anarchist guide to historic house museums, authenticity, experimental archaeology, first person interpretation, historic house museums, interpretation, John Brown House Museum, Rhode Island history, What Cheer Day
Drunk Tailor’s told you some of the story, and Our Girl History a little bit more, but here we specialize in confessions, so let’s begin.
One night stands: no, not that kind, this kind: the Anarchist kind. I’ve been following Mr Vagnone’s work for some time now, and while museum professionals are not all in agreement about his techniques and approaches, I find them intriguing and thought provoking. I’ve also found that the best way to accomplish anything is by baby steps, as annoying as that can be. That’s how we got to this What Cheer Day: incremental progress over a five-year period. What was so different? Well….
To begin with, we slept in the house. Eight of us. In the period beds and on the period sofas. No harm came to anything, except the gentlemen, who seem to have contracted mild, possibly mold-based, ailments from ancient feather beds.*
We scampered around the enormous house (I swear the front hallway would contain my entire flat, both floors!) in bare feet and period night clothes. I has a regret about that, because the floors could be cleaner, and I forgot to ask for my slippers back.
Big house. Dark night. Flickering candles. Rain storm. Cantonware cider jug.
Why? Why do it? Why risk it? Why, when I’ve been there after dark? Why, when I’ve slept in other historic houses and historic beds? Because to really understand someone, you have to walk in their shoes– or sleep in their bed, as the case may be.
I lay in bed in an enormous mansion house, the first one built on the hill in Providence, completed in 1788. Almost every week, I tell the story of the house, the family moving, James complaining about the June heat as he walked up the hill from Water Street to move into the new brick edifice. I tell the story of Abby’s wedding, the longways dances on the second floor of the unfinished house, candles and dancers glittering in the enormous mirrors at either end of adjoining rooms. But I’d never seen it. I’d never heard it. I’d never really thought about service circulation and stealthy maneuverings in the house.
Now I have.
Now I have lain in the enveloping warmth of a feather bed and heard the rain pouring outside, and nothing else. I’ve heard the deep quiet of thick brick walls. I’ve seen the utter darkness of the house at night, and, padding up the stairs to bathroom, been comforted by the presence of my companions even as they failed to sleep across the hall.**
To enter the room as a maid, I’ve used the doorway from the former service stairs, and silently carried in a jug to serve the occupants. I’ve gotten closer to the near-invisible role of servants, in a period when full invisibility hasn’t yet been established. I’ve watched someone I love sleep off a migraine in a room where we interpret illness and 18th century medicine.
All of that is mundane. And because I did all of that in a historic house with period furnishings, all of that is magical. My job now is take what I have learned and felt, and find new ways to use those personal experiences to connect our visitors’ personal experiences to a larger (and a smaller) story about Providence, early Federal Rhode Island, and a family.
* Most amazingly comfortable feather beds ever. Drunk Tailor’s review is unprintable on a family blog, but hilarious.
** Sorry about that… I slept pretty well, considering.