The plan was simple- take my Winter Break from school and visit some of the Historic Homes/Museums that are in the area to use for my case study. I much prefer writing from actual experience instead of strictly research, so I was excited to hit up as many places as possible. The plan didn't go exactly as, well, planned. For one thing, a surprising number of museums are not open in the winter. Why? No idea. It seems like indoor museums wouldn't have a season, but apparently they do. Some that are open are only open for larger tours (think school groups), which I didn't exactly meet the requirements for. You would think that over a school break you'd open up your hours a bit and try and get those families in who are looking for stuff to do, but maybe that's just me At any rate my list of homes to visit quickly dwindled to 3, The Jocelyn Gage Foundation, The Seward House and The Harriet Tubman House. So I set a schedule and got to visiting. What I found was an interesting mix of ways to present a historic home, some things that made me cringe, and I ended up learning a lot about some people I was pretty sure I already knew about.
Jocelyn Gage Foundation
This was the first home I visited. To be honest I had never heard of either Gage or this museum until this class. The students taking the class on campus went on a field trip to the museum and I was happy to find out that the museum was open over break so I could visit.
The Person: Matilda Jocelyn Gage
As noted above, I had never heard of Gage prior to this class. Or, if I have, she had been buried underneath more well-known women of the suffrage movement. My visit to the house started with a video that my class had also watched when they visited. I'm grateful that they were willing to show it to me because I gained a lot of information about Gage really quickly by watching the video. It was interesting to learn that Gage was considered too radical for other activists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who Gage believed made too many consolations. Many were willing to made deals and work with other groups in order to get the vote, whereas Gage really felt like if you compromise your values to get to your goal, you've lost sight of what you are really fighting for.
Gage was also L. Frank Baum's mother in law and there was some information about how she may have inspired Dorothy, if not the actual character, at least the traits she shows, including charging forward to do what she believes is right.
Gage also had close ties to the Haudenosaunee community and really learned a great deal about matriarchal societies and gender balance through that relationships. She was adopted by the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk.
Over all I was left with the impression that Gage was really a visionary of her time who has been lost to history a bit. I thought that a lot of the things she believed in and was fighting for remain rather relevant given the current climate The idea that the struggle is ongoing, that people have to remain firm, be brave and be honest felt like something that you would hear today.
The house itself is rather unassuming, but once inside you are really treated to a well-rounded look at Gage's life and work. The exhibits in the house are divided up into the different rooms and show the different aspects of both her life and her work. What really struck me about this museum was that you were really encouraged to experience the home. Sit on the furniture, try on the clothing, play the piano. It was actually a little unsettling at first because its the opposite of what you usually hear at a museum. I was told to grab a seat to watch the movie and I looked around for minute before pulling out a chair because the room was full of antique furniture. It felt a little bit like I was breaking some unwritten rule of all museums. It didn't take long to get the idea though, this home is meant to feel inviting, all are welcome and you are a guest and not just a visitor. I liked that.
There are multiple rooms that you can visit, each giving a little taste of how it pertained to Gage's life. There are the Haudenosaunee Room, Women's Rights room, Underground Railroad Room, Family Parlor/Oz Room, Local History Room and Religious Freedom Room. I did find that some of the rooms felt a little sparse, while others were bursting with information and artifacts. Some of it also felt a little disjointed. For instance, the Oz Room is full of family memorabilia and feels like a lived in room. By contrast, the Underground Railroad room felt very "done up". There is a mural on the ceiling and a floor covering that has seen better days. To walk from one room to the next felt a little jarring.
This that made me cringe- but you probably didn't even notice:
I also walked away thinking about how a visitors bias or experiences also shape how they see a museum or it's exhibits. For me a huge takeaway, that probably wouldn't even be a blip on most people's radar was the clothing that was out. I worked as a costumer for years, mostly researching and designing historically accurate clothing. The company I worked for also amassed a pretty impressing collection of period clothing and you have to take care of it really well to keep the quality from degrading. When I saw Gage's dress on the dress form sitting in the window (in direct sun!!!) I cringed. Looking at the fabric the sun damage was impressive, with the arm closer to the window several shades lighter then the other. I kind of wanted to pick the dress form up and tuck it in a nice shadowy corner.
This was in incredibly interesting house to visit because it gave a sense that the people who work there and who have worked on the house really love Gage and want to see her and her work remembered. It will be interesting to keep up with this museum (I put myself on the mailing list) to see what improvements or changes they make in the future.
This was the second house I went to visit and it was the one I was most excited to see. I can remember visiting when I was in 5th grade (and getting in trouble for touching the furniture) and Seward has long been one of my favorite guys in history. He seems to be someone who was right in the middle of a lot of stuff, but wasn't ever really one of the big names. Plus he bought Alaska, something that was ridiculed at the time (Seward's Folly anyone?) but turned out to be a pretty good deal in the end. It was pretty disappointing then when I walked up to the door only to be turned away. Apparently they are only open for large groups in February and me, myself and the other 2 people who walked up hoping to visit didn't qualify. So I didn't get to see the inside of the house this time. Maybe over next break we'll make another go of it. Although, the guy who answered the door wasn't really all that friendly, so maybe I'll just spend my time and money elsewhere.
Final thoughts? Beautiful house though!
Harriet Tubman Home
A little gun shy from the Seward House I decided to call over the Tubman Home just to make sure they were actually open. Luckily for me they were not only open, they had exrta tours going out and one was at 2:00- so I had enough time to get over there, scrounge up change to pay for the tour and have a chance to look at the exhibits before the tour began.
This museum surprised me the most. I can't remember if I had ever visited before, it seems like growing up in Marcellus I must have, but it didn't look familiar at all to me. So it was really interesting to see the museum for the first time.
The Person: Harriet Tubman
I think that almost everyone has an idea of who Harriet Tubman is. I have a degree in history, focusing on Early American history. I teach a project about slavery every year in collaboration with my ELA department. While I'm by no means an expert, I did walk in feeling like I had a better then average knowledge of Harriet Tubman and her life. I was wrong. There was so much information to gain at this museum that I'm sure I missed something, or several somethings.
Probably the most interesting thing I learned about Tubman was that she went to Beaufort, SC to assist in the Union Cause. She served as a nurse, scout, cook and spy. In 1863 she became the first woman to command a military raid when she led Col. Montgomery and his 2nd South Carolina Colored Regiment across the Combahee River. During that mission they destroyed stockpiles of cotton, food and weapons and liberated somewhere around 750 slaves. During this time she also established a laundry service and used that to mentor newly freed slaves to give them a marketable skill.
Now the Historian in me is immediately skeptical of any new information. How did I not know this? I must research! And I will. I'm a little afraid of falling into the black hole that is research, so I'm going to hold on to this story for a bit until I have the time to really delve deep. needless to say, this visit peaked my interest in Tubman and I have a feeling I'll be reading up a lot more about her and her life.
The museum is divided into several areas. The visitor center is full of full panels about Tubman's life and the various things she accomplished, only one part being her work on the Underground Railroad. What I found impressive was the duel timeline that filled one entire wall. On top was a timeline of the United States and on the bottom was a time line of Tubman's life. I really liked that you could find relationships and parallels by looking at the two timelines side by side.
The tour of the property also begins in the Visitor center and it was here that I was reminded how important a good tour guide is. The guide (whose name I didn't write down, but really should have) was amazing. his job was to take us through the Tubman timeline before handing us off to a colleague for the tour of the property. he was incredibly engaging and treated the presentation as a performance. There were a few kids in the audience and he made sure to talk to them as well. On top of being a good performer, he also knew his information backwards and forwards. It was about a 15 minute presentation and I walked away feeling like I not only learned a lot, but had a good time doing it.
From there we were taken to the historic house. In the Visitor Center you are allowed to take as many pictures as you want, but the family has asked that no pictures be taken in the house, which (for the most part) everyone complied with. Karma got the one person who tried to sneak a picture, because her flash went off and she ended up with a very blurry shot as she rushed to put the phone away. Only the main floor of the house is open and you get a very good idea of what the house looked like as you go through the living room, kitchen and dining room. Here again the tour guide was great, telling us stories not only about Tubman, but also about her family and the people who stayed with her. This guide also did one of the most important things a guide can do.... she admitted when she didn't know something. When someone asked about whether or not the stonework on an outbuilding was original she looked at it and said "You know, I have no idea, but that is a great question, I"m going to have to ask about that." I think there is sometimes a pressure to be all knowing, but I find it much more refreshing when the people who work at museums are also still learning.
The last building is the brick house that Tubman lived in. It's currently being renovated, so it's not open, but we were encouraged to brave the mussy lawn and walk over to check it out from the outside. I spent a few minutes checking out not only the house, but the restored barn as well. I'm a farm kid- I love old barns, so seeing this one restored was pretty cool. You could almost imagine what it would have been like to live there.
Things I Noticed...that you probably did not:
There were several pictures in the Old house that showed what it looked like at it's worst (during WWII when abandoned houses were often stripped of anything worth anything) and now that it's restored. The pictures were held up by book display holders like we use in libraries. They were upside down. This means absolutely nothing to 90% of the world and the pictures were still right-side up and able to be seen just fine. Still, I had to resist the urge to fix it.
I loved this museum. I thought it was the right balance of tradition exhibits in the Visitor Center and the ability to go out and experience the homes. For personal reasons I wish you were allowed to take pictures in the home, but I completely get why they restrict it. I'm really excited to see how the brick house comes along and I look forward to visiting again!
Final Final Thoughts:
So now that I've been to at least a few historic homes what is my takeaway? Or as Professor Oakleaf used to tell me on every project ever, "So what?" Well, even though it was only 2 homes, I absolutely got some varying looks at how historic homes can be run. The Gage Home was very interactive, allowing visitors to make themselves at home while they learned. The Tubman Home took a more traditional path with exhibits in the Visitor Center and guided tours of the house. So which is better? Probably neither. Personally I think there is a happy medium somewhere in there. I wish the Gage home had more exhibits like the Tubman Home as opposed to the laminated information sheets that lines the walls of the Gage Home. In the same vein, I wish there was a little more opportunity to really interact with the Tubman Home, similar to how you were really invited to use the furniture in the Gage Home. I think there is a really delicate balance there as you want people to get to experience things without causing damage to the things on exhibit. Both homes definitely gave me a lot of food for thought as I move forward with this degree and begin to think about what kind of experiences do I like to have and what kinds of experiences do I want visitors to have.
This page is my home for all my studies. Initially started when I was a graduate student at Syracuse University in Library & Information Science:School Media, it has seen me through that degree plus a CAS in Cultural Heritage Preservation.
Starting in the Fall of 2018 I will use it for my newest endeavor, a certificate in Native American Studies at Montana State University.
On occasion I will also post interesting articles or my thoughts on things related to my job as a Middle School Librarian in an Expeditionary Learning School.