Telling real women's stories at historic sites

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I was pleased to see a feature in a recent NCPH email update informing readers that the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites had made recommendations for how to involve more women’s stories at American historic sites. The NCWHS joined the Secretary of the Interior in arguing that our parks and historic sites should “reflect the significance of women and girls being half of our U.S. population.” One of the ways to achieve this, NCWHS suggests, is to base interpretation on “specific details of work, economics, race and ethnicity, religion, class, sexuality, time, place and legal status.”

Historic Deerfield Open Hearth Cook with Herbs, Historic Deerfield, photo by Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism

Historic Deerfield Open Hearth Cook with Herbs, Historic Deerfield, photo by Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism

The NCWHS’ recommendations struck a chord with me. I have long been interested in the way women’s history is told at museums and historic sites and I have been exposed, as a visitor and as a researcher, to the different modes of interpretation historic sites use to tell the stories of women in the past. From what I have seen, though there are many historic sites that include women’s experiences in their interpretation, too often they do so with broad brushstrokes, choosing stereotypes and generalizations over the experiences of the actual women. It’s true that it can be difficult to find individual women who have enough presence in the historical record that their stories can be the basis for engaging interpretation, especially at sites that were originally preserved in honor of “great men.” Still, I have encountered sites that could tell remarkable stories about the women who were their former inhabitants but that have chosen a generic approach instead.

For example, one living history farm I visited recently was home to two sisters who took over the management of the farm for almost ten years after their father’s death. However, at the time of my visit the interpretation at the site was set in the decade before their takeover. Visitors have little chance to learn about the powerful roles these women assumed—or their devotion to the intriguingly named “cult of single blessedness”—unless they ask the right leading questions. Instead, the farm shows men and women inhabiting traditional gender roles: women perform domestic tasks in the home while visitors encounter men performing manual labor in the fields or the barns. Indeed, this particular site has come under scrutiny from others besides myself for its inflexible depiction of these “separate spheres” of labor. One way to fix this problem would be to focus on the stories of the women who lived on the farm rather than generic depictions of female domesticity.

I have encountered similar problems at historic sites that feature provocative, even feminist, interpretation. I visited a historic house a few years ago that held special tours about women’s sexuality and health during the Victorian era. The tour discussed everything from masturbation to abortion to anorexia, and the largely female tour group thoroughly enjoyed it. However, once again this interpretation was not specific in its content. It often relied on visitors’ pre-conceived notions of Victorian life and made generalizations about the horrors of Victorian dress and the repression of Victorian women’s sexuality. There was little hint that Victorian women could live autonomous, fulfilling lives, despite the fact that the site has real life examples in the form of two sisters who, like their counterparts at the living history farm, never married and went on to manage their father’s house after his death, finally donating it to the local historical society. Furthermore, the family employed an African-American domestic servant who is depicted in family photographs from the period; but though her story could provide a starting point for discussing race and class in Victorian America, she received only a passing mention on the several tours I joined.

As the NCWHS’ report suggests, representation of women at historic sites should be “grounded in specific details.” I see missed opportunities at the sites that I have visited over the years, sites that were once home to women who have little presence in the current interpretation. Of course, there are also many examples of organizations that tell “specific” women’s history, such as the Women’s Rights National Historic Park. There are women’s historic sites—like the Emily Dickinson Museum—where the primary aim has always been to tell the life story of a real woman from the past. I have personally been impressed with the James J. Hill House: though like many historic sites it was established to preserve the memory of a wealthy white man, the site has built some of its interpretation on the papers and oral histories left behind by servants. The site’s popular Christmas tour depicts mostly female servants who once worked for the family and their stories of life in domestic service make for an engaging program that illustrates some of the diversity of women’s experience in the nineteenth century.

Still, there is much work to be done, particularly at historic sites that were not initially intended to tell women’s stories. It seems about time for the NCWHS to remind us that the most intriguing, meaningful, and indeed important stories one can tell at a historic site are the stories of actual people. By telling the stories of real, complicated, contradictory individuals, historic sites can give visitors an understanding of the richness and diversity of life in the past and thus combat the generalizations and stereotypes that form the crux of too many historical interpretations and that serve to reinforce present-day sexism, racism, and other forms of bigotry.

Molly Brookfield received an MA in Cultural Heritage Studies at University College London and works at The Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust & Genocide.
  1. Manon Parry, University of Amsterdam says:

    Interesting post – thanks for sharing the recommendations. Is there NCWHS interested in opening up an international dialogue on this topic? I am participating in a series of discussions about gender and the museum in the Netherlands over the next few months – perhaps we can include some of these ideas in our conversations and report back on our discussions here?

    1. Marla Miller says:

      As a board member of NCWHS I’m very much intrigued by your post, and proposal to launch an international dialogue; I’d love to learn/talk more. Have you connected via the NCWHS Facebook page yet?

  2. I think that part of the problem is that many sites base their interpretation on research that was done years ago, and it’s tough to find the time to go through the process of sifting through the information to find the untold stories. But it’s definitely a worthwhile pursuit, and one I hope to pursue at my own museum.

    1. That is certainly an issue. I’ve spoken to site supervisors in the past who have vague inklings of stories they could tell but do not have the resources nor the staffing hours they need to research, write, and implement new interpretation. A perennial problem at any number of cultural institutions.

  3. Molly, thank you for this terrific post.
    I’m currently doing a project with a historical society that will be telling – via exhibition and documentary – the long-ignored story of an African American YWCA that was housed from 1920-1965 in the historic house. Currently the interpretation of the house is of the white male family who owned it (one of the founders of the town, etc) but the story of how the women of the YWCA worked together – at times with difficulty with the wealthy white women – to promote education, equality, and cultural pride in a town under “veiled” segregation is finally going to be told. This is a story with national themes which we’ll be bringing out, including how the YWCA was an incubator of sorts for these women and how it helped nuture local involvement in the civil rights movement. So there is at least one other place that is working on telling the women’s stories, ironically in a house that once belonged to a women’s group.

  4. This is a great post. It speaks to a recent story I researched and wrote for a nature magazine in the San Francisco Bay Area. My story is about a world renowned ceramic artist, Marguerite Wildenhain, who was the first woman to study at the Bauhaus in Germany. As a Jewish woman, she fled Europe during WWII for the U.S. She ended up spending 40+ years of her life living and working in what became a California state park north of San Francisco near Guerneville and the Russian River. The iconic work studio she built here from a 19th century barn and her home have been disintegrating since her death in 1985. Now a new national effort hopes to revive this important historic site and engage the public before it is lost for good. If you are interested, the back story and link to the full article are here:

    1. Marjan Groot says:

      Dear Christine

      Thank you for this post! I wrote about Marguerite Friedlander in my book on Women designers in the Netherlands between 1880-1940 (in Dutch, I’m afraid). She lived and worked in the Netherlands for a short period,

      I’am very pleased to see where she worked and lived in the US. What a beautiful spot it is. I have never been there but knew about her farm.

      It certainly is worth every effort to preserve it!

      Marjan Groot
      University of Leiden
      The Netherlands.

  5. Thank you for the tips on what look like some very interesting projects. I hope to be able to visit these sites soon!

  6. Molly,

    Great piece! I referenced it in my post for the AASLH Education & Interpreters Blog. Really, really like it.

    -Rebecca Price

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