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 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.