Local history sites and belonging

My relationship with the town or city where I choose to live at a given moment matters to me deeply. I want to have routines, places for quiet contemplation, favorite restaurants, places to take out-of-town visitors; a regular farmers market is always nice. I also want to experience the history of a place.

A few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to do this when my husband and I spent a Saturday afternoon walking around Old Town Alexandria. It was one of those first few days when the sun came out in force, but the temperature was still crisp and the ground, still snowy. I suggested that we visit a local museum or historic site, perhaps the Friendship Firehouse Museum because I was intrigued by the word ‘friendship’ in its title.

The Friendship Firehouse Museum tells the story of the Friendship Fire Company, established in 1774 as Alexandria’s first volunteer firefighting organization. It was a good choice for my husband and me because it appealed to our divergent interests. My husband, the engineer, enjoyed seeing the historic firefighting equipment and learning how it worked. And I liked learning about the quirky culture of the Company, particularly the members’ endearing idolization of George Washington and fondness for collecting objects that related to him.

Initially, I wasn’t inspired to write about the Friendship Firehouse Museum on the blog. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure how my visit related to museums and social service. A week later, however, I was describing my visit to a co-worker from my area and the conversation quickly opened up into a larger discussion of place and history. To know something about my area’s history gave me a foothold in the conversation and a sense of pleasure, belonging, and social connection.

Later, I checked in on Tom Mayes’ fantastic ‘Why Do Old Places Matter?’ blog series on Preservation Leadership Forum Blog. Tom’s posts about ‘Continuity’ and ‘Community’ stood out as most helpful, describing the importance of old places in aiding our sense of continuity of time and place, and our collective experience of community.

For me, the wonderful collision of local history, continuity, and community is epitomized by a past visit to the Museum of Brisbane (my then-local history museum). During my visit to exhibit, The River, I learned about the history of the Walter Taylor Bridge, a bridge I frequented during my commute at that time, and which therefore felt significant to my life. Apparently, the Bridge towers once functioned as accommodation for toll collectors. Family, domesticity, and day-to-day life were once contained within the structure of the Bridge, and the sight of hanging laundry apparently once entertained passing motorists. Though this history doesn’t sound terribly exciting, I had often wondered about this funny bridge with its thick pylons and many windows. So this new knowledge delighted me and gave me a sense of my own place in Brisbane’s history.

Given the ability of old places to passively accomplish these important ends, what might be the possibilities for more active programs and initiatives to address particular social needs and serve particular groups within the community—using these resources?

A quick look at upcoming programs at Friendship Firehouse Museum suggests great uses of the resource of ‘place.’ The Museum offers related walking tours, thereby connecting firefighting history to the larger community and its geography. It also offers upcoming Mother’s and Father’s Day Open Houses where children can enjoy a special visit with the celebrated parent and receive a complimentary family portrait.

Since local history museums and sites provide a valuable source of memory for communities (perhaps particularly so for older members) they are potentially useful resources for reminiscing. I am reminded of one of my master’s thesis case studies, the Hurstville City Museum & Gallery reminiscing program, which uses local history objects to prompt sharing and personal recollections among groups of older adults.

Additionally, local history, especially when it is casually embedded in everyday life (such as a leisurely Saturday afternoon walk), is a great hook for people who don’t typically frequent museums—i.e. my husband.

That said, sites will not comprehensively serve the community simply by existing. The Incluseum recently published a confronting and incredibly important post by researcher, Emily Dawson. In it, Dawson reports on her research into exclusion and the reproduction of disadvantage within the museum. The post got me thinking about the importance of increased scholarship on and visibility for the more marginalized histories within each story.

Local history sites are in the position to say: You are a part of this community and so this is for you. However, to be effective in fostering genuine inclusion and belonging, they will likely need to bear this promise out through action that, as Dawson suggests, makes all feel considered and welcome.

When I worked in disability support, I remember being told that my job involved more than assisting clients to participate in the community; it involved helping them find ways to contribute to community. I think the question of how to invite contributions is an interesting one for local history sites. It represents a challenge in terms of how to open a seemingly limited story into an experience that genuinely involves all people. In a way, sites such as the Friendship Firehouse Museum have social potentials similar to the public library; they are safe places for people to find community. So I think it’s worth considering how to continue meeting this challenge, and I welcome any thoughts or ideas.

Historic houses and legacies: letting spaces speak

Have you ever wondered what your historical legacy will be? Maybe you will positively alter the course of history and your possessions, stories, and spaces will be preserved somewhere in a museum or historic house. Maybe, by accident, you will cross paths with a significant moment in history. Likely, you will pass some kind of legacy to your family.

Where do legacies reside? They are found in stories and memories, of course, but they also inhabit physical spaces and objects. How such spaces tell their stories, and how visitors might listen and find personal meaning are potentially useful questions for museums and historic houses that care for these spaces.

I began pondering these questions after recent visits to President Lincoln’s Cottage and Mary McLeod Bethune Council House—historic houses that tell the stories of the prominent social reformers for whom they are named. I wondered about the social service or therapeutic possibilities of spaces that house legacies of social change, such as Lincoln’s or Bethune’s.

IMG_0352

President Lincoln’s Cottage is quite different from a traditional museum, and leaves a lasting impression that is both visceral and intellectual. The rooms are relatively bare and do not contain exhibits in the traditional sense—just a few pieces of period furniture here and there. Instead of objects, they are filled with Lincoln’s ideas, experiences, and stories. These intangible pieces of history fill the spaces as completely as any exhibition would; the rooms don’t feel empty—which is surprising because, in a physical sense, they are.

Photograph by Erik Uecke, Courtesy President Lincoln’s Cottage

Photograph by Erik Uecke, Courtesy President Lincoln’s Cottage

The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, historic headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women and Bethune’s last D.C. residence, feels closer to a traditional museum, but shares some interesting similarities with the uniquely idea-based interpretive style of President Lincoln’s Cottage. The spaces are intended to evoke Bethune’s spirit, intellect, and obvious charisma, and they do it well.

During a recent lecture at the National Building Museum by design psychology founder, Dr Toby Israel, I learned that the spaces we select and the ways we curate and present them are deeply revealing of who we are. I began to appreciate this lasting ‘essence’ of a person or group as a valuable asset of the historic house.

My biggest takeaway from my historic house visits was the intense relationship between historic spaces, and visitor imagination and empathy. Standing in both of these sites, I did more than simply learn about their historical inhabitants, I experienced their lives, and personalities. I think physical space is important for these experiences. We need to imagine ourselves within the space to begin to empathize with its history.

Within Lincoln’s space, once a haven for Lincoln and his family, I sensed his earnestness, his limitations, his anxiety and frequent exhaustion. I idealized him less, and liked him more. Within Bethune Council House, I palpably sensed Bethune’s pride, confidence, and optimism. I got the impression she was a person unafraid to participate fully in the world, despite its oftentimes discriminatory attitudes towards her race and gender. Her inspiring presence danced self-assuredly in every room.

My visit to Bethune Council House made me realize that historic spaces might serve as identity blueprints because they tell us so much about their owners and users—both who they were and how they represented themselves in the world. My guide did an incredible job of drawing my attention to the significance of certain spaces and objects in the House. The scene below captures the importance of the House piano (not the original), its striking presence in the space, and its important role in promoting Bethune’s concern for equality internationally (see the flags).

IMG_0359

Her imagined office space (pictured below) highlights her struggle to represent herself as capable and strong, yet feminine—a difficult (but necessary) line to walk at the time for someone with Bethune’s aspirations, according to my guide.

IMG_0357

This conference table (see below) also tells an important story about how Bethune might have imagined her work: She was doing serious work for African American women and that required a serious conference table. To stand by this piece of history, which may have once given Bethune confidence, was affirming and empowering.

IMG_0358

Historic spaces might also remind us of social and political constraint and thereby engender a sense of pragmatic empathy for historical figures. (Lincoln and Bethune were both limited by their spheres of influence and had to choose their battles.) Historic spaces also bring us a little closer to the greatness within ourselves as we sense the strategy and ingenuity behind successful social change. So these experiences might build empathy and creativity, and re-invigorate our idealistic side.

Of course, when we visit museums such as Bethune Council House or Lincoln’s Cottage, we are experiencing selective interpretations of their lives rather than authentic, unbiased realities. We cannot actually step back in time and chat with Bethune by her real grand piano, or hang out with Lincoln on his porch. But we can occupy spaces they once occupied, and see where this leads us. Maybe we can know something about ourselves, at least through our own intellectual experience. Potential for personal growth and a renewed sense of wellbeing may reside here, in this unusual, and valuable experience.

Both Bethune Council House and Lincoln’s Cottage do an admirable job of stepping back and letting the spaces speak. Historic houses (and the intangible social assets that they house) seem like important social and community resources, even potential building blocks for innovative social programs. These institutions and their resources might make valuable sites for therapeutic programs. I am reminded of Lois Silverman’s work on the Museums as Therapeutic Agents (MATA) Collaborative project. The project included a tour of the historic Wylie House for people with life-threatening illness (and their partners) and encouraged participants to self-reflect, draw helpful historical parallels, and appreciate universal human challenge (Silverman, 2002).

Perhaps historic houses could use their legacies to support young people through special tours and workshops, or to reconnect people living with dementia with their sense of self through casual visits and discussions. Maybe they would be useful resources for programs for helping professionals (doctors, social workers) aimed at refreshing participants and averting professional burnout.

These are merely ideas for consideration, and discussion. Successful programs of this kind would likely require close collaborations with community organizations and social service professionals, potentially creating new opportunities for maintaining institutions’ contemporary relevance and community value.

Do you see any valuable connections between public history, legacies, and therapeutic and social programs? I think there’s something here. After all, why do we look to history if not to avoid repeating it, to be inspired, to feel comfort and a sense of shared experience, and to think critically about its applications to our own lives?

Photograph by Erica Abbey, Courtesy President Lincoln’s Cottage

Photograph by Erica Abbey, Courtesy President Lincoln’s Cottage

 

Silverman, L. H. (2002). The therapeutic potential of museums as pathways to inclusion. In R. Sandell (Ed.), Museums, society, inequality (pp. 69-83). New York, NY: Routledge.