I started placing tags on my stuff at home. Typed onto the tags are little narratives about where, when, and why I collected the object. I have this image of one day, my family, cleaning out my house after I have passed away, and finding all of these objects with tags on them. I wonder, will they still go in the dumpster, or to a nearby thrift store? Might they keep a few to remember my eccentricities? More central to why I have done this is that I want to make sure they understand the narratives and why I carried that object around my entire life.
To make this little curatorial experiment even better, I am a dumpster-diving, thrift-store-searching machine. Often, while swimming through the depths of an outdoor flea market, I will find something (usually a broken chair), and convince myself that it’s perfect for a spot in our house. If the price is cheap enough and the potential gain great enough, I will grab the object and hope that it fits where I imagine it will. I would like to say that I am always correct in these hypotheses – I am not. Once in a while, I will expect a piece of furniture to work perfectly in one spot, only to find out that it is too big, or small, or just not right.
These unconsummated love affairs usually get thrown in my basement. I forget about them and they get dusty. Now, mind you, I am the first person to say that there is nothing wrong with the artifact, but rather the artifact doesn’t fit my expectations. It’s my problem, not the chairs.
I kind of felt the same way after my One-Night Stand at the Brown House in Providence, Rhode Island. It is an extraordinary house with world-class collections and a deeply complex and meaningful narrative. I suggest a visit is worth a trip. So, what was my problem? It’s not the museum – it’s me. This overnight provided me with the time to contemplate some of my pre-conceived ideas about sites like this.
I have been lucky. For whatever reasons, I can pursue ideas, test them, and then reconsider. I don’t think many people have had this opportunity, I pursue something and end up with nothing (or next to nothing). In this one-night stand, I anticipated a certain type of experience that never materialized. Another experience came into view, but it wasn’t the one I was expecting.
Not much of the house’s contents were off-limits to my “One-Night Stand” activity. Not even the very famous and costly corner chair, or the even more famous and costly drop-front desk secretary. It is kind of a head rush to place your computer (on top of a felt pad) on a $23 million dollar piece of furniture. I have to thank the staff for allowing me the opportunity to experience this.
This unusual level of access exemplified my whole experience of the house, where the generous and kind staff opened the entire space to me. BUT, despite the physical access, another kind of access was missing – access to a view of the humanity of the occupants and the intangible complexities of their times.
At the Brown House, I felt like I was living within a zip-lock baggie. Normally, during my “One-night Stands”, I can feed off the environmental interactions of the sun, the weather, and the passage of the day. Here, all of the windows had a sunscreen-blocking shade and were nailed in. I couldn’t raise the shades or push aside the curtains. They were a permanent part of the experience. The effect was to dull and equalize the experience of the entire sleepover.The sun filtered through these shades, producing an “even-ness” of light that created a very beige environment. Nothing seemed sexy, edgy, or primary. It all seemed equal. Harmonious, and respectable. It felt like a model home for some high-end luxury spec developer.
This is a perfect example of how professional best practice can detract from the visitor experience. I am sure that these shades are the best way to protect the priceless artifacts and furniture. That is exactly the way it felt: that the artifacts and furniture were more important than the visitor and the visitor experience.
How does the fetish-love of house museums like The John Brown House and their objects act as a filter – much like those sunscreens nailed to the windows – keeping us distanced from a tangible and tactile understanding of the social issues embedded within our heritage narratives?
Isn’t it interesting, all the physical access in the world can’t make up for the lack of the feeling of habitation, of realness, tactile/sensory experience? The emphasis is on visual perfection and preservation rather than on habitation and human experience.
As Rufus Wainwright sings, “I guess the world needs the sun and the moon.”
I started to take pretty pictures. These were easy. Every shot was a pre-composed image for ANTIQUES or Architectural Digest Magazine. I quickly became bored of these luscious photographs. It is like eating only wedding cake for all of your meals. At first, it’s great, then very quickly you grow bored by the extravagance of it all, and wish for a simple green salad.
Almost nothing was off limits to me, but on the flip side, there wasn’t much to experience. I kept searching, exploring and opening doors, but there were few rooms that held any shadow of a prior life. I kept walking around the house, wanting to look out the windows, see the relationship of the house to the street, but because of the shades, it was impossible to gain that perspective. Something about “The house seemed as cut off from its context as it was from real human experience.”
There wasn’t much sense that the house had, in fact, been a dwelling. The woodwork seemed to have close to no layers of paint on it, the floors had hardly any scuff marks, the walls all seemed freshly painted, and the substantial, wood room barriers seemed newly minted to hold back inquisitive visitors.
Almost everything was beautifully placed, curated, with its own “personal space.” I can’t think of anything that even overlapped with another thing, or infringed upon another object’s integrity. The rooms were so large that each artifact could maintain its own world easily. Things seemed to be just outside of reach. When sitting on a chair, I wanted a side table to place a book; the side table was just outside of my reach. If I wanted to sit by the fireplace and gain a sense of the life of the room, I had to move the chair closer to the fireplace. Almost nothing seemed naturally placed. There seemed to be such an established sense of professional appropriateness about everything, that I was in reality, living within a composed period room installation – someone’s idea of what a house in this era must have been like – rather than an actual house.
Frustrated, I simply retreated to my bed. I lay there scanning the long vista into the adjacent room. “Could I live here?” I asked myself. I figured that was the wrong question to be asking. I shifted my thinking and asked, “HOW would I live here?”
Amidst all of this isolation, my eyes kept being pulled to the indiscriminately placed shadows of all of these artifacts. Perhaps because there was so little feeling of connection to the objects and surfaces, the most interesting aspect of my stay at the Brown house was the presence of shadow. The shadow lines crossed over objects, ran across the beautiful floorboards, up the immaculate walls, over the highly articulated plaster decorative elements and cornice lines, and finally the decorative plaster ceiling. The shadows seemed to be interlopers, an invading force unbounded by the established order. The shadow was the barbarian invader, pillaging and looting the beauty of the conquered world.
Later in the night, I got out of bed and walked around the silent house. As I walked around barefoot, my footsteps seemed to be ignored by the house itself. Occasionally I would hear the slight creak of a floorboard. I felt a sense of relief that the house did, in fact, have some voice, some language, some life.
At one point I looked down at the floor and noticed that one of the carpet runners was frayed. I was startled. It held such meaning for me that I took a picture of it. That tiny, frayed spot in the carpet was the strongest sign of humanity in the entire house.
I walked back to my bed, put on my eye mask and went to sleep.
The silence of the Brown house seemed much more than simply “quiet.” It seemed muted – gagged. I really don’t think that this is intentional, but rather a symptom of a larger problem within the heritage community. The house seemed to not have a perspective; it didn’t seem to be environmentally self-reflective. If our job as public historians is to simply present the facts, then I wonder, why bother with houses at all? One of the things we have going for us is the distance and perspective of being outside of the narrative, but still a part of it.
I am not a believer in the “stepping back in time” experience. Stop treating me like I am stupid. It is not 1790, nor is communication still broadsheets nailed to the Colony House. I never ask for tours of my One Night Stand houses. I want to gain a sense of the narrative simply from my tactile engagement of the environment. So far, I haven’t once mentioned that John Brown is quite famously known for his deep involvement with the triangle slave trade. A good bit, if not a majority of, his fortune was gained through trading commodities associated with African and Caribbean production. As a part of this world, he was also a slave holder of some note. I have stayed in enough of these places to know that every spot in the USA has some relationship to the economic engine that was the slave-trading complex. In this house, there did seem to be some comfortable distance from this heritage.
In contrast, I fully admit that the staff is known for presenting in very clear and informative ways this relationship between Brown and slavery. In fact, members of the staff are important scholars of this history. I in no way am suggesting that they hide this narrative – they do not. They are one of the “go-to” heritage sites in Rhode Island to learn about the Northern relationship to the larger American slave trading process. My interest are in how the very environment of the house tells this story without the well-informed assistance of the staff and docent. Can the house stand on its own in telling this story? Does the pristine beauty of the environment make it difficult to humanly feel the narrative of this place? Not only are the human qualities of the inhabitants environmentally suppressed, so too is the humanity of the enslaved who funded this extraordinary building.
This is a site where the integrity and strength of the staff is necessary to convey the complexity of the narrative. The site is lucky to have just such expertise. I wonder what would happen if these scholars left, leaving us only the house itself? The narrative is of such extraordinary political and social importance that I wonder if the reliance on expensive furniture objects as stage setting doesn’t do a disservice to the larger educational experience?
As I write this, I am on the train traveling down from Rhode Island to New York City. The landscape is filled with complexity, industrial buildings, residential communities, and natural wetlands. I’m playing, John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” (ironically produced live from the Newport Jazz Festival 1963) from my iTunes playlist These two sensory experiences (visual and auditory) stand in stark contrast to the John Brown “One-Night Stand” I am leaving. The search for this experience in historic house museums is my quest – it is unfair of me to throw that upon the Brown House experience. As I stated earlier, this is my issue, not the Brown site.
Once I returned home, I was emailed these two pictures of the John Brown House as it was outfitted when it was a research library. It wasn’t until much later that the house was “restored,” I was told, and all of the scrapes and damage of this time as a library were “repaired” and the house was brought back to its original condition. So there you have it! I am not crazy. The house has had a major face-lift. It has the face of a 25-year-old, and a story of an experienced, mature person. Therein lies my issue – I want my date to look their age, not pretend to be something else.
I expected one experience, and I got another. It is not bad, just different. I know that these thoughts are my own, very personal beliefs. There are very real issues of preservation related to object & structure preservation that are at the core of my perspective. The question remains, “How can we keep these things long-term and still allow for a present, immediate use of them in some fashion?”. Therein lies my frustration. This frustration is not directed singularly at The John Brown House site itself, rather this “one-night stand” highlights a fundamental internal dialogue that I am constantly arguing. I truly thank the Brown site for allowing me the unparalleled opportunity to experience a situation that moves me closer toward a better understanding, and perhaps a resolution to, this core issue. In this way, the Brown House site has become a primary component in the education of this Public Historian. Thank You.
A special Thank-you to all of the staff at the John Brown House.
Ruth Taylor –Rhode Island Historical Society
Michelle Moon – Twisted Preservation researcher and blog post editor
i gobbled up your excellent piece because it’s reflective of something I’ve been experiencing here in Portsmouth NH where I live. I have visited, over many years, the ‘tourist trap’ restorations that teach us only cold facts and you’d be hard pressed to interest anyone under 40 with such a narrative. YAWN. Instead, they want to know exactly what you point out. HOW does this relate, beautiful as it is, to MY TIME ON THIS PLANET. I suddenly realized that , in my city, only Strawberry Banke can offer anything historic yet contemporary. Many of their houses, now beautifully renovated, are rented as offices, commercial, retail spaces and apartments. A cafe is open all year.A wealthy local family donated a family skating rink that is hugely popular! Their budget is finally in the black and the buildings are up to code, etc
A Tavern of immense historic value, now has a top chef serving up holiday feasts, sold out the instant the dates are announced. Candlelight strolls, too. I am always attracted to the ‘active’ activities, Halloween costume kiddies events, living tutorials. etc. The whole thing has the feeling of being a LIVING museum. Most importantly, it has a sense of being an important part of our community.
Keep up your fine work, Frank….you are leaving a most important mark on Historic Preservation as your legacy. Thank you! Come up and visit soon. I have a sofa bed to offer you anytime.
Great post Frank. I really enjoy you bringing up the issue of how professional best practice can detract from the visitor experience and making the artifacts more important than the visitor and the visitor experience. This is always an ongoing conversation/negotiation…..
The restrictive hold that museum best practices have over the visitor experience is something we all experience in historic house museums. This restored and polished space is a great example and I appreciate your concluding thoughts: “How can we keep these things long-term and still allow for a present, immediate use of them in some fashion?”. I love to see museum people who are willing to reexamine policies in an attempt to address this question. EVERYONE cannot sleep in the bed or sit in the chair if you want those objects to last, but what if they’re replaceable? What if a little damage ads a new story to the place? What if we prioritized being stewards of stories rather than objects? It often seems that the most important stories lack physical evidence anyway, such as the story of slavery in this house.
I like this idea of asking what the house itself can tell you. The contrast between the pristine house and the cruel history that took place there is stark. I think there is potential to really embrace that in a more visual and visceral way. It seems that a combination of learning to look and learning to convey are needed here. I think historic house museums could benefit from more educators on curatorial teams to bridge collections (or display) to story.
So the tension between the needs of preservation, and the needs of our audiences to be entertained, is, in my opinion, both real and overstated. Some segments of our field have indeed become overly obsessed with preservation — everything is a Rembrandt is something I was taught in graduate school that I no longer believe. In fact, everything is in fact fugitive and impermanent, and I laugh sometimes to think of the far future when all that will remain of us are some specks of our planet, and our foundational documents in their argon cases, floating in space. But that is the point, isn’t it? If saving things — historic preservation, collecting and preserving objects and documents — is one way that we send a message in a bottle to the future, which I believe that it is, then there is active value in these activities. “This is who we were.” And if you believe, as I do, that the past is in fact a source of data about our humanity and its habits, this data is also really relevant and important for today.
The issue is providing access to the the information — not just the objects — which, in fact, at the John Brown House Museum is mostly done through the very mediated experience that their docents provide. And which you cannot experience by sleeping in the empty house, the same way you cannot walk through an empty school and learn what the school intends to teach. The possibility of humans providing information to other humans has become very fraught — we think we will get a purer, unbiased message from the objects themselves. And “teaching” has become fraught through ideas about power, perspective and bias. But still, the modality of people who know something guiding others to discover those things has not outlived its usefulness, and nor has the idea of preserving for the future. Change is inevitable,the needs of now are pressing, and yet…
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The objects ARE more important than your experience.