Monday, April 27, 2009

On Becoming a Docent...

I recently took the last step to become a volunteer docent at the Rosenbach Museum and Library here in Philadelphia. For years now, I've been visiting historic houses, and thinking snide thoughts about those terrible docents (none of which you'll find at the Rosenbach, BTW). The docent who told Seth and I at Monticello that there were no special passageways, doors, or "servant" spaces built into the house, the docent who goes on and on about rope beds and the origins of "Sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite," the docents who insist that we all think back to that simpler time in the past--all the times I wanted to break away from the drone and explore the house on my own.

Now I'm one of them. Despite all my academic training and deep knowledge that the past was, and is, never simple, I think the mode of the house museum tour is hard to break (see Linda Norris's excellent "What Makes Historic House Tours So Boring"). I found myself, on my test-tour, slipping into "this painting was painted by a famous and important painter," which of course reflects no critical reflection on what made Thomas Sully a sought-after portraitist in his day or what makes him interesting today...and what the heck counts as "important?" Thankfully, the education coordinator at the Rosenbach pointed out when I was stuck in the meaningless "way-back-machine" mode of the historic house tourguide.

I think I finally felt the "trap" of the tourguide in Henry James's "The Birthplace." I suddenly have new sympathy for the long-time live-in guide at the Poe House (before it came to the NPS) that told people in a hushed voice, quite incorrectly, that, "This is the doorknob [added in 1920, long after his residency] that Edgar Allen Poe touched." Perhaps she couldn't help herself?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Dunbar House and Ephrata Cloisters in Trouble

The Paul Laurence Dunbar house, which was closed recently because of budget shortages (the state of Ohio cut its funding), is slated to reopen thanks to help from the Ohio State Historical Society.

I worry that many literary sites will be facing similar cuts in the coming months. Pennsylvania is considering closing a number of its historic sites to save money, including the Joseph Priestly house and the Ephrata Cloisters, one of my favorite state historic sites.