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, 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.

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