Monday, July 11, 2016

Authenticity is a Lie

Like anyone who works with historic houses, sooner or later, I find myself in conversations about authenticity.  How do we know how the furniture was arranged? What exactly was that color shown in a black and white photograph?  What did it smell like?  Sound like?  At different times of year?   As insiders, we know those questions and talk about them, as we strive for something that I've now come to believe is a fiction, yet something that our visitors believe is the real deal.  So yes, the "authenicity" that visitors think they are experiencing is often a lie.

Over and over again, I read in visitor surveys or hear visitors comment, "oh, it's just like it was back then,"  when it so clearly to me, seems like it isn't.  This blog post isn't meant in any way to dismiss the work of serious historians and curators who work to know more, all the time, about these inhabited spaces, but rather to suggest that we need to be clearer in owning up to what we know, and what we don't (nor any disrespect to the Seven Gables, pictured above in an early postcard).

There's a few issues that these visitor comments really raise for me.

First, the fact that somehow we, as museum/historic site people are often unwilling to acknowledge the complicated nature of historical practice. As a result, visitors get a shocking lack of complexity in thinking about history.  For instance, do I think 19th century historic houses in the Midwest had needle-pointed bell pulls to cover all of the electric light switches in each room?  Not for a minute. Did visitors think so?  Perhaps, because they were presented as part of the historical furnishings.

Second, our adherence to earlier furnishings efforts leaves out so many people in the story of domestic places. For instance, why are servants and enslaved people only, if at all, present in the kitchen and back spaces? Long ago, participants in the Museum Institute at Great Camp Sagamore were tasked with developing an interpretive interactive that could illustrate how this beautiful great camp in the Adirondack wilderness only ran because of the presence of servants.  One group came up with different colored footprints on the floor to represent servants and Vanderbilts and their guests. The servants' footprints came and went in a dizzying array, all through the course of the day, into a space generally interpreted as a space for the wealthy to relax.

Third, we're not all the same.  Spinning wheels, dresses thrown artfully on beds, children's toys arranged carefully and the fake apple in the kitchen bowl.  How can we get visitors to engage in learning when it feels all the same?  Wasn't anybody a slob in the 18th or 19th century? Weren't some people lovers of technology and others not?  (see Denis Sever House, London, below, for an alternative approaches to the slob question).

Third, can we really know?  And can imagination substitute for knowledge? In houses without specific documentation, we make guesses at what kinds of furnishings would be right, but can we ever really know?  Can we know, as we do in our own homes, the emotional temperature of a space? How it feels happy on a summer evening or Christmas, but a darker emotion on a gloomy November afternoon?  Would it change the way the house was furnished?  When I worked on interpretive planning with the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site in Buffalo, the site where TR was sworn in as president, we experimented (and now made permanent) a changed breakfast table. From a formal setting, we changed it to a chair pushed out, rumpled newspapers, and a coffee cup--all, we hoped, a way of engaging visitors' imagination to wonder about the thoughts of a man completing breakfast as he just learns he's become president.  We learned that those changes helped visitors see TR as a person, rather than an abstraction.

As I'd been thinking about historic houses, I had the chance to see the exhibit Rooms:  Novel Living Concepts at the Milan XXI Triennale.  The exhibit began with an overview of Italian design in domestic spaces (above)  reinforcing the sense that the ideal is often what get's presented in history, Then I encountered an imaginative 11 rooms, designed by artists and architects, asking us conceptually to consider past, present and future. Would we think like a bear if we lived in a bear-shaped space? What do we think the future is?  What would life be like in one of these calm white rooms?  Where would the slobs keep their stuff in some of these places?

Wandering through these rooms, I wondered if we shouldn't be more willing to admit that our period rooms are artistic creations rather than exact recreations of history.  They are certainly expressions of self (and sometimes that self-identity that comes from ancestor veneration), of aesthetic taste and choices, and are designed to convey a message, oft-unspoken.  Relatedly, some recent conversations about historic houses and the nature of interpretation also sent me back to Patricia West's Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America's House Museums; well worth a read if you haven't already.

Rooms ended with a text label that said in part:
Talking about rooms inevitably brings feelings and emotions into play.  Our memories are linked with rooms, not easily described precisely by dint of being too personal.  The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space believed that rooms remain with us, but not just in our memories: they are an assemblage of organic habits and can also lose their shape.
 What's the answer?  Greater transparency about our work, for sure.  And a commitment to experimentation as we find ways to uncover and convey deeper, more inclusive meaning in our interpretive work.

Your period rooms:  sometimes misshapen organic habits, filled with memories.


Barbara Palley said...

Yes! What if there was an interactive that asked visitors to work together to create a period room of our times? They could be asked to consider whether they are making an ideal (composite of many ppl) or a room based off specific individuals. If based off of individuals, we might ask them to make a list of all the things they want the room to tell about them, and how we might do so through objects. Similarly, we could ask visitors to construct period rooms of their domestic past. At what age would they choose to present their childhood home, their grandparents' home? Why? Would they choose a real or ideal presentation?

Also reminds me of Richard Handler's work in Colonial Willliamsburg, a fascinating study about how new ideas of social history can be introduced into a historic institution, but strongly held conservative views, by visitors and staff, prevent the new paradigm from taking over.

Unknown said...

Thank you. My organization is struggling with this right now.

Jeanne said...

I do talk about how the house might have been when the family lived there. I point out that life in the house most likely evolved over time, as our homes today. The furnishings we have are period antiques, so no connection to the family at all, which increases the interpretive difficulty. It's so important to use our words to create a connection between the house and visitors, so they do reach a deeper understanding.
I too, like the rooms where it looks as though the family just left. I have encouraged admins at my site to consider this. Thanks for the great article, too!

Anonymous said...

How about asking the visitor to compare their kitchen table to the one on display or their bedroom. Have them write in a notebook next to the display. Great idea for school age kids too.

Linda Norris said...

Sorry I've been a bit slow to respond commenters, but thank you all! Great suggestions, and I'm continuing to think about other ways we can talk more about it. You might all be interested in this new project by contemporary artist Theaster Gates, entitled, How to Build a House Museum I'm hoping someone goes and reports!

Gobae said...

The title of this post didn't go where I anticipated it would. Regardless, it does remind me of a living history experiment conducted back in the 1970's with reconstructed Iron Age roundhouses in the UK. Once people were living in them 24/7 for just over a year, visiting archaeologist Barry Cunliff remarked how similar the daily detritus was to actual excavations he had done. And how that provided a remarkable insight into the typical daily lives he would have previously had to guess at.

Perhaps more living history with entire mini-communities living as the people in the age in question would have would yield even more insights. Certainly they'd still have modern biases but if you want to know how furniture might be placed, or the results of a "messy home dweller" DO it. It may very well uncover hidden practicalities common in that era, or reveal more about human nature than otherwise known.