Concord’s Wayside: Home of What?

By Olivia Ortman ’19

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series. 

This summer, I have had the privilege of interning at Minute Man NHP in Concord, Massachusetts. My primary station here is the Wayside: Home of Authors. Right about now, you might be wondering what the Wayside is. That’s alright, I didn’t know what the house was until just this summer. The Wayside was the home of Louisa May Alcott, Nathanial Hawthorne, and Harriet Lothrop (or Margaret Sydney) – all prominent authors in the 19th century. This house also stood witness to the “shot heard round the world” and provided brief shelter to a fugitive slave. This house is a gold mine of history, yet with all this history comes challenges.

Continue reading “Concord’s Wayside: Home of What?”

A Summer at FredSpot: Far More Than Answering Phones and Getting Coffee

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.

By Jeff Martin ’18

Going into this summer, I was not quite sure what to expect at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. Part of me suspected that since I was an intern, I would do nothing more than answer phones and get coffee. I was prepared to accept this; after all, I do want to work for the National Park Service someday, and if the only way to get my foot in the door was to do menial tasks for two and a half months, so be it. What I actually experienced, however, was something far different and far better.

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The Sunken Road. Photo courtesy Jeff Martin.

This is not to suggest that all of my experiences were positive; I did have some setbacks, but I like to think I have learned from them. One of the park’s permanent staff went on one of my Sunken Road walking tours early in the summer, and I did not give a particularly good tour that day. Afterwards, we sat down and talked about some areas to improve; for example, my tour went far longer than advertised and I talked about a lot of facts that did not tie in to my overarching theme. I would say that I have definitely improved since then, and even towards the end of the summer, I find that I never give the same tour twice. Continue reading “A Summer at FredSpot: Far More Than Answering Phones and Getting Coffee”

“Throwing Light” on Life at The Wayside

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.

By Alex Andrioli ’18

Over the course of these past ten weeks, I have come a long way since I started my internship at the beginning of June at Minute Man National Historical Park. This is my second Brian C. Pohanka Internship; last summer, I lived and worked at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. In Harpers Ferry, I was given a lot of responsibility while working for the education department, but at Minute Man, my responsibilities far exceeded just working with children.

At Minute Man, I constructed two of my very own tours: one was about the opening battle of the American Revolution at the North Bridge on April 19, 1775 and the other was an historic house tour of The Wayside: Home of Authors. Of the two, my Wayside tour was more complex due to the fact that basically EVERYTHING has happened at the Wayside. Built before 1717, it is a witness house to the beginning of the American Revolution, a childhood home of Louisa May Alcott and a major inspiration for her greatest work, Little Women, a part of the Underground Railroad network, frequently visited by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in the 1800s, and the first and only home Nathaniel Hawthorne ever owned. I had to fit all of this, plus countless other connections, into a forty minute tour. Also, I somehow had to factor in time for visitors to have a look around and walk through the house, as well as adjust my tour to accommodate large groups and visitors with disabilities.

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The Wayside: Home of Authors. Concord, Massachusetts. Photo by author, June 28, 2016

Continue reading ““Throwing Light” on Life at The Wayside”

Why Historic Houses Suck: An Anarchist’s Guide to the Unorthodox Museum

By Alex Andrioli ’18

Picture in your head a historic house museum that you have visited.

Did you picture Mt. Vernon or Monticello? How about the historic house that you grew up down the road from? Did images of antiques and display cases flash through your mind, or was it the velvet rope barriers, musty smell, creaky floorboards, and dusty signs? I bet a majority of these things popped into your head because that’s what many people remember after they leave a historic house museum. I know that I have! The historical value of the museum is short term, but the memory of a musty old home you visited once as a kid will last you a lifetime. But it doesn’t have to be this way!

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The Dyckman Farmhouse is a Dutch Colonial style farmhouse that was built around 1784 and still resides in the same location that is now Broadway & 204th Street on Manhattan Island in New York City. It opened as a museum in 1916 and is the last farmhouse in Manhattan. Photograph by the Historic American Buildings Survey, via the Library of Congress.

When historic house museums started popping up in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries their purpose was to educate immigrants about “American values and patriotic duties.” As the years went by and the surrounding communities changed, the museums stayed the same. As a result, historic house museums have been experiencing a steady decline in visitors and funding over the years. However, people like Franklin D. Vagnone and Deborah Ryan are on a mission to revive interest and relevance in these museums. Continue reading “Why Historic Houses Suck: An Anarchist’s Guide to the Unorthodox Museum”

Unfortunate Events and Special Circumstances: Why the Rupp Family Tells the Civilian Experience at Gettysburg

By Savannah Rose ’17

Is the Jennie Wade story important to remember? Is she the ideal image of the civilian experience during the Battle of Gettysburg? When it comes to the civilian experience at Gettysburg, tourists flock to the Jennie Wade House Museum to hear the tale of a young girl caught in the crossfire of a major battle. Wade’s circumstances were unusual for the battle, but her story is better known due to its excitement and tragedy than because of its representativeness. The lesser-known story of the Rupp family gives us a better idea of what civilians experienced when the two armies entered their town. Like most families during the battle, the Rupps escaped danger by avoiding the conflict, emerging unharmed. So what was the civilian story of the Battle of Gettysburg? Whose struggle better conveys the civilian experience? Is it the tragic story of a single civilian casualty, or the experience of a family that hid in their basement to escape harm?

The Rupp Tavern, currently owned by the Gettysburg Foundation, stands at the intersection of Baltimore and Steinwehr Avenue. Photo by the author.
The Rupp Tavern, currently owned by the Gettysburg Foundation, stands at the intersection of Baltimore and Steinwehr Avenue. Photo by the author.

Continue reading “Unfortunate Events and Special Circumstances: Why the Rupp Family Tells the Civilian Experience at Gettysburg”

The Original Birthplace of George Washington

By Max Zammataro ‘16

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka interns working on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.

Looking back at American history, George Washington was a monumental figure to a significant portion of our citizens. As a founding father of our country, historians and relatives of President Washington have long wanted to properly document and share his birthplace with the American public. Memorializing where President Washington was born and raised acknowledges the great service he did for our country. Over the past 150 years, there has been an ongoing investigation into where exactly George Washington was brought into the world. There have been conflicting arguments because there was no definitive proof of his birthplace. The original structure where he was born, in Popes Creek Virginia, was burnt to the ground in 1779, leaving archaeologists with minimal artifacts to work with, such as pieces of china, hinges, a candle, a silver teaspoon and a bunch of keys. The lack of solid historical evidence disabled investigations to conclude exactly where President Washington was born. The lack of proper documentation and technology in the past also made it significantly harder to keep track of the facts.

As time passed, a number of people have claimed that they know exactly where George Washington was born. The information many of these parties have provided conflicts with what others were led to believe. George Washington Parke Custis, adopted grandson of George and Martha Washington, was the first to take the initiative to mark the site of the original birth house, placing a stone slab inscribed with the date of George Washington’s birth. The problem was that without proper documentation of the actual house, Custis was escorted to the spot where there were a few bricks laid to supposedly mark the spot of George Washington’s birthplace. Unfortunately, this was not necessarily factual, but for the time being it was marked as the birthplace. As the years passed, Custis’s slab was moved numerous times and chipped away at. Later it was released by the Daily National Intelligencer in 1857 that another chimney that was part of a smaller separate structure had been found on the site. It was located in the same vicinity as the original chimney marked by Custis. While these may appear to be minor details, they are significant because those “interpreting” the site were sharing incorrect information with early visitors.

One must acknowledge that these early historians and interpreters were trying their best to preserve and share what little information they had with American citizens even though the information itself was incorrect. This misinformation continued for such a long time because historians had no other way of checking the historical data other than going off the records available to them. The questions surrounding the actual birthplace of George Washington were misinterpreted for so long was because there were few artifacts to support the authenticity of the site. It wasn’t until a nearby site was excavated that additional information surfaced reshaping the story of Washington’s birthplace. This archeological data made it clear that Custis was incorrect in locating the site of the birth home. He was working with less than perfect information so cannot be blamed for the inaccuracies. He was just trying to share what he thought to be his grandfather’s story with his county. Continue reading “The Original Birthplace of George Washington”

Historical Preservation: The Elizabeth Cady Stanton Property

By Amanda Thibault ‘17

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka interns working on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.

The Elizabeth Cady Stanton property presents a number of preservation and interpretive challenges. The NPS is currently considering launching a landscape restoration project. Photo courtesy Amanda Thibault.
The Elizabeth Cady Stanton property presents a number of preservation and interpretive challenges. The NPS is currently considering launching a landscape restoration project. Photo courtesy Amanda Thibault.

Historical preservation has always been a problematic issue for the National Park Service. Park officials must find a balance between preserving and exploiting historical landscapes. At battlefields such as Antietam, the National Park Service has issued a policy of landscape freezing to help visitors understand the historical significance of the park. Landscape freezing refers to preserving the landscape of a particular historical period in time. Antietam has issued a policy of restoring the landscape to the eve of the battle to the maximum extent possible. However, there are many problems facing this plan, like removing the roads that allow visitors to travel through the battlefield and form an emotional connection to the site.

The problems of historical preservation are pronounced here at Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, NY, especially at the Elizabeth Cady Stanton property. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the primary figure behind the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848. During tours of the property where Elizabeth Cady Stanton, her husband Henry Stanton, and her seven children lived from 1847 to 1862 only ten people are allowed in the house at once because of its small size. If there is a larger tour, the remaining visitors have to wait outside. Today, the only remnants of the Stanton property are the horse chestnut tree in front of the property and fruit trees located in the northeast corner of property. The orchard, flower and vegetable gardens, the circular driveway, the outdoor playground for the children, the barn and other outbuildings no longer exist. I believe the National Park Service should recreate as much of the original landscape as possible so visitors can roam around while waiting to go inside the house. Continue reading “Historical Preservation: The Elizabeth Cady Stanton Property”

Schmucker Hall: An Artifact for a 21st Century Audience

By Jenna Fleming ‘16

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka interns working on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.

Built in 1832 to house the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Schmucker Hall served as a field hospital during the Battle of Gettysburg. After years of housing the Adams County Historical Society, it became home to the Seminary Ridge Museum in 2013. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Built in 1832 to house the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Schmucker Hall served as a field hospital during the Battle of Gettysburg. After years of housing the Adams County Historical Society, it became home to the Seminary Ridge Museum in 2013. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In her 2011 History News article, “Do Museums Still Need Objects?,” Rainey Tisdale argues that while modern museums definitely need to continue displaying artifacts, a reevaluation of the ways in which these objects are utilized, presented, and interpreted is likewise necessary. Though advances in technology and shifts in public views of history are changing the museum experience for many visitors, artifacts still play a central role. Tisdale, an independent curator and professor of Museum Studies at Tufts University, presents a seven-point outline of ways to make museums more effective. Specifically, she calls for the innovative presentation of objects, making them more interesting and relevant to visitors and thereby achieving a more personalized version of history.

Focusing on a few distinctive objects that make a museum’s collection unique may be a better way to educate visitors than the simple display of a greater amount of more commonplace objects. This may seem counterintuitive as some museums are very concerned with acquisitions, but the emphasis of quality over quantity can ultimately result in a more positive learning experience. Additionally, Tisdale advocates the personalization of history through allowing viewers to connect with the past through artifacts. This goal might be achieved by highlighting how, when, and by whom an object was used, or even giving the viewer the opportunity to interact with it in some way. The desire for interaction with historical artifacts does raise the question of a museum’s ability to strike a balance between preservation and education. In association with this challenge comes the need for curators to be more open to advice, requests, and opinions of the public. Tisdale believes that greater communication between museum officials and visitors is another way to modernize and improve the museum experience. Continue reading “Schmucker Hall: An Artifact for a 21st Century Audience”

Interpretive Decisions at the Stone House

By Thomas Nank ‘16

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns working on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.

In her article “The Birthplace of a Chief: Archaeology and Meaning at George Washington Birthplace National Monument,” author Joy Beasley discusses the complex history of the birthplace of our first President. Beasley traces the evolution of the interpretation of the site as influenced by many diverse groups and individuals. I have seen similar interpretive confusion recently during my internship at Manassas National Battlefield Park centered on the historic Stone House.

Little definitive information survives on the specific uses of the Stone House during the two battles fought at Manassas, thus giving rise to interpretive confusion surrounding the building. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Little definitive information survives on the specific uses of the Stone House during the two battles fought at Manassas, thus giving rise to interpretive confusion surrounding the building. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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History Alumni Lecture: Historic Homes and Audience

By Megan McNish ’16

"Panoramic image made from five photos taken Aug 2007 at Stratford Hall Plantation and merged together with AutoStitch," original uploader MamaGeek. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:StratfordHallPlantationPano.jpg
“Panoramic image made from five photos taken Aug 2007 at Stratford Hall Plantation and merged together with AutoStitch,” original uploader MamaGeek.
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:StratfordHallPlantationPano.jpg

On the evening of October 8 in Gettysburg College’s Joseph Theater, Paul Reber ’82 spoke on the historic house museum. Reber presented for the History Department’s annual Alumni Lecture, despite the fact that when he was at Gettysburg College, he was a Political Science major. As Dr. Shannon, chair of the History Department, said, Reber eventually saw the light. Reber spent the majority of his talk speaking on various historic house museums he has had experience with, including Mount Vernon, the White House, and Stratford Hall, where he is the current director. Stratford was the home of the Lee Family on the Northern Neck in Virginia and is one of the sites of the Civil War Institute’s Brian C. Pohanka Internship Program. Stratford has a particularly interesting history. When it was taken into the hands of the historic preservation community in the 1930s, the home closely resembled what it had been like when Robert E. Lee was born there. During this period, however, the structure was restored to its Colonial appearance. Reber and his staff are attempting to restore various rooms in the home to their appearance based on various periods of the Lee family ownership.

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