Tuesday, September 16, 2008
"Well, he never married"
Ken Turino of Historic New England led a fascinating session at the recent AASLH conference about the expanding interpretation (or not) of gays in historic houses. Using examples from both Historic New England sites and others, he explored the ways various sites have grappled with the topic. The title of this blog evidently represents one comment some historic houses have used to deflect questions about their owners' sexual orientation. At Historic New England's Beauport, the summer home of interior designer Henry Davis Sleeper, the full life of the owner has been integrated into the story. At Hull House, in Chicago, the staff undertook the alternative labeling project, where visitors (and web visitors) could voice their own perspectives about labels for a portrait of Mary Rozet Smith, Jane Addams longtime companion. Check out for the weblog to see impassioned discussions, pro and con!
Ken's comments clearly discussed the difficulty of finding what was known, at some sites, and perhaps only surmised at others and the challenge of creating new interpretations. But to me, his most important point was that this work is not about classifying people but helping visitors to understand the whole person at that historic house. That seems to me what we want at almost all historic houses--we want to understand the people who lived there. We may or may not care about that chair they bought in 1853, but surely, most of us want to understand the emotions, the human-ness that connects us to those people who once inhabited those historic places.
Above: China Trade Room, Beauport, Historic New England photo