Compare and contrast

On my way back from Poughkeepsie, I stopped in New Paltz to visit Historic Huguenot Street, which popped up on my twitter feed on Sunday evening. Once I arrived, I realized I’d been there once during my college career, but only to wander around outside, never in the buildings, and moreover they’re in the process or renewing their interpretation.

One interpretive choice they’ve made is to pair two 18th century houses. One is unfurnished, so you can see the architectural features and the way the construction progressed over time. The other house is fully furnished with pieces that are (mostly) appropriate to the period interpreted. Our guide was explicit about the comparison, particularly when we were in the basement kitchens of the two houses. In the unfurnished house, the kitchen felt smaller, there was less natural light and little artificial light, and the overall feeling was depressing. The kitchen in the furnished house had more light, natural and artificial, and seemed almost cheerful in comparison. However, our guide reminded us that the space would have been smoky and smelly, and that in the 18th century the people working in the kitchen would have been enslaved African Americans.

I appreciated the contrast as part of an overall effort by the site to make the act of interpretation transparent. Both guides I had explicitly stated “we have decided to interpret” and we were even asked if we thought the comparison of furnished and unfurnished was helpful. When I was working in a historic house in Virginia, we often talked about whether to interpret areas for which we had little or no documentation, in particular the upstairs bedchambers. Do you fully furnish a house, even without evidence? Or leave rooms empty, knowing that visitors often expect to see “what it was like”? And if you are guessing, what do the guides/docents tell the visitors? Historic Huguenot Street has the advantage of having multiple houses, but they could have chosen to interpret them all one way or the other. I think the decision to show the two paths interpretation can take, and in sequence, not only helps visitors think about the past but also how the past is presented to them at historic sites.

I look forward to returning for a more leisurely visit the next time I’m in the area. I’m curious to interact with the first person interpreters, and see where else the education and interpretation goes. My experience was a little off the usual, because I had a guide for all of the houses, when some of them usually have first person interpretation (they started the tour a little early for me since I had to drive back to Virginia).

National Park Service’s LBGT Theme Study

On Tuesday, I attended the Department of Interior’s inaugural panel discussion for the new theme study on Lesbian, Gay Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) history in the National Park Service (NPS). The study is part of a larger effort within NPS to ensure that the histories of minority Americans are included and communicated in their sites.

NPS Director John Jarvis and Panelists on stage, seated.

The panel opened with remarks by the National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, followed by Secretary of Interior Sally Jewel and John Berry, who is Ambassador to Australia and one of the first openly gay ambassadors in the United States. In her remarks, Secretary Jewel stated that “place matters” but LGBT communities have not had places to mark their significance to the larger American story. She talked about the need for young people who are struggling with their identities to hear their story told in a way that helps them realize that they are not alone.

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Belle

I recently saw Belle (2013), a film based on the true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, a woman of color and status in late eighteenth century England. While the film diverges from the actual facts, it does so to underscore the messages of the film.

Some reviewers have pointed out the “Austen-esque” nature of the story, focusing as it does on marriage as a goal for women, and the conflict between marry for station and marrying for love. While I acknowledge that modern viewers may feel it’s a very Austen story, it also accurately reflects the concerns of women, in this case elite women, of late eighteenth century Britain. Their choices were, as presented, marry or serve the family as spinster chatelaine.

I can see this film being a useful resource for teaching late 18th century British/Atlantic history. The characters discuss, through the course of the film, that trifecta of modern historical analysis: race, class, gender. The film would also be useful for a course on material culture, as it highlights the way people of color were portrayed in paintings of the era (slight spoiler at that link, but only slight). I was occasionally reminded of the blog People of Color in European Art History while watching, and this poster stating that representation matters. The film of course speaks to the present as much as the past, but not in a way which diminishes either message. I look forward to reading more responses to the film.

two women in formal attire.
Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle and her cousin.