TeachingPublicHistory Revisiting Historic House Museums: Research Agendas and Teaching Strategies

AHA Session 14
Thursday, January 5, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Room 607 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
Steven Conn, Miami University
Steven Conn, Miami University

Session Abstract

Historic House Museums are not the usual places historians consider when looking for new scholarly directions. Because the sites are local, historians often assume that the collections and the historical issues they expose are too.  The panelists in this session have discovered quite the opposite. Old houses can be great sites for historical inquiry in part becausethey are local.  Discovering big themes in seemingly small places stretches scholarship in profound ways.

Our panel will consider three quite different museums, all on the National Register of Historic Places.  The General Artemas Ward House Museum, an 18thcentury farmhouse in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, was given to Harvard University in 1925. In recent years it has stimulated dozens of research projects including studies of mummies found in Kentucky salt caves, advertising in the early New York subway system, and Ponca lands in present-day Nebraska. Although imagined by its donor as a “patriotic” museum, it in fact challenges simplistic narratives in American politics. Ivan Gaskell’s paper will show how exploration of a single object from a house enlivened a course at Bard Graduate Center using art works and artifacts to understand the American Civil War.

Because the Ward House is owned by a university, it is open to research and teaching in ways that the other two houses explored in this panel are not. Although there are plenty of skeletons in its closet, its history today is also less fraught.  The Chief Vann Historic Site, now part of the Georgia State Parks system, encompasses a portion of the original plantation grounds claimed in the 1790s by the Cherokee leader and slaveholder James Vann. The plantation home remained in the Vann family until Cherokee Removal and fell into disrepair by the early twentieth century when local citizens and the newly formed Georgia Historical Commission purchased and restored it. Today, the home and grounds are maintained as a state historic site. When Tiya Miles took a tour in the ‘90s, there was no mention of African Americans or slavery in the tour narrative.  That visit not only stimulated her own research and writing, but led to a long-term public history project engaging committed park rangers at the site as well as her own students at the University of Michigan.

The Beehive House on South Temple Street in Salt Lake City, Utah, was once the official residence of Mormon prophet, territorial governor, and well-known polygamist Brigham Young.  Today, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offers free tours through its missionary department.  Unless tourists ask, guides ignore polygamy. Nor is that topic mentioned at the dormitory-like Lion House, just down the street, which was known in the 19thcentury as “Brigham Young’s Harem.”  Laurel Ulrich’s paper will build on her research in diaries kept by polygamist wives and on interviews with Latter-day Saint historians, tour guides, and visitors.

            We believe our panel will interest a wide range of scholars as well as museum professionals and specialists in public history.

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