Friday, July 5, 2013

The Writers’ Block students first impressions of the Hempsted House

[Note:  As part of our interpretive planning process, the planning team is working with a group of young students from The Writers’ Block, to learn more about their impressions about museums and how they would prefer to experience them.  On July 30 they will be presenting the stories of the house with the public during an open house, the details of which will follow in an additional blog post.] 

The students gathered at the house for the first time on June 25th. Many knew very little about the House, so this was our opportunity to hear their preconceptions. From the beginning they understood that the House is very old, but they had no idea how old. Anywhere from 1640 to 1850 would have made sense to them. Some had heard that the House was haunted and some knew that a slave had lived there.

We asked the students about their past museum experiences. In retrospect this was a trick question since many did not think of a historic house as a museum. In fact the students’ answers suggest that they do see historic houses in a different category. While the kids had gone to science museums and art museums, they also gave examples of monuments – the Statue of Liberty and Lincoln Memorial.
The kids are right.

Many historic houses are presented as monuments and not museums.  How often have you been to a historic house interpreted through:
  • Discussions of the architecture
  • Lists of who lived here when
  • What they might have done in each room
  • How the house’s occupants would have used this antique candle holder that the curator bought last year
Often what is lacking is a broader context: community, moment in history, theme – the basic building blocks of a museum exhibition.

As the students explored the Hempsted House, they enjoyed playing- “what is that?” and, “Can you uncover the story of this house?” Then it was time to give  them some historical context. It was 11:30 in the morning, 92 degrees and humid outside. We told them the basic history of the house, who lived here and when.  We tried to add a little variety into the program with a timeline activity. I brought a bright red 8’ by 1’ board on a stand with a lot of stickers and asked the kids for help. They could put what every dates they wanted between 1630 and 2013. We helped identify dates of major events the kids brought up. My hope had been that the kids might see this as theirs. They might put their own birthday or 9/11 or some anything that had meaning in their lives. It was not to be. While they participated, the students, from 11 to 17, did not include any dates with personal meaning. I then realized that, for them, so far, this was school without air-conditioning.

Many of the kids did start to participate in a discussion, or at least ask some questions when it came time to talk about Colonial slavery. The story is complex and different from place to place. Many students and Writers Block staff had made assumptions like – there must have been a number of slaves at this house, they would have lived outside of the main house, the slaves would have eaten different food. While none of these are true at the Hempsted property, they might have been true right down the road in 1730.

So what is the difference between the life of the Hempsted family and the life of Adam Jackson? To me (a father of two in his mid 40’s) it is family. Joshua Hempsted does everything he can to provide for his children, while denying Adam Jackson even the hope of family. Even if Adam could have children, his offspring would be born into bondage. We know that in the coming weeks the students and Writers Block staff will pull apart slavery, and there are many directions they can choose to explore. My hope is that at some point this will no longer feel like school.   

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.

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