By Abby Rolland ‘15
This post is part of a series on the experiences of our Pohanka Interns at various historic sites working on the front lines of history as interpreters and curators. Dr. Jill Titus explains the questions our students are engaging with here.
Reflecting on my time so far at Stratford Hall Plantation, I have realized that objects, and not just guides, offer interpretation to visitors. Yes, the docents have a wealth of knowledge about the house, but they cannot reveal every single piece of information about the rooms in the Great House. In order to fully understand the comings and goings of the Lee family, the placement of the objects must tell part of the tale.
For example, I installed Summer Scenarios in various rooms, alterations that reflect the changes that would have taken place in the house during the summer months. Gauze now covers the mirrors to protect the gilding from flyspecks, muslin hangs over the andirons and other fireplace equipment, and a dining scenario in the spacious Great Hall illustrates the Lees’ desire to catch as much of a breeze as possible. Just like human interpreters, material objects facilitate historical understanding and alter the way a visitor sees a site. While guests viewing an empty house may be able to hear and picture the stories being told, objects promote greater understanding as to where the occupants slept, where they wrote letters, and conducted other daily activities.
By viewing the settings for these daily activities, visitors can begin to see people from the past as not too different from themselves. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee III wrote letters at a desk; I have also penned letters at a desk or table. While one can see clearly that there are major differences between the two activities (i.e. different writing utensils, the ink used, and the kinds of paper utilized), one can better understand Light Horse Harry and how his world functioned by comparing and contrasting his activities and our own similar ones in the present day. Objects illustrate that societies of the past differed in some ways from the present, but the similarities they reveal also demonstrate that contrary to popular belief, humans two hundred years ago are not that different from people today.
While not everyone visits historic houses, comparing daily life to the past is a popular activity in many American households. Roy Rosenzweig states that 91% of Americans regularly look at photographs of the past. By seeing images of family members in a different time, people in the present day can imagine life back then. At Stratford Hall, I work with 3-D objects and not 2-D ones, but the basic role they play is the same. Looking at a bed in the Lee household compared to a bed from the 1930s compared to a bed today demonstrates changes in style, comfort, and behavior. Handling, packing, moving, researching, studying, writing about, and learning about objects has taught me that history is more than written and spoken words, or actions, or behaviors. It is also a story of human interaction with objects.
While oral communication on the part of guides and docents plays a vital role in the interpretation of history, objects convey a sense that they were there while 21st-century humans were not. The wine coasters in the Lee Gallery were handled by the Lees themselves (or at least by the slaves around them, which tells a completely different story!). What stories can I learn from those coasters? One is, as alluded to earlier, that objects do not have fixed meanings. The Lees might have viewed the coasters as objects that gave them status, while slaves might have seen them as tangible items reflecting semi-intangible realities they would never have: wealth to purchase the coasters and freedom to spend the time to use them at dinner.
A curator could place a coaster in the dining room to show it in use by the white family; or, it could be placed downstairs with a rag and bowl near it to illustrate a servant or slave cleaning it. In one setting, the object represents power and wealth; in the other, it hints at themes such as inequality and hardship. Objects have a special place in history – while they do not replace guided interpretive talks, they offer something distinctly different – a chance for visitors to understand, to relate, and to realize that those objects saw people and witnessed events visitors and guides can only imagine or replicate.
At Stratford Hall, guides, objects, and landscapes all bear witness to the stories and lives of the past. By interacting with all, a visitor can more fully appreciate both the history of the site and history as a whole.