Monday, April 15, 2013

Is the Pen Mightier? Can Words Reshape a Historic House?

I've just begun working with the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, CT and spent two days there last week talking with staff about the re-interpretation of Stowe House.  I've known of the organization for a long time and had been impressed with their powerful mission and the wide array of programs they do around a range of social justice issues--expanding out from Stowe's fame as the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin.   So I'm thrilled to be undertaking this project.  On the first day,  we tried to put some of Rainey Tisdale and my brainstorming research into play as about 15 or so of us spent a day puzzling out the connections between audiences and Stowe.  We did audience profiles, thought about multiple intelligences and John Falk's classification of identities in museum visitors.    One element we tried was putting some inspirational quotes by Stowe up on the walls to encourage our own creative thinking.
"The past, the present and the future are really one: they are today."
"There is more done with pens than swords” 
"When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you until it seems that you cannot hold on for a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time when the tide will turn."
But what's interesting is that, despite Stowe's fame as a writer,  an initial impulse was to continue focusing more the objects in the house and a domestic story that, in fact, could be told anywhere.  But we kept working--and on the second day, a smaller group took the multitude of ideas generated on the first day and went into each room of the house.  We sat on the floor and talked, we wondered about making spaces more accessible and doing away with some period rooms.  We imagined visitors seeing challenging objects and making themselves at home in the parlor.  We talked about different kinds of tours and different kinds of learners.  But we kept coming back to one idea--that this is a site with a story that is about the power of words--that in fact,  Harriet Beecher Stowe's words changed the world and yours could too.

It brought back to mind the Mikhail Bulgakov Museum in Kyiv, Ukraine, where a thoughtful and interpretive effort combines his life story and his novel, The White Guard, into a single tour.   It remains one of the most surprising historic house experiences I've ever had.  And all too few houses create a

How can we create a historic house experience where words are the thing--where we do more with pens than with swords?  And we don't mean a tour that's just talking--but somehow a place where ideas, expressed in words, emerge, swirl, confront,  confuse, clarify, and most importantly, empower visitors to leave the house and do something to make a difference.  Ways to do this are busily emerging and I'll be spending some time this summer in Hartford testing out some of those ideas with both visitors and community members who don't yet connect with the Stowe Center.   In our increasing visual culture--can we make words matter?   Suggestions welcomed!


Nina Simon said...

I assume you are looking at the terrific work that the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum is doing in Chicago to transform a historic house museum into a museum that is a home for ideas...

Linda Norris said...

Yes, quite the amazing place and will be seeing Lisa Junkin at NCPH tomorrow as we talk food and public history as part of a working group--thanks for reading and suggesting, as always....the other place I really love, as I think about this, is in your neighborhood--the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur. Different, about ideas, but still about ideas.