Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Tag: history museums

Art and Museums, Teachers of Empathy: Reflections on the Life, Work, and Historic Homes of Eugene O’Neill

In what little spare time I have as a graduate student here at Tufts, I love reading plays. I’ve been hooked on this particular art form since I was ten years old, when my mom — an English major at the same university where I would end up minoring in the subject as an undergrad — introduced her three young daughters to the work of a certain playwright named William Shakespeare. The study in high school English class of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, as well as the chance in a college Shakespeare course to fulfill a childhood dream and perform a soliloquy from Hamlet, cemented my fascination with plays, and ever since I have done my best to read and attend them whenever the chance presents itself.

Eugene O’Neill as a child. His painful boyhood years would provide inspiration for much of his work.

Most recently, my sister — a devoted modern drama enthusiast — and I have been combing through the works of twentieth-century playwright Eugene O’Neill. Immediately upon finishing his autobiographical play Long Day’s Journey Into Night, I knew I had found a new favorite. It’s rare to read something so heartbreakingly honest, so introspective, so self-aware. When Edmund — the sickly, disillusioned young man representing the playwright — mourns that he “can never belong” and “must always be a little in love with death,” readers and viewers feel profoundly the extent of O’Neill’s mental agony. And as a longtime admirer of anything that deals openly with family dynamics and intergenerational trauma — it’s one of the reasons I love history — I was stunned by the empathy that O’Neill demonstrates in Long Day’s Journey for his immensely troubled and hurting mother, father, and older brother, even as he wove a story of the unspeakable pain all four wielded against each other.

This, I believe, is the true power of plays — of art, of history, of anything that makes the brutally honest revelation of human nature its goal — it helps us to understand ourselves, those we love, and even those we’ve never met. Art connects us to each other, to people who matter to us and to others we’ll never know, helping us to empathize with the dreams, fears, and immense pain of our fellow human beings.

Monte Cristo Cottage, the only home young O’Neill ever knew, which is now a museum.

The more I think about it, don’t museums often fulfill this exact same need in us? We visit memorial museums not only to honor those lost to bigotry and violence, but also to learn about their lives and remember the horrific hatred to which they were ultimately subjected — with the goal of never allowing it to happen again. We step foot inside historic houses to get inside the heads of people who lived before us, to see the spaces they called home and existed in day to day, to get just a glimpse of what it was like to live their joys and their hardships. In art museums, we appreciate the beauty, craftsmanship, and meaning that great talents put into their work, and feel each piece stir something in our souls. Museums provide opportunities for human connection, for the learning and practice of empathy and compassion, that we don’t always get outside their walls.

Young Eugene O’Neill on the porch of Monte Cristo Cottage with his older brother Jamie and their father.

As for Eugene O’Neill himself, he has museums dedicated to his memory and influential work. In New London, Connecticut, visitors can tour the Monte Cristo Cottage, summer home of the O’Neill family throughout Eugene’s boyhood and the setting of Long Day’s Journey. The family’s frequent travel for his father’s work meant this was the only home young O’Neill really knew, and the house now recalls his ties to it with permanent exhibitions, carefully-researched furnishings, and periodic performances of his most famous play.

O’Neill’s desk at the historic site in Danville, California, where he wrote his final works, including Long Day’s Journey.

On the other side of the country, Northern California boasts the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site. This is the house he chose to call home in later years, where he wrote his final plays in the midst of intensifying physical illness and the inevitable emotional pain that accompanied resurrecting his difficult past to create autobiographical art. At the home today, visitors get the chance to explore the house and the beautiful grounds that helped inspire his last works.

The O’Neills’ headstone at Forest Hills Cemetery, facing the late afternoon sun. Photo by me, 23 January 2022.

If, like me, you’re in Boston but still want to somehow pay tribute to Eugene O’Neill, you are in luck. Make your way to Jamaica Plain’s Forest Hills Cemetery — lauded for being one of the most beautiful “garden cemeteries” in the United States with its trees, rolling hills, and incredible sculptures — where he and his wife are buried. As it turns out, this perpetual wanderer — who, like Edmund, seemed to “never feel at home” anywhere — died in a hotel room in Boston and was buried here. I visited this weekend, and was deeply impacted to find that visitors leave stones, coins, and pens atop the O’Neills’ grave. “Rest In Peace,” the headstone reads simply, beneath the couple’s birth and death dates. After such a difficult life spent producing beautiful art that touches so many to this day, Eugene O’Neill, I believe, certainly deserves that chance.

By visiting museums, historic sites, and the places people of the past called home, we have the opportunity to be students of human nature, students of connection with our fellow people, students of empathy. I, for one, am deeply grateful to be emerging in a field that offers this special, unique, and immeasurably important possibility. Perhaps, with more museums making their visitors feel this profound connection with others, there could be far fewer people feeling, like Edmund and his creator Eugene O’Neill, like they “can never belong.”

A Day in Quincy, MA for The Birthday of John Quincy Adams

At thirteen, I picked up David McCullough’s hefty volume on John Adams and the course of my life changed. A special fascination with early American and United States history was formed in my heart that would, eventually, inspire my decision to pursue History and Museum Studies at Tufts.

John Quincy Adams at 16. He was a boy genius who had already served the new American nation as secretary to the foreign minister to Russia.

As I read, it wasn’t the character of John Adams who most piqued my interest, but those of his four children, who, more keenly than anyone, felt the pains and dealt with the lifelong repercussions of their father’s frequent absences in the name of serving his country. The oldest son, John Quincy Adams — a brilliant, creative, moody, dutiful aspiring poet whose head was often in the clouds — became my special interest.

John Quincy Adams’s stone library. Photo taken on my first trip to Massachusetts when I was 18.

When I was eighteen, a longstanding dream came true when I visited the three historic homes at the Adams National Historical Park. I walked through the halls and across the grounds where young John Adams, then his children, then their children studied, worked, and played. I was enchanted by the beautiful stone library on the Old House property; an elderly John Quincy Adams made his son promise he would build the structure to protect his beloved collection of 8,000 books from fires. I listened to our guide’s exciting rendering of the story and took in the scent of all those carefully preserved old pages.

Then, on Monday, July 12th, 2021, I was able to live another dream. At the United First Parish Church in Quincy, Massachusetts, where both Adams presidents worshipped, I attended a wreath-laying ceremony for John Quincy Adams’s birthday. If such longevity was possible for human beings, the eleventh of July would have seen him turn 254.

Such speakers as the Mayor of Quincy, the President of the Quincy City Council, the Minister of the United First Parish Church, and of course representatives from the Adams National Historical Park and the Quincy Historical Society took the podium to speak of Adams’s courage,  and the strong principles that alienated him from political enemies and allies alike, for which in death he has earned substantial respect. They spoke of the courage we have had to employ as a community, as a nation, as human beings this past year. They spoke of the importance of John Quincy Adams’s example in such times as these.

After the ceremony, I went with a knowledgable, passionate church guide and a curious, kindly schoolteacher into the crypt beneath the United First Parish Church, where John Quincy Adams, his wife, and his parents are all buried. It was a bit of a heart-stopping moment for me. I’d longed to see this for much of my life.

JQA’s tomb with the presidential birthday wreath, at the United First Parish Church, a historic site in Quincy. 12 July 2021.

It was cold and stark, except for the American flags resting on the tombs of both men, and the beautiful presidential wreath adorning John Quincy’s for this special day. I placed my hands over his name and reflected.

Like all of us, he was a complex person. He is well-known now for his battle in the House of Representatives for the abolition of slavery in his twilight years, and his successful defense of the Amistad Africans before the Supreme Court at the age of 73. But it had taken him this long to ever speak up for the rights of Black individuals, in a nation he had served almost non-stop since before his fifteenth birthday, having held virtually every political office possible. I thought about the enslaved peoples in this nation as I stood beneath the church.

He came to care about the rights of Native peoples in the United States, but only after doing irreparable damage to the lives of many by approving of and fueling dispossession of lands in his earlier career. I thought about them as I stood beneath the church.

He was not a good father. Rather than break the cycle by recognizing the harsh ways his parents pushed him toward glory, he treated his own sons with even more cruelty. Two out of three of them died tragically, and young. I thought about them, and all the other Adamses who did not meet their family’s standard of greatness and, so, are not buried in this crypt (or remembered by history), as I stood beneath the church.

I walked afterward to Penn’s Hill, the spot in Quincy where John Quincy Adams, a month shy of his eighth birthday, walked with his mother on the night of June 17th, 1775, and watched Charlestown burn while the Battle of Bunker Hill raged. He was haunted for the rest of his long life by the flames and the sound of the guns. Every year, Boston held a celebration to commemorate the courage of the militiamen who fought at Bunker Hill; he never attended a single one.

The Abigail Adams Cairn at Penn’s Hill. 12 July 2021.

I lingered there. You can’t see Boston anymore; Penn’s Hill is surrounded by neighborhoods now, and the fifteen-minute walk there from the little farmhouse where Abigail Adams raised her children is lined with homes and businesses. I thought about courage and principle; I thought about those whom history celebrates and those whom it forgets; I thought about the seven-year-old who held his mother’s hand while he watched the world fall apart across the shoreline — unaware that, two and a half centuries later, people would be tromping through his childhood home, marveling at his stone library, placing their hands on his tomb to think about those he helped, those he ignored, those he hurt.

The farmhouse where John and Abigail Adams raised their brilliant son “Johnny,” his older sister “Nabby,” and his younger brothers “Charley” and “Tommy.” Today, it is a historic house museum.

I thought about the power of history, the power of museums, the power of place and story, to connect us to all those who have come before, so that we can learn from their examples and swear to do better.

The grounds at the Adams National Historical Park are open, and the museums are preparing for a phased reopening after the pandemic. Click here for more information. 

The United First Parish Church, also known as the “Church of the Presidents,” is open again for tours of the sanctuary and the Adams crypt. Click here for more information.

Museums Celebrate Juneteenth

Over the weekend, many people across the nation celebrated Juneteenth — a day made all the more special this year because it was finally made a national holiday, the first new one declared since Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 1983. This long overdue step in our country’s story is vital, yet it is also just the beginning: a reminder of all we have yet to accomplish in bringing freedom, justice, and equality to all. As beacons of history, social enlightenment and education, and change, museums are uniquely situated to tell the story of Juneteenth and its implications, and many have long been doing so.

June 19th, 2021: Houston dancer Prescylia Mae performs at the dedication ceremony for a new mural honoring emancipation, Galveston, Texas. via Galveston County Daily News

 
First, what is Juneteenth? This holiday, long celebrated by Black Americans, commemorates June 19th, 1865. On this day, the arrival of Union troops to Galveston, Texas informed the still-enslaved African Americans that they were free; the Emancipation Proclamation, signed all the way back in 1863, was at last the law of the land. Peace had come nearly two months prior, resulting in the South’s defeat; the treaty was signed, President Abraham Lincoln already dead. Yet news spread slowly, and enslavers resisted the change, meaning that these Texan African Americans still did not know they were free; Juneteenth remembers the day that the belated news finally reached them. Celebrations of this holiday spread rapidly through Black communities in the following years, and now, it has finally been acknowledged on a federal level.
 
So what can we expect from the museum field going forward, with Juneteenth finally being a part of the national consciousness? Here is just a brief list of examples of what we saw this year, and what we can expect from now on.
 

Members of the Pan African Rhythm Cooperative perform at the grand opening of the Harriet Tubman Museum, which doubled as a Juneteenth celebration.

This museum had its long-anticipated grand opening on June 19th, 2021, combining the ceremony with a Juneteenth celebration. The commemoration included performances by the Pan African Rhythm Cooperative, Civil War reenactments, communal prayer, and a discussion of the meaning of Juneteenth. Four hundred community members gathered to attend. 
 
 
NMAAHC honored Juneteenth with a whole series of virtual programs, which included insights from novelists, professors, eminent scholars, singer-songwriters, storytellers, and museum professionals. These online events, free and open to the public, grappled with the meaning of Juneteenth historically and in our modern climate, while also educating participants about African American cultural traditions, literature, activism, and even food. Watch those programs and learn more about the holiday on NMAAHC’s Juneteenth resource page here.
 
Over the weekend, the MFA commemorated Juneteenth with free admission to the museum and a series of outdoor events, including a concert organized by BAMS Fest (an organization dedicated to breaking down racial barriers in the arts), art-making inspired by and discussions in tribute to Basquiat, and a screening of the new documentary Summer of Soul, presented in partnership with the Roxbury International Film Festival. The MFA’s events illustrate the ability of museums of all types to fight for racial justice and celebrate the contributions of people of color in our nation.
 

Informational slides on Juneteenth. via blkfreedom.org

On June 15th, 2021, blkfreedom.org hosted a spectacular virtual event of education and celebration. Ten museums of African American history and culture participated, demonstrating the sheer power and impact of museums in cooperation with one another. The entire event can be viewed online here. The participating museums:
 
Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, LA
 
With these and other events across the country, American museums used Juneteenth as an opportunity to celebrate, honor, remember, and educate. Hopefully, we can expect such commemorations of our newest national holiday for years to come.

Measuring a Museum’s Worth

Is it via attendance or admissions fees? The size of the collection or the amount of funding it receives? By almost any measure, the Philadelphia History Museum has not proved its worth, for it shut down indefinitely at the end of June.

The museum, which is designated in the city charter to be the repository for artifacts relevant to the Philadelphia’s history, closed last month after a significant reduction in funding from the city. Talks to partner with other institutions, most recently with Temple University, fell through. For at least the next year, the museum will be closed and the collection will be reviewed with an eye toward figuring out a new direction for the museum to take. It is unclear if that direction will include re-opening to the public.

The reduction in funding was the hiatus-blow for the organization, but thriving museums rarely experience cuts like this. Attendance was low, despite efforts to revitalize the museum, including a recent renovation in 2012. The museum had also collaborated last year to create a new curriculum for Philadelphia public schools that centered the life of free Black resident, Octavius V. Catto. Shot by two white men who were never convicted for their crime while urging citizens to vote on Election Day, the exhibit sought to tell an important story with relevance to today. This is a moment in America that begs for interesting and relevant retellings of history, and Catto’s story certainly fits the bill. But it is hard to demonstrate relevance if no one seeks it out.

This is not an admonishment to the people of Philadelphia for not supporting their museum. Nor is it a diagnosis of what went wrong, for this blog does not have insight into the marketing plan, visitorship goal, or budget needed to make the Philadelphia History Museum a world-class institution, or at least, a city-class one. Rather, it is a recognition that a lot of museums in the United States are missing the mark when it comes to attracting audiences and money, despite possessing compelling stories.

There are many reasons why this is happening, but in thinking about the Philadelphia History Museum, it is worth pointing out that Philadelphia’s population is less than 50% white. As we have discussed previously on this blog, museums are not neutral spaces. Museum audiences tend to skew heavily white and affluent and often potential local visitors are alienated from spaces that don’t strive to create content of and with the surrounding community. There are museums that have bucked this demographic trend. The High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA has tripled its non-white visitors in recent years, to the point that the museum’s visitors are starting to resemble the city’s racial makeup. They have done this with a mixture of initiatives that included highlighting artists of color within their collection, reaching out to local potential visitors in multiple languages, diversifying docents, and reassessing ticket prices. Other museums have also looked into their collections to find ways to create new relevance for existing content.

Hopefully the Philadelphia History Museum’s assessment will include considerations about community outreach, public programs, and exhibition content and interpretation, as well as the price of admission (at closing time, the adult admission was $10, in a city where the median income is only $41k/year, well below the national median).

The Philadelphia History Museum is the designated keeper of historical objects for the city of Philadelphia. Although it’s archive remains intact for now, it is not a library. Part of a museum’s mission is to take those objects and documents and interpret them for the public, helping the citizens of the city remember and understand their history. This requires support and support includes money. While it is perfectly acceptable and necessary to demand that museums present innovative exhibits and engage with audiences in current fashion, it is also necessary to provide the support that those museums need to be good and useful and interesting institutions. Art and history and culture require patronage, to see the work through periods of devaluation and maintain these common goods for all.

Our best museums are building collaborative experiences that decenter authority, tell important stories from their collections, and engage with local populations to create community spaces that are compelling, inclusive, representational – and thriving. Our best cities deserve nothing less.

 

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