the New York City textile industry. I think that sometimes this kind of work - solving current problems through historical perpectives - can straddle a fine line between objectivity and bias. However, when it's done thoughtfully, it can also bring added value to a museum's community mission.

I also believe that black history is an area of local history with which Portsmouth (and many other New England cities and towns) struggles. Valerie Cunningham's work does not get enough attention, in my opinion. The Black Heritage Trail does not see as much foot traffic as it should. Sites like Rock Rest, the Pearl, and the house of the "black Whipples" do not get to tell their stories to most Seacoast visitors, even those seeking history. But important changes could be made. I wrote a paper last year about a potential change to one of the taverns at Strawbery Banke. Here's an excerpt:

Currently, Pitt Tavern is set up like a traditional colonial tavern. It has a small exhibit in one of its hallways and an interpreter during the self-guided season, but much more could be done to flesh out its history. An important and currently neglected element of Pitt’s history was the tavern owner John Stavers’ interactions with African-American slaves. Prior to his tavern keeping career, Stavers was taken to court in 1752 for beating the captain’s African servant on the Princess Dowager, a vessel on which he was Mate.

In his pre-Court St. days, he ran another tavern on State St, at which he and his wife hosted a slave auction in 1760 or 1761. In December of 1760, they advertised the upcoming sale: "To be sold...a few Negroes, lately imported in the snow Gen. Townshend...from the West Indies...at Stavers Tavern.” Later incidents included Staver’s slave Fortune running away, his slave James stealing from him, and his display of an “albino slave” at the State St. tavern in 1764. This last, I think, is the most poignant item.

To the museum’s credit, this is the only colonial tavern on display and they have therefore focused on that aspect of its interpretation. Stavers is certainly included in the exhibit, but not in a Thomas Carlyle, “Great Men” way. However, a more truthful exhibit would incorporate the identities and domestic tasks of James and Fortune, as well as confront the reality of Stavers’ relationship both with them and with other slaves with whom he came into contact. Perhaps an exhibit panel could be included detailing James and Fortune’s biographies (what we know of them) and what tasks they would have completed at the tavern.

In a more provocative, but still necessary vein, another panel could address the slave auction and display of the albino slave child. Valerie Cunningham, Director of the African American Resource Center and important historian of black Portsmouth, found the original advertisement (reproduced below).
The line, “his Wool quite White, his Eyes and Noses most wonderful to see,” captures the exploitative element of the scenario well. Perhaps this line, paired with a photograph of either an albino slave or a Portsmouth slave, would suitably express the particulars of the situation to museum visitors.
To be seen at Mr. John Stavers's, A White Negro Boy About Nine Years old, born in Virginia, his Father and Mother both black, his Wool quite White, his Eyes and Noses most wonderful to see; price Six Shillings Old Tenor – may be seen any Hour from Six in the Morning, until Ten at Night. Any gentlemen or ladies, that have a desire to have him brought to their Houses, by applying to the Owner at the Sign of the Earl of Halifax, shall be duly attended on.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Zimmerman House

Last Wednesday, we carpooled to Manchester, took a shuttle bus from the Currier Museum of Art, and ended up here - at the Zimmerman House. The house was built in 1950 for Isadore and Lucille Zimmerman. It was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, in his distinctive Usonian style. Mrs. Zimmerman passed away in 1988 and, as the couple had intended, the house was donated to the Currier at that point.

We had a lovely tour with our professor (who was in charge of the house years ago) and one of the docents she trained before she left. We definitely got a more "insider" tour because of this. Not that we were allowed to run around touching things, heaven forbid, but we did get a lot more process-focused information than the typical visitor gets.

I couldn't find any great interior images, but I think the
stunning living room is the best part of the house. It boasts wonderful windows that extend nearly floor to ceiling. They have built-in window boxes beneath them that match up with the long flower bed on the other side of the glass. The museum struggled with whether or not to have real plants in the boxes and eventually decided to. I think this was the right choice, as it helps visitors understand the organic design of the house and its connection with nature, as Wright intended.

For more information on the Zimmerman House, check out the following:

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Rock Rest

(Image courtesy of Maine Preservation)

We visited the house above for a field trip on April 1st. It's called Rock Rest and it was a guesthouse for African-Americans run by Clayton and Hazel Sinclair, during the summer months from the 1940s into the 1970s. It's not currently open to visitors as an historic house. However, Valerie Cunningham, the head of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail and the local expert on Portsmouth black history, used to work at the guesthouse and has spearheaded the preservation efforts. Under her guidance, the house has gotten some important attention - here's a link to a National Trust for Historic Preservation newsletter with cover article on Rock Rest - and certainly deserves more.

Rock Rest has a lot of things going for it, from a historical perspective. It was the home of an African American family in a region - southern Maine - that never had a majority of minorities. The house is also well-situated to take advantage of Valerie's work with Portsmouth black history, including the Heritage Trail.

But the real beauty of this house, I think, is similar to what makes the Shapley-Drisco House at SBM one of my favorite houses. Since the time period of Rock Rest is so recent (the Sinclairs lived here from the 1930s to the 1990s), the house maintains this wonderful nostalgic quality. Strawbery Banke visitors walk into the 1950s side of the Shapley-Drisco House and exclaim, "This was my [mother's, grandmother's, aunt's] living room!" Their reactions are immediate, emotional, and very unlike their reactions to the 1790s side of the house.

I think that Rock Rest has much of that same appeal. Here is history. But here also is a space that reminds us all a little bit of a departed relative's house, of summers by the sea, of bunking up with cousins and friends due to lack of space, and of kindly older couples who seemed like family. Valerie is hoping that the house becomes a bed and breakfast, with an interpretative component. I think that sounds just about right.

(If you want to read more about Rock Rest, here's a 2006 article from the Portsmouth Herald. Better yet, check out the Rock Rest collection in the UNH Library's Special Collections. Happy digging!)

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Home, Sweet Frigate

(Should have been posted March 26, 2009)

Every week, our professor puts out a bunch of material from newspapers, magazines, journals, and historic sites/museums. She has a great British word for what to call all this "stuff"; I'll have to ask her next time we meet. As a class, we're then free to snag whatever strikes our fancy and use it as inspiration for our journal entries.

This week, I saw an old copy of the journal of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England). On the cover was a black and white reproduction of a painting in the museum's collection, a clipper ship in full sail. Unfortunately for a maritime history fan like me, there were no articles about said ship in that issue of the journal, just the image on the cover.

However, since I also work at USS Constitution Museum, it got me thinking about Old Ironsides as a place to live. Obviously, she was a ship built to be a naval vessel. Launched in 1797, she and five other frigates were intended to protect American shipping interests by providing defense from Barbary pirates. She also saw illustrious service in the War of 1812, capturing a number of British naval vessels, including the Java, Guerriere, Cyane and Levant.

However, in the long course of her life, she also served as floating home to hundreds of sailors and soldiers. The above photo, for example, is of one of the small spaces at the stern of the ship that were set aside for either the captain of Constitution or the admiral of the fleet. It's not a bad looking space; rather cozy, really. Certainly more private than the rows upon rows of sailors' hammocks hanging up in the large open areas of the berth deck.

As with all restorations, though, the work done on the Constitution over the last century or so has been guided by the principles of the time. For example, the room in between the captain's sleeping quarters and the rest of the berth deck (I forget what it's called) currently contains a sideboard and dresser in very Victorian style. These pieces of furniture were put into place during the 1920s restoration of the vessel and are obviously not accurate to 1812, which is the time period the present restoration is aiming at. However, there are solid people in charge of this restoration, so the final product will be an accurate representation of how Constitution looked in 1812, both as a fighting ship and as home to her loyal crew.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Henry Ford & Historic Houses

(Should have been posted March 12, 2009)

This week, we talked a bit about houses divorced from their settings, as at Henry Ford's Greenfield Village. Ford's basic idea behind this collection of historic buildings was to assemble America's important houses and thereby teach American history visually, in one place, through the buildings. And he's got some important stuff - Edison's laboratory, Noah Webster's house, a "courthouse where Abraham Lincoln practiced law" . . .

However, it got me thinking about what we lose when the house is seen out of context. I know I've blathered about this before and I'm not suggesting that Strawbery Banke is the be-all-end-all solution to historic house villages. However, I do feel that there is a certain level of authenticity that you only get when the historic house in question is on its original location, surrounded by an environment similar to that when it was built.

There are two important houses at Strawbery Banke
which are not on their original locations: the Goodwin Mansion and the house where Daniel Webster had his first law office in Portsmouth. Both of these houses were built elsewhere in the city and moved to the museum grounds in the early to mid-1960s.

The Goodwin Mansion, for example, was initially built about a mile away from downtown, intended to be an elegant "suburban villa" for wealthy families who wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of the waterfront. Therefore, its relocation to a site near the water removed a bit of the authenticity of the house's interpretation. However, the house was slated to be demolished in its original location and the preservation of the house itself outweighed concerns of interpretive authenticity in this case.

As with many things, keeping houses on their original sites can be deal with in different ways in different cases. However, I do think that the power of history can be felt more strongly when the historic house can sit in its original home, in more ways than one.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Living History For Sale

(Note that the title of this post is not meant in any way to be critical.)

Today, I'm looking at the Queens County Farm Museum, which is located right in Queens, a thirty minute drive from the Empire State Building (on a good traffic day). March 3rd's New York Times had an article about this museum, but not in its Arts section. In its Style section, specifically Dining & Wine! This is because the museum, which has long been a destination for school field trips, has recently expanded its operations and begun selling its crops & manufactures at a NY farmer's market.

I think this is very cool. The museum has the authenticity thing down, as it explains on its website:
The Queens County Farm Museum's history dates back to 1697; it occupies New York City's largest remaining tract of undisturbed farmland and is the only working historical farm in the City. The farm encompasses a 47-acre parcel that is the longest continuously farmed site in New York State.
Yet, its farm manager has also had the vision to realize the value of tying the museum's mission into more contemporary social and economic trends like the homesteading
phenomenon, the Slow Food movement, and the trend towards eating local. And hopefully, since daily admission is free, sales of their farm products are helping to support the museum's mission a little.

Because what a mission it is:
The mission of the Queens County Farm Museum is to preserve, restore, and interpret the site. Through educational programs, events, and museum services, we educate the public as to the significance of Queens County's agricultural and horticultural past and heighten awareness of present-day agricultural and horticultural practices.
Tying the values and practices of the past in with the realities of the present. I love it.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Ways We Learn - Lincoln Edition

(Should have been posted February 19, 2009)

Recently, one of my favorite blogs, Curious Expeditions, posted about the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C. This museum recently mounted an exhibit that contains various objects associated with Lincon's assassination. As they point out, "Between the reopening of Ford Theater, constant comparisons, and the 200th anniversary of his birth, the nation’s spotlight is fully fixated on the United States 16th President, one Abraham Lincoln."

I think what interested me most about this piece were the unusual Lincoln artifacts that are newly on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine:
the bullet that killed the president, casts of his face and hands, fragments of his skull jiggled loose during the autopsy, a lock of hair removed from the wound, the probe used to locate the bullet, and a shirt cuff stained with Lincoln’s blood.
This fascination with different types of artifacts associated with famous people is certainly not unique to the twentieth century. Many of these objects had to have been saved by the doctors who handled Lincoln both before and after his death.

So what did they give us? What do we gain from seeing a piece of the skull that housed that remarkable brain? Or the bullet which sat in John Wilkes Booth's gun for days before ending the life of our sixteenth president? They're certainly not the usual artifacts we might see in a museum exhibit - no dignified presidential papers or stately Mt. Vernon or Monticello furniture here.

Maybe that's good. To a 16-year old with an interest in the macabre or medicine, this type of artifact might have a much greater appeal than all the military metals and framed law degrees in the world. And who are we to discount that appeal? Curators and exhibit designers, obviously, but perhaps we should keep our minds open to the different ways that people learn. In that world, a Lincoln "death artifacts" exhibit at a museum of medicine makes perfect sense.

Friday, March 6, 2009

The Weight of Public Opinion

Thanks to the setbacks of the last few weeks, I've gotten quite a bit behind on this journal - three weeks behind to be exact. In an effort to catch up, this is the first of three posts that will go up this weekend. At the top of each, I'll note when the post should have been published. Shoulda, coulda, woulda, right?

(Should have been posted February 12, 2009)

In 2003, J. Dennis Robinson published an article in Foster's Sunday Citizen and on his website, Seacoastonline.com. At the time, the museum was in between directors and Robinson saw it as a perfect time to re-think the museum's identity, which he believed was in crisis. Now, having only known Strawbery Banke for two years on Robinson's thirty, perhaps I'm not qualified to gauge the museum's current identity crisis, or lack thereof. However, it's my blog, so I'm going to have a stab at it anyway.

Robinson's main point in this article seemed to be that Portsmouth is not as easily associated with something, like Salem is with witches and Plymouth is with Pilgrims. Therefore, Strawbery Banke (and Portsmouth by extension) is a perfect location for what he calls an "Exploratorium." He envisions a museum where visitors can engage with the themes that the houses bring up, themes common to many, like widowhood, genealogy, and immigration.

I think Robinson has some good points (some of which seem to have been acted upon by museum staff in recent years). However, I feel that some of his ideas may be detrimental to the museum's sense of identity.

One of his main points compares
Strawbery Banke to other living history sites like Old Sturbridge Village, Plimouth Plantation, and Colonial Williamsburg. While nominally acknowledging that the museum's authenticity is a good thing, he still seems to believe that these latter sites provide a much more powerful experience for their visitors. I'm sure visitation numbers would support him on this, as well.

However, I'm going to have to disagree. While the "constructed villages" are very well-researched and well-executed, I think an authentic site is equally as, if not much more, compelling. You can stand at the corner of Atkinson and Jefferson streets on the grounds of SBM and be in the middle of a neighborhood that existed - in lively, busy, bustling form - in 1640, 1740, 1840, and 1940. Perhaps the interpretative plan needs revision in order to reflect that to visitors more fully, but that, to me, is the museum's true strength and identity.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


Perhaps because I was sick recently, my computer has sympathetically come down with a virus. After much teeth-gnashing and stressful folder searching, I think I've tracked it down and deleted it. So I apologize for my recent silence.

I'm also off on a business trip to NYC early (as in 6am early) tomorrow, so I'll have to catch up on blog things at the end of the week.

Monday, February 23, 2009


My apologies for sparse posting lately, but I have been sick with a cough and congestion for about a month. This weekend, it took a turn for the worse and I've been laid up with nausea, fever, and aches. Hopefully, I can kick this sooner than later and return to normal. Wish me luck!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Designer/Designed Housing

No class last week due to a snowstorm, so the new start begins for real today.

We ended class last night by watching a little of a documentary on the French royal saltworks at Arc-et-Senans, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (amazing photos of it here). The architect, Claude-Nicholas Ledoux, designed the saltworks complex in a very conscious, Enlightenment-inspired way. He intended the set-up of the factory buildings and worker housing to communicate a number of very specific things. Much of this relates to new ideas about hierarchy and rationality. However, the complex was built in 1775, just fourteen years before revolution, and the ensuing chaos that the Revolution created ensured that the saltworks was abandoned much sooner than its architect had envisioned.

Here in Portsmouth, we have another example of a government funded housing complex intended for workers. It's called Atlantic Heights and it was built in 1919, just after World War I. It was the first federally funded housing project in the United States and it was intended to house workers from the Atlantic Corporation, a company contracted to build ships for the federal government. It was modeled after the designed garden communities then popular in England. Despite the early 1920s collapse of the Atlantic Corporation, Atlantic Heights is still an active, lived-in neighborhood.

Obviously, the French Revolution and the collapse of a sponsoring corporation are far from comparable. Additionally, the royal saltworks was built in the country, on the edge of a great forest, and far from any major cities, while Atlantic Heights is less than two miles from downtown Portsmouth. Still, it's interesting to compare the fates of government-funded, worker housing complexes at very different moments in history.

Friday, January 23, 2009

New Start (of Sorts)

I first began this blog last winter for a class on regional material culture. I'd like to think that my posts through the winter and into the spring were thoughtful and somewhat interesting. However, as I was busy over the summer and into the fall, the posts got much shorter & more focused on recent museum news, with very little analysis or interpretation.

Good news, though! I'm taking another class with the same professor, focusing this time around on historic house museums. She's asked us to again keep a journal of some kind. So, I'm using the new class as an excellent excuse/reason/vehicle to recommit myself to this blog. Look forward to deeper, more contemplative posts over the next few months!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Belated Museum News

As usual, from the New York Times.
  • Museum Director is Briton of the Year (I particularly like the first line of this short article, which reads, "In the looking-glass world across the Atlantic, where cultural, not political, figures win person-of-the-year accolades . . . "