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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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