Colonial what?: Speaking a language no one wants to hear

With the exception of my time in New York State, I have spent my entire museum career in New England. This means that I have also spent most of my museum career confronting and deconstructing the Colonial Revival. New England is nationally known for its bucolic village green presided over by a steepled white church and clusters of white houses with black shutters. Visitors to New England towns have come to expect this scene, many searching for an ‘authentic’ colonial experience. The struggle for museums is communicating to visitors that most of what we think of as colonial is actually a product of late nineteenth and early twentieth century history hobbyists.

Old Parish Church, York Village

My internship this summer at the Museums of Old York is an exercise in Colonial Revival interpretation. Nearly all of the museum’s nine properties are best interpreted through a colonial revival lens. This is largely the result of one donor, whose lifelong passion was colonial history, and who bequeathed several buildings to the museum in the 1950s. Although the buildings (including a tavern, two historic homes, a schoolhouse, and gaol) are extremely charming, their histories are derived from local legend and they display varying levels of colonial authenticity. The Museums of Old York is well aware of this and does an admirable job at combating colonial mythology. However, for visitors who have learned the romanticized Colonial Revival version of history, hearing about the museum’s buildings and the questionable scholarship of the Colonial Revivalists is both shocking and boring.

The Jefferds' Tavern, the biggest interpretive problem at Old York, and my summer project

This presents a significant challenge: the Colonial Revival movement, which is so important to the New England story, is colossally boring. Engaging most visitors in a critical discussion of myth construction in less than ten minutes is hard. I have only had a few conversations where no one’s eyes glazed over or someone didn’t walk away as soon as I began an explanation of Colonial Revival. In the museum’s self guided buildings, this interaction never even takes place. So how do we successfully capture these people? Without some knowledge of the Colonial Revival movement, the museum’s sites are misinterpreted and run the risk of perpetuating the myths instead of complicating them. For a small museum with limited staff, is that okay? And will people still visit quaint New England towns and museums when they learn that the colonial picture they imagine never actually existed? Let the interns find a way…

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2 Responses to Colonial what?: Speaking a language no one wants to hear

  1. Linnea Grim says:

    Excellent questions. I’m pondering some of the same things at historic sites in Virginia. Hope you are enjoying your summer there. My Old York experience is now already 11 years ago! Still one of the best summers I’ve ever had.

  2. Gretchen Sorin says:

    Interesting questions about the Colonial Revival. I might take it a bit farther. I wonder if the general public cares that the Colonial Revival is not the colonial. I think a couple of the PHMC sites interpret their houses as Colonial Revival. Brenda Reigel is their resident expert on this form of interpretation.

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