Thursday, June 27, 2013

Listening to the Stakeholder for the First Time

On April 28th CL organized a lunch and open forum on the grounds of the Hempstead House. Academics, board members, community leaders, Writers Block InK staff and students joined together with CL staff and project staff for an open ended discussion of the Hempstead House and Adam Jackson. Allegra Di Bonaventure began the discussion with highlights from her amazing book, For Adam’s Sake A Family Saga in Colonial New England. She told us how she was unexpectedly sucked into Adam’s story.

Ernie Hewett, CT State Representative and former Mayor of New London, picked up the discussion relating his own family connection to slavery and how it resonates with him today. He spoke of attending a family reunion of the family that freed his ancestor and gave him land that is in Ernie’s family to this day. For Representative Hewett slavery is neither abstract nor simple.

Others spoke of the complex nature of colonial slavery and the tenuous position of free African Americans in colonial America. Adam’s parents’ constant struggle to remain free is an important lens through which to view Adam’s life. Adam lived at the Hempstead house within the 100 year period of slavery before there is even the idea of Abolitionism, and over 200 years before the civil rights movement. The sheer scale of Connecticut slavery and length of its slow decline must also be understood.

Of course all history stories are complex, especially to those that dedicate their lives to interpreting and understanding history, but what will speak to the average visitor?

One of the Writers Block InK students then spoke to the group of his own experience getting to know Adam Jackson last summer. He told us how he first felt uncomfortable and even a little ashamed of slavery. Over the summer this remarkable young man came to be enthralled and creatively inspired by Adam’s plight. For many of us this teenager’s insight spoke volumes. It pointed out how important it would be both to tell this story and to create a safe comfortable learning experience. It also illustrates that families may come to the site with preconceived ideas about colonial slavery and what it means to them.

Many historical narratives provide an opportunity for 4th graders to image a foreign world that once was, but for African American kids the history of slavery could be intertwined with their self-image.   Most young visitors would not have the opportunity to get to know our characters over a summer. If we are to be successful in engaging the community, visiting the Hempstead House must be a positive experience for even our youngest visitors.  

Louisa Brouwer is a material culture scholar who has recently written a revised four-period furnishing plan for the Joshua Hempsted House in New London, Connecticut. She currently works at the Yale University Art Gallery as the Sack Archives Fellow in the department of American Decorative Arts.

Monday, June 24, 2013

A Place to Start, Possible Interpretative Techniques

How can a historic house successfully engage the community?

What kinds of exhibits, activities, media presentations – or unique interpretive techniques could be successful?

These are big questions with many possible outcomes. To begin to answer these questions, in the coming summer we will work closely with students to help determine what types of content speaks to them, the kind of interpretation that engages them (and their families), and finally how to share their own creative work based on the stories the Hempsted House has to offer. 

Initial thoughts on techniques that might work:

Based on my past museum experience, I can make an educated guess as to some of the stories at the Hempsted House that will appeal to a wide audience. The kitchen has a lot to offer. From the basic idea that there is no refrigeration, or even canning, to the massive foot print of a cooking hearth, a historic kitchen’s basic operation can engage the imagination of almost any visitor.  It also provides an opportunity for conversations around social roles that family groups can identify with like: this is how the Hempsted family would have organized the kitchen work, how do you organize the kitchen work within your family? From superstition to food science the Hempsted kitchen could be a great place to start.

Stories of class and station can be fascinating for visitors as well. From slavery to indentured servitude to free Africa Americans to the place of women, the colonial period has a very complex story to tell. What’s more the community is already getting to know the story of Adam Jackson, who spent 30 years enslaved in this house. It might be that we could look at other historic properties that have had success interpreting class and/or slavery for useful interpretive techniques. The Lower Eastside Tenement Museum’s kitchen conversations brought visitors together with an interpreter for active discussions- could this model work for teens and adults? Connor Prairie Interactive History Park used first person interpreters to engage in open ended conversations that often revolved around class and sometimes slavery. Visitors could direct what was basically a dramatic presentation – could this be a way for visitors to explore Adam’s story? Finally Connor Prairie’s very successful Follow the North Star program might be a model for exploring the harsh limits of what was possible in the 1730’s to 1760’s for Adam and his family. While these techniques rely on very well prepared interpreters, there might be ways to use interactive media, games or visitor feedback to promote the same kinds of social interactions between visitors.

It seems that teenagers – and at this point many adults – are never far from social media. Could the Writers Block InK students, our partners in this endeavor, help Connecticut Landmarks create the structure and content for social media intertwined with exhibits? How could that work? Would it provide a successful conversation between visitors around the stories of the Hempsted House?

For now there are many more questions than answers.

Robert Kiihne of RK Exhibits will be participating in the teen audience research this summer and will draft the exhibitions component of the interpretive plan in the fall.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Of Hearth and Home

Quick: what’s your favorite room in the house? If you’re like 30 percent of Americans, you probably responded: “the kitchen.” As it turns out, the average family spends nearly 175 hours per month in their kitchen (compared to only 31 hours in the living room).[1] This raises the question: what’s so special about the kitchen? And has it always been at the center of American domestic life?

Joshua Hempsted House | Image courtesy of Locations Hub
Kitchens from the colonial period to the present have served families in myriad ways, acting as integrated household work quarters, separate sanitized outbuildings, and – more recently – all-purpose living areas for the modern twenty-first-century family. Yet, the current fad for open plan kitchen-cum-living rooms is not novel: in fact, this arrangement harks back to the very earliest cooking spaces used in colonial America.

Throughout much of the seventeenth century, the kitchens of middle-class homes were integrated components of the ground-floor hall (or living area). By the early 1700s, however, many homeowners began building lean-to kitchens onto the rear of their houses, prompted by the need to distance fire hazards from centralized living spaces and the desire to remove the implied odors, rubbish, soot and smoke inherent in colonial food preparation.

How can we map this shift away from hearth and home? One approach is to read the buildings themselves. At the Joshua Hempsted House in New London, Connecticut, for instance, the kitchen slowly extended outward as the needs of the family changed. The house therefore presents a fascinating case study for the development (and disassociation) of the colonial kitchen.

The Joshua Hempsted House was built in 1678 by Joshua Hempsted I (1649–1687). In its earliest iteration, the building contained one room on each floor, including a ground-floor hall and an upstairs chamber. The hall was a large, multi-purpose family space used interchangeably for cooking, eating, entertaining and sleeping. By the time Joshua’s only son Joshua II (1678–1758) had moved into the family dwelling, however, the expectation for a separate, contained kitchen had taken hold.

Just when this change occurred remains a mystery. Despite a thorough architectural analysis of the building in the 1950s (when restoration work was completed), the question of when still plagues the addition of the lean-to kitchen. Conflicting records note the presence of a kitchen lean-to added by Joshua I sometime in the late 1600s, and a kitchen annex added in the year 1709. What is certain is that the house had a separate kitchen by the year 1711, when Joshua II began his now-famous diary, reprinted in 1901 as The Diary of Joshua Hempstead of New London, Connecticut (1711–1758).

In 1958, Frederic Palmer, the restoration architect, stated that there was a lean-to kitchen added to the hall in the 1600s. “Unique among surviving houses,” he wrote in the Connecticut Antiquarian, “is the Kitchen placed in the single story leanto behind the block of the two story building containing the Hall.”[2] In more detail, Palmer noted that structural analysis at the time of restoration had revealed the remains of a base cooking fireplace with its bake oven in the normal seventeenth-century location in the rear wall of the fireplace, along with the exterior wall of the kitchen lean-to.[3] Current thinking supports this suggestion, with the home’s present Site Manager and Municipal Historian for the City of New London, Sally Ryan, hypothesizing that the lean-to kitchen adjoining Joshua’s hall dates to the same period as the hall, due to the presence of a bake oven in both spaces – perhaps suggesting that the two openings and ovens were constructed at the same time.

While the exact development and age of the kitchen at Hempsted House remains uncertain, this case study illuminates the fascinating migration of the kitchen away from the hearth and into the extremities of the home – and highlights the vital need for careful, circumspect investigation of all available evidence.

[1] Marni Jameson, “The Kitchen as Command Center,” Hartford Courant, October 8, 2010. 

[2] Frederic Palmer, “Hempsted House in New London” (The Connecticut Antiquarian, July 1958), 32.  

[3] Frederic Palmer, “Report of the Structures Committee” (Vol. VIII, December 1956, No. 2), 9-10.

Louisa Brouwer is a material culture scholar who has recently written a revised four-period furnishing plan for the Joshua Hempsted House in New London, Connecticut. She currently works at the Yale University Art Gallery as the Sack Archives Fellow in the department of American Decorative Arts.