This special History News: Your Turn feature complements the article by Ron M. Potvin entitled “Washington Slept Here? Upsetting the Narrative Apple Cart at Historic Sites” which appears in the Summer 2011 edition of History News.
In 2009, a group of students at Brown University undertook a project to revitalize and reinterpret the Governor Stephen Hopkins House in Providence, focusing on the untold story of enslaved. In doing so, the class supplemented an oft-told “elite” narrative about a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a visit by George Washington with a narrative that focuses on a seeming paradox between Hopkins’ public sentiments about independence and freedom, and his private ownership of slaves.
While this article focuses mainly on the methodology of the project, it raises several questions of value to other historic sites. Can this sort of collaboration between a university and a house museum be a model for the reinterpretation of other sites? What are the challenges of working with an organization that is deeply entrenched in traditional stories and methods, and whose leaders and members are protective of a heroic legacy? When dealing with subject matter that is potentially controversial, who should be included as authoritative voices? Are there alternate methods and strategies of interpretation that can facilitate the telling of a highly complex story to a generally knowledgeable public?
- Patricia West, Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America’s House Museums (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999).
- James M. Lindgren, Preserving Historic New England: Preservation, Progressivism, and the Remaking of Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).
- Richard Handler & Eric Gable, The New History in An Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg (Duke University Press, 1997).
- Cary Carson, “Colonial Williamsburg and the Practice of Interpretive Planning in American History Museums,” The Public Historian, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Summer, 1998).
- James Horton & Lois Horton, Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (UNC Press, 2009).
- 1776 (Restored Director’s Cut) (1972)
About the Author:
Ron M. Potvin is Assistant Director & Curator of the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University. He co-authored “The Power and Predicament of Historic Sites” in the Spring 2010 History News.
It’s Your Turn
- Is the methodology used during this project easily reproducible by other house museums?
- Is attracting new audiences worth the risk of alienating existing audiences?
- What do you think about the concept of “informed speculation”? Is this a strategy that you would feel comfortable utilizing in the interpretation of your site? Can you cite an example of a situation in which the historical record about a crucial aspect of your site was incomplete? How do you present this incomplete information to your visitors?
- Do you think historic sites should provide definitive answers to complicated questions? Or do you think the role of historic sites, and other museums, is to provide information to visitors and allow them to draw their own conclusions?
- Should house museums be sites of activism? If this is the goal, does that shape or bias the message contained within the interpretation?