Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Author: Lucy R. Wickstrom (page 1 of 2)

Dwelling in Possibility: The Emily Dickinson Museum

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.

A young Emily Dickinson, via the Emily Dickinson Museum website.

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.

The Emily Dickinson Museum — the place she called home.

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.

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What Makes a Beautiful Museum?

With safe travel starting to become possible again, and folks thinking about engaging together in culture, art, and history to gain hope after a worldwide pandemic, it perhaps seems natural that people might seek out special beauty in the places they choose to visit. I was browsing the news online when I came across this National Geographic article entitled “These are the world’s most beautiful museums,” complete with short descriptions and breathtaking photographs of fourteen visually stunning museums across the globe. It speaks to the power of visuals to draw human beings in and entice us, and to the value of making an exterior as impressive as its inner contents, that I found myself longing to visit every single one of these museums.

Yet it certainly made me wonder. What, really, does make a beautiful museum? To each museum-goer, this question has a different answer. Is it simply its architectural design which makes a museum beautiful — the inside, the outside, or both? Is it the artwork hanging on the walls? The history that’s told within? The passion of the staff and volunteers who keep it operating? The discourse, questions, and ideas it sparks? The significance of the place itself, or the people who once lived or worked there? Or the visitors, bringing with them their biases, their problems, and their thoughts, and leaving with renewed knowledge, interest, and energy? Is it a combination of all of these things?

What, to you, makes a museum beautiful? Under your qualifications, what are the most beautiful museums in the world?

Below, find a list of just a few of the museums commonly considered the “world’s most beautiful.” But remember that — and it’s only cliche because of its profound truth — beauty is absolutely in the eye of the beholder.

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, South Africa

 Upon its opening in 2017, the Zeitz MOCAA became the largest museum of contemporary African art in the world. The building was previously a grain silo, and both the interior and the exterior creatively and effortlessly incorporate and transform the remnants of this former function into something beautiful.

Niterói Contemporary Art Museum, Brazil 

The Niterói Contemporary Art Museum is, unsurprisingly, a main attraction in the city of Niterói, Rio de Janeiro. It took five years to build before its opening in 1996 and stands four stories high, overlooking the South Atlantic Ocean.

Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain

 The Guggenheim Bilbao is just one in a family of four surreal Guggenheim institutions. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi all manage to catch the eye and keep it.

National Museum of African American History and Culture, United States

The NMAAHC stands powerfully and beautifully on Washington D.C.’s National Mall, surrounded by monuments honoring men whose involvement in Black history is detailed within the museum. Designed with elements of African, European, and American architecture, the building gives an impactful statement on the African diaspora.

Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar

Built on an island in Doha Bay, the Museum of Islamic Art was designed by a 91-year-old architect who had to be coaxed from retirement. The building’s mesmerizing reflection on the sea alone is enough for me to be grateful they convinced him. The museum has become a cultural icon for the Arabian Gulf since opening in 2008.

Shanghai Astronomy Museum, China

Having just opened its doors in July of 2021, the Shanghai Astronomy Museum is already making a huge impact. It is the largest museum in the world dedicated to astronomy, and each architectural component of the building is also an instrument that tracks the sun, moon, and stars. In imitation of the universe’s complex geometry, the museum is designed with no right angles or straight lines.

State Hermitage Museum, Russia

This is by far the oldest museum on the list. Founded in 1764 with Catherine the Great’s own art collection, the Hermitage still manages to impress. It was once home to Russian Tsars and remains the largest art museum in the world. It’s been said that with a minute spent looking at each item in the Hermitage for eight hours every day, it would take fifteen years to see the entire thing.

So what do you think? Would any of these museums make your list of the most beautiful in the world? What else would you add?

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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.

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