After spending the first two weeks of the Historic Deerfield Summer Fellowship Program immersed in material culture studies, we branched out into museum studies and education this week.
Our first museum visit to Old Greenfield Village in Greenfield, Massachusetts was a nearly indescribable experience. Waine Morse, a retired third grade teacher, collected enough Greenfield antiques that he was able to build a replica of 1895 Greenfield in his backyard complete with a general store, school, church, and various trade shops. Mr. Morse’s passion for his collection is inspiring and the stories that he tells about acquiring and arranging the objects show how emotionally invested he is in the project. However, we all walked away from the trip with mixed emotions. While inspired by Mr. Morse’s dedication, we were bothered by his uncritical and nostalgic view of the past. We were also concerned for the collection itself, which has begun to deteriorate. The trip to Old Greenfield Village was a helpful lesson showing the power, but also the limitations, of a singlehanded tribute to the past.
Later in the week when I began tour-guiding, I learned that it is much easier to be a critic than to actively construct something meaningful. I was assigned to guide in Frary House, which tells the story of C. Alice Baker and the Arts and Crafts movement which revitalized Deerfield in the 1890s. After trailing seasoned guides and reading everything that I could about the house, I gave my first two tours on Friday. Regular tour guides learn their house over a period of months. We were given three days. With this in mind, my tours went well. However, they were far from faultless. I spoke too quickly, forgot to discuss a few key pieces of furniture, and messed up some details. Surprisingly, my perfectionist nature was not too ruffled by these mistakes. I genuinely did the best that I could, and I know that I will improve with time and practice. Still, it was a beneficial reminder that no history museum or historian is perfect.
After being on the tour-guiding side of the museum experience, I reevaluated my encounter with Mr. Morse and Old Greenfield Village. Although I still think that his exhibits could use a little bit more critical analysis and that his conservation practices need to be updated, I am able to see his side a little more clearly. He loves his village and is doing the best that he can to share his idea of the past with the public. When critiquing others, I need to examine their reasons for interpreting history in the way that they do, and understand before passing judgment. This is something that I strive to do with sources from the past. I should give the same respect to others who are sharing their love for history with me.
(The map shows the layout of Waine Morse’s backyard museum, Old Greenfield Village.).