I don’t mean the ice dams and icicles that plagued the house and streaked the service ell’s windows as they melted: I mean change.
I’m reading The Half Has Never Been Told (it kept selling out, so I only just got a copy), and thinking about the representation of a past that people would rather forget, and sometimes actively deny in the North– and the South, as you will tell from reading African-American History Fail.
Change in historic houses can be glacially-paced, as staff and docents alike resist changes to interpretation. Resistance to change is usually about comfort and confrontation, especially when the change is large.
I get that: Oh no, new stuff to learn. What was wrong with what we did before? But docents and staff get comfortable and loose sight of the context of the content they present. They say some interesting stuff.
Most jaw-dropping of all: Sometimes I like to pretend I’m Mrs Owner of the House. That one was creepy, to me. But it did give me some insight into the “ooh, wish I lived here” backwardly aspirational tour motivation.
How would you feel if living here meant you owned and traded slaves? Defended the slave trade in Congress? If a small girl had the care of your horses? We don’t ask those specific questions, but I think we need to. Slavery is slavery.
In the 1790 census of Rhode Island, there are 948 slaves, representing 1.3% of the population. That would be 13,000 people of Rhode Island’s total population today, less than the city of Central Falls (19,383 in the last census, and one of our smallest towns).
We think it’s a small number, but to those 948 people, being enslaved was everything. I don’t necessarily want to make our visitors feel personal guilt about slavery– that’s up to them–but I do want to them to think about what slavery meant, and what it did, as an economic system.
I want visitors to understand that the beauty of the house they see is built in part on the ugly and forced exploitation of a class of people. If they relate that to the rest of the world they inhabit today, even better. I think we owe at least this much to every site where enslaved people worked or lived.
This is so, so important. Glossing over the unpleasant aspects of our national history is something we do very well. And because we like to think that conditions are so vastly different now (or perhaps were never really that bad in the first place), it is even more important for historical interpreters, historic houses, museums, etc. to present accurate history, in all its ugliness and beauty. As a recent ‘immigrant’ to New England from northern Virginia (where I never really felt “Southern”–not until I moved here), thank you.
I think you make some very good points. As a house tourist, I often wonder those same questions: who had to give up what so that the people who live here can have all this? They’re hard questions to ask and answer, but worthwhile to really gain an understanding of the place and its time.
If you feel so obligated to talk about the lives of the slaves that inhabited the house or the state, then you should talk about the lives of the displaced or murdered native people as well, and don’t forget those religious upstarts that had to leave the area because they were Quaker or (gasp!) Catholic. You’re prejudice simply in the story you choose to tell.
That’s an excellent point; all stories are biased.
But I think I’ll leave the early Quaker intolerance to Massachusetts, since Quakers settled in Newport, and were part of the Brown family. The Native American story is more difficult to tell in a daily basis in a 1788 home, but we do try to address it.
We are all limited by our biases and our context, but try to do our best. In this context, with a story particular to the house, I think we can, and should, do better.
You might want to have a conversation with Laura Carpenter, Director of the Van Cortland House Museum in the Bronx.
The slave quarters are still preserved, and a bit of a shock; it’s like stepping directly from the First Class Cabin into Steerage by passing through a door. I don’t know if they are showing them to the public though.
The issues are the same.
Thanks! Yes, Van Cortland is one of the houses on my list to visit, though it was for other reasons, so this is a great tip.
I’ve been to the Isaac Royall House & Slave Quarters, and appreciated how they’ve brought slavery into the house, particularly in the kitchen– wish we had more of those 18th century service spaces intact.