Emily Dickinson is a figure shrouded in mystery. We have her beautifully exultant poetry to give us clues about who she was — poetry that, curiously, she did not want published during her lifetime. She wrote many letters, but most of them were burned upon her death. She was a writer, but really didn’t leave behind much documentation. She is hard to get to know — making her a special challenge for a museum.
Over the summer, as an assignment for the Revitalizing Historic Houses course, I interviewed Brooke Steinhauser, who is the Program Director at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts. Out of a list of potential interviewees — all professionals in the field, all well-acquainted with experiencing the joys and solving the problems involved in historic house museum work — I chose her, having always had an interest in Emily Dickinson.
It was a great decision. Brooke was wonderful, so open and happy to answer all my questions. I really wanted to get at the heart of this issue: how do you teach a figure who was, famously, so private? How do you make her legacy come into focus, and present who she was in a clear, digestible way to visitors?
Brooke’s answers fascinated, surprised, and inspired me. She talked to me about how much Emily Dickinson means to so many people — and not all for the same reasons. Because there is so much we don’t know about her, there are many possible avenues of explanation, potential answers to the question “who was she, really?” This allows each and every visitor who walks into the Emily Dickinson home to come in with a slightly different Emily in their mind and heart.
Different people identify with Dickinson in varying ways. Her decision to become reclusive resonates with many, as it likely can be explained by mental illness. Or perhaps it was a physical illness or disability that led her to become such a private person. Or, as has been posited in more recent times to explain why she chose not to marry, maybe Dickinson was a gay woman. She is a symbol and an icon for numerous different groups of people because of all these possibilities.
There are many Dickinsons. According to Brooke Steinhauser, each is valid. She explained to me that because there are so few concrete answers about who Dickinson was, conversations at the museum can “dwell in Possibility” — which, of course, Dickinson herself espoused in one of her poems. Visitors can approach her with their own perspectives and ideas, and the museum can guide them in understanding why those answers to the questions about this woman make sense, while also presenting other possible answers. It is the job of the museum, Brooke said, to “complicate while celebrating” Dickinson’s legacy, and to hold visitors’ hands to that end, meeting them where they are in their own personal journeys with the poet.
Respecting what the subject of a museum means to each individual visitor is important. In the case of someone like Dickinson — about whom we have so few answers, only her art and the walls in which she lived — questions, uncertainties, and possibilities are okay. Not knowing all the answers is okay. This actually provides a unique and special opportunity to value the visitors’ own ideas and thoughts.
As a training historian, of course, I hold the truth very dear. It does matter, and museums are places where truth should be valued more than almost anywhere else; we have a responsibility to accurately inform the people who visit our sites, ready and expecting to learn. We owe that to them. But we also owe them our respect, our gentleness, our open minds, and the humble assertion that just because we work inside the museum, it doesn’t mean we have all the answers. We never can — not really.
We will probably never have all the answers about Dickinson. The museum’s mission statement promises to “spark the imagination by amplifying Emily Dickinson’s revolutionary poetic voice,” and by allowing its visitors to “dwell in Possibility,” it certainly fulfills that goal.
Dickinson means a lot to people. If her museum can spark their imaginations with possibilities about who all she may have been — just like her beautiful poetry has for over a century — I think that’s a definite win for the museum world, and something to be admired and aspired to by other institutions.
The Emily Dickinson Museum is closed for a major restoration project until spring of 2022, but their website has incredible resources and ways to explore. Check it out here.