Rethinking the Role
Why not a museum where everyone
See reader comments at end of this
Citizens, it is time to rethink Strawbery Banke Museum and make it our
own. In 40 years, Portsmouth’s premier historic destination point still
hasn’t figured itself out. It remains a museum in search of a truly
important reason for being. Yes, we preserved some amazing old houses.
Yes, there are wonderful events like the Candlelight Stroll and intriguing
artifacts and programs. But millions of dollars and scores of talented
leaders and staff members later, this museum of great potential still
awaits a compelling purpose, a raison d’ętre, a marketing hook, a
quintessence, a soul. I’ve lived and worked in downtown Portsmouth for 30
years, peeking over the museum wall, wandering among the buildings,
waiting for the true identity of Strawbery Banke to hit me on the
Now I know what that might be. I stole this idea from a former Strawbery Banke employee, who prefers to remain unnamed. We talked recently for three hours and I came away shivering with anticipation. Now with museum executive director Kathleen Mullins moving on to another job, and with the search for yet another museum leader ongoing, it is high time to talk out loud. We can reinvent the history wheel again, do more costly self-analysis, shuffle the staff around – or we can boldly go where no New England museum has gone before. There is no crisis here, just an opportunity.
Strawbery Banke is the ideal campus for a history "exploratorium". In short, an exploratorium is a place where people come to learn, not about others, but about themselves. If this were a science museum, for example, visitors would discover principles of physics or biology by learning how their own body works. People learn, as good teachers know, almost entirely by personal experience and hardly at all by being lectured at. If it isn’t relevant – ask any teenager – it isn’t real. The exploratorium approach allows visitors to connect our stories and their stories to national patterns – and thus to see themselves as active participants in American history. We used to call that "citizenship". People who are involved in their own nation, are also better citizens of the world.
So when we tell visitors stories about Portsmouth immigrants, why not ask – How did your family arrive in America? When we show them our old houses, we need to wonder aloud – What is the story of your house? A visit to Widow Wheelwright’s house, for example, may lead to an exploration of death and wills and inheritance. Strawbery Banke artifacts can spark investigations into other heirlooms. Were your ancestors ever affected by bad weather, by taxation, by murder, by disease, by laws, by inventions, by war? Well funny thing -- so were ours.
Portsmouth history then becomes, not the core curriculum, but the touchstone to each visitor’s personal history. Our job is to provide the context. Their job is to bring the content. I did it for years as a teacher of high school writing. It requires a different mindset than simply telling the facts, but it works. People get involved. People come back for more. Through special "experiential" exhibits visitors can dig into the basics of family genealogy, learn to record the oral history of a parent or grandparent, learn to surf the Internet, get tips on research, discover their home historical society, measure their lives against key historic events, maybe even phone home for family stories.
The problem with Strawbery Banke today is the problem with Seacoast history in general – it’s fuzzy. I say "Salem" and you say – witches. I say "Plymouth", and you say – rock, or maybe – pilgrim. There were no real witches in Salem, Massachusetts, nor did the Pilgrims land against that famous rock, but you instantly know what I’m talking about. You get a picture in your head. Not so with "Piscataqua". We believe what our eyes tell us first.
The name Strawbery Banke itself, with its affected "ye olde" spelling conjures up a pretty 17th century village. But the strawberries and original structures are gone, as are the tall trees that attracted European investors. What we see is an often-confusing cluster of about 30 houses from different eras saved from urban renewal in an area of town once called Puddledock. But the puddle is gone too, filled-in a century ago. Gone is the hardknuckle port with its wooden ships and rows of piers, the Victorian red light district that ran up Marcy Street and the rough and tumble neighborhood of the Puddledockers.
Sturbridge Village, a popular theme park, is really a village, with a bank and stores and a cute little church. It is not a real place like Strawbery Banke, but it sure feels real to a 10-year old. The same goes for the Plimouth Plantation and Jamestown and, for parts of Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, Heritage Village up north, parts of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, for Fortress Louisbourg, Nova Scotia and any number of reconstructed historic villages. We’ve been saying for decades that the many houses in our village are "real" while the other villages are fake. That’s true enough, and something to be proud of. But authentic is not a synonym for interesting.
To be painfully honest, with the possible exception of orator Daniel Webster and a few Revolutionary War patriots, nobody truly famous ever lived near old Strawbery Banke. Webster’s house is not even open to the public. Stoodley’s and the William Pitt Tavern and the Thomas Bailey Aldrich house are brimful of rollicking tales, if we dare let them out of the bottle. But no important battle was fought here. Besides the dynamiting of Henderson’s Point in 1905, nothing earthshaking ever took place. These are the very well preserved homes of ordinary people – people like you and me.
Therein lies the secret to the museum’s potential success as an exploratorium. Our many preserved houses offer what historians call "a strong sense of place". They look old. They smell old. With its quiet narrow roads, historic gardens, outbuildings, ancient memories, strolling re-enactors and educational exhibits, the museum vibrates with an authentic sense of the past. But that’s only half of what this place can be. All that might be just the backdrop, the setting, the context inside which we can invite visitors to explore their own dramatic heritage. In doing so, we have then saved these buildings, not because they are old, but because they are relevant and alive. In doing so, we simplify the mission of the museum and recapture its soul.
Former Strawbery Banke director Denny O’Toole once asked a few of us "outsiders" to talk to the museum board of directors in what turned out to be a lively forum. Rev. Hilson of New Hope Baptist Church asked board members point blank, why a black family would want to tour the museum. Roy Rogison of Theatre-by-the-Sea said he’d like to see more of the Seacoast’s talented actors bringing the campus to life. I remember saying, "You’ve done a great job building a beautiful stage, but when does the show start?"
I think I missed the boat back then. I think we are all underestimating the quintessential importance and power of Strawbery Banke. Currently the mission of the museum is to tell the history of the Puddledock neighborhood through the last four centuries. What if that is only a jumping-off point? What if our mission, as a museum and a town, is to retell the history of America from New Hampshire’s unique perspective? What if Strawbery Banke is where the whole country can explore the meaning of history itself?
Change comes slowly to historic houses. They represent the past, after all. But the past is not immutable. It changes with us. Many of the facts told about our history during the Colonial Revival a century ago, we now know as legends. Scholars debunk old truths. Archaeologists unearth new facts. History is too often represented as the stiff white skeleton of dates and names, when it is just as much about blood and muscle and gray matter. Its as much about small events as great and as much about today as yesterday. You don’t have to go to Mount Vernon to understand George Washington. Come to Portsmouth and see how our citizens reacted to his visit. Oh, and has anyone in your family met a president? Can you tell us more?
As placid as it seems today, Strawbery Banke was born out of heartache and destruction. Harsh choices were made. While 30 buildings were saved, hundreds were lost here, as in the flattened North End. Whole families were displaced and a lively neighborhood went silent. The original design plans, still in the museum archives, show a very different vision. It’s one hell of a story – a story we can trade with our visitors for a piece of their past.
So how was your town settled? Where did it get that funny name? Did you know our city burned three times? Yes, Portsmouth had enslaved people too. Your uncle was a sailor? In this model, museum guides become more like coaches, reference librarians and story tellers. They don’t know all the answers, but they know where to look. Visitors depart knowing more about themselves than when they arrived.
Beneath the surface an exploratorium is complex. On the surface, it is powerfully simple. Gloucester spells fish. Woodstock spells music. Lowell spells factory, Portsmouth spells history.
It really could work. The infrastructure is in place. But it won’t work without a lot of money, endless volunteer hours, inspiring leaders and a committed, visionary board of directors. Citizens of the Seacoast, new and longstanding, have to buy into the concept that Strawbery Banke is "our" museum, not a bunch of old houses behind a fence. Those old buildings, when they come alive, I believe, can change the way we see America one visitor at a time.
OUR READERS RESPOND:
I was a Historic Interpreter at Strawbery Banke Museum for about three years, and I know myself, as much as I loved the history of that particular 10-acre site, as well as the individual histories of the houses, talking about them became monotonous. We as interpreters weren't trained to be interactive with the visitors, and have in-depth conversations about everyday life, with them. Sometimes, we had time to have more than a few words with interested visitors, but not as a general rule.
I know you know that as non-profit organization, Strawbery Banke Museum will have to get a great deal of grant money, donations, et cetera, to make the Exploratorium work. I hope I see it come about in my lifetime, because it will be a more rewarding experience for visitors of all stripes, as well as for the staff.
One point I want to make very clear is that there were some and probably are still, some fine interpreters on the grounds of Strawbery Banke, who had an engaging manner with our many visitors, and they did a great job of making the history of the site, relatable and fun.
One of the biggest obstacles I see for making such a dream come true is the flow of traffic through these houses, many of which have narrow hallways and stairwells. Closing a house and having a tour with a set amount of visitors will work, up to a point, but you will have some, or many disgruntled, visitors who just want to breeze in and out of the exhibit and will be put off by the closed door. Bottom line is I think the concept of staff interacting with visitors is necessary and profitable on more than one level.
Thanks for bringing it to the forefront.
EXPLORATORIUM BY THE
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