Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Author: Lucy R. Wickstrom (page 1 of 3)

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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.”

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The Desecration of Memory: Bigotry and Violence Against Museums and Markers

Content warning: this post includes discussion of vandalism against museums and markers honoring women, Black Americans, and Jewish individuals.

The Susan B. Anthony Museum & House, in Rochester, New York.

On September 26th, 2021, a fire engulfed the back porch of the Susan B. Anthony Museum & House in Rochester, New York. The fire department was able to contain the flames, sparing any historical artifacts from destruction, though carpets and a doorway were damaged. It was clear, as soon as surveillance footage was played back, that the fire was no accident: a person, whose face was covered, was holding something by the porch just before it broke out.

Just weeks before the incident at the suffragist and reformer’s home, the marker memorializing the murder of Emmett Till went missing. Such signs have been repeatedly shot, doused with acid, thrown into the river, and vandalized with racist messages throughout the years; and this one disappeared not a week after the 66th anniversary of the fourteen-year-old boy’s death at the hands of white men.

The George Floyd bust, vandalized with grey paint.

At the beginning of October, a statue of George Floyd in New York City was vandalized, as a man hurled paint at the large bust of the man whose murder at the hands of police officers helped spark 2020’s worldwide Black Lives Matter movement. The bust of Floyd — part of a display which also includes statues of Breonna Taylor and John Lewis — was unveiled just two days before it was damaged. Earlier this year, when it was displayed in a different location for Juneteenth, it was vandalized with white supremacist markings five days into its run.

And since May, the Alaska Jewish Museum in Anchorage has experienced more than one case of antisemitic vandalism, which has caused museums across Anchorage to rally in support of the institution as they seek answers, justice, and healing.

Hatred and violence of this magnitude, against museums and markers meant to remember world-changers, marginalized communities, or those who have lost their lives as a result of racism and bigotry, is a frightening, jarring thing. It has seemed to me that every time I look at museum news lately, there is a new incident.

As a training museum professional, it hurts, discourages, and angers me. But for the communities against whom the violence is leveled, I cannot even begin to imagine the agony. “In some ways I feel they are enjoying our pain,” Ollie Gordon, Emmett Till’s cousin, told the Atlanta Black Star in September. “Or they are in pain themselves and they know no other way to deal with it.” Gordon, who was living with Emmett at the time of his murder, shared that every time the markers commemorating his cousin’s death have been vandalized, it has been like salt poured in the wound for their family.

One of the markers memorializing the murder of Emmett Till, ridden with bullet holes.

In the same article, Patrick Weems, the executive director of the Till Center, clapped back against those who posited that the sign’s most recent disappearance was the result of a traffic accident and not an intentional act of bigotry. “We’ve never had a sign that’s been accidentally vandalized or taken down,” Weems argued. “These have always been intentional by folks who want to erase this history.”

A desire to erase the history of racism against Black individuals, antisemitism against Jewish communities across the globe, and the efforts of women to gain the same rights as men — that certainly explains some of the motivation behind the acts of desecration I’ve included here. Museums, markers, memorials — these all serve as keepers of historical memory, and as reminders of the darkness and hatred that has come before us, so that we should never forget.

Yet the Susan B. Anthony home, the Emmett Till marker, the George Floyd bust, and the Alaska Jewish Museum exist not only to remind modern Americans of the movements and atrocities of the past, but to honor these people, as well. Museums and monuments have the opportunity (and, indeed, the responsibility) to give visitors safe spaces to learn about the lives of and pay respect to those members of marginalized communities who have lost their lives or fought to make changes. It is a truly devastating thing when these spaces are hatefully attacked and compromised, taking away people’s opportunity for safe reflection.

I believe it is necessary to mention here that keepers of historical memory must be careful about who they honor. Calls for the removal of statues of Confederate generals cannot be placed in the same category as the vandalism of the Emmett Till marker. The latter was an innocent victim to the very same racism and violence that the former stands for. And though the secession of the Southern states in a desperate attempt to retain slavery, and the resulting Civil War, must always be remembered, the legacies of its leaders should under no circumstances be honored the way that of Emmett Till’s is.

The desecration of historic homes, sites, and markers not only discourages museum professionals and keepers of historical memory, but hurts and endangers members of marginalized communities. Every museum must do its part by calling out such acts of hatred, standing in solidarity with its fellow institutions, and paying careful attention to whose legacies it honors within its walls.

Though these types of bigotry and violence will likely continue as long as such things are tolerated in our country, museums have a responsibility to provide their visitors with a safe space to process this pain, and continue honoring the memory of those who experienced such hatred in life — and cannot even escape it in death.

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