Washington Slept Here? Upsetting the Narrative Apple Cart at Historic Sites

Washington Slept HereThis 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.

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Ron M. Potvin

Ron M. Potvin

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?

Additional Resources

  • 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?

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  1. Amy Karwoski 25. Sep, 2011 at 11:18 pm #

    Historical house museums should definitely be sites of activism, although all homes may not lend themselves to such an interpretation. A visit to someone’s home can be an intensely personal experience. A visit to a historic house museum holds the power to invoke similar feelings of intimacy and privilege associated with a historical person, period or event. The resulting impression of familiarity can be used as a powerful tool in the development of understanding and empathy necessary to inspire constructive discussions about social and political issues. While the goals of ‘activist’ house museums are different then those which choose to focus on other areas, their approach to interpreting history should be the same: to provide visitors with an engaging and factually sound narrative while displaying transparency in the areas where the facts are unclear. A good interpretation should always be a call to action, regardless of whether its goal is to inspire young students to take interest in history or to add to the debate on a civil rights issue.

  2. Katharine Mead 26. Sep, 2011 at 10:18 am #

    The pages of a ledger, for example, are not immediately gripping columns of numbers. A historian instantly sees a document and begins corroborating, pinning the handwriting and paper condition and words to a point in time and calling upon previous knowledge to complete the picture. All history is constructed interpretation on some level, and informed speculation is necessary to add context and meaning. This speculation, however, requires diligent sourcing that remains transparent to the public. There should be no shame or loss of prized authority in admitting that a slave, an undoubtedly complex and whole person, may only be found on one year’s census. Public historians can take their audiences on this journey of historical discovery and speculation with them, provoking comparison to how we live our lives and what may or may not be left behind.

    As for the question of activism, The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, CT provides an encouraging example. Although few people read the once-ubiquitous Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe’s activism and legacy are still relevant. The museum’s slogan “Her words changed the world. What will you do?” emphasizes their ongoing efforts to provoke discussion and challenge inequality head-on. Their salons tackle controversial topics like animal right, health care, and the prison system, while encouraging a diverse audience of local visitors to return to the Center for these events. Granted, not all historic homes are connected to a figure whose opinions and legacy can be clearly defined and agreeable with today’s call to action. The model of discussion-based events and a continuing relevance is nevertheless important to the discussion of activist interpretation.

  3. Ron Potvin 07. Oct, 2011 at 3:14 pm #

    Amy and Katharine, thank you for your comments. You raise some very interesting points. It’s relatively easy for the home of, say, a civil rights leader, to serve as a site of activism, but what about the homes of people for whom public activism is not part of–or an obvious part of–the historical record? You are correct that good interpretation should inspire and even change people. The trouble is, good interpretation can sometimes be hard to find.

    Essentially, what I am suggesting is that historic house museums think of themselves first as former homes and to reorient their concept of what constitutes activism. Homes are places of activism in many small ways, and we could even argue that all activism begins in a home. Phrased in the form of a syllogism, it would look like this:

    All homes are places of activism. All historic house museums were once homes. Therefore all historic house museums should be places of activism.

    The idea of “Informed Speculation” should be an an ongoing source of discussion. What do we do, for instance, when facts are virtually non-existent, in large part because of the gender, economic, or social standing of an individual? How much “informed speculation” is too much? Should we let the fact that we don’t know the story become the story, or do we construct a story from available primary and secondary sources and evidence?

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