“Is everything original?” “Is this what the dining room looked like back then?” “Did he really sleep in that bed?”
Anyone who has worked at a historic house has been asked this question in various forms, and knows how tricky it can be to accurately answer. Every interpreter has their own flair for responding: perhaps focusing on the provenance of family heirlooms, emphasizing the reason a period piece was selected as representative, or focusing on the restoration process of the structure and rooms. Although these types of interpretation may be grounded in sound research and effective communication, the collections alone have the ability to create an air of authenticity in the space for the visitor. The level of authenticity of these pieces is not always within the curator’s control, but the way the visitor reacts to the stories told within the house can be affected by how authentic they view the space to be.
The furnishings plan of each house serve as the starting point for the on the ground interpretation that takes place during a visitor’s time with staff members. Longfellow’s House – Washington Headquarters (NPS) in Cambridge, MA, for example, features a house that has not changed since the Longfellow family left in the early twentieth century, and has been preserved with the intention of public presentation since Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s death. The rangers are sure to emphasize this point, telling personal stories about the family and allowing visitors to be present in the space and appreciate the fact that the things they are seeing belonged to and were used by Longfellow himself. The themes of the tour focus heavily on the preservation of the space over time, including Longfellow’s own preservation of the house’s legacy associated with Washington, and the importance of the literary and artistic traditions established during Longfellow’s time in the house. Visitors are able to have an emotional experience in the house, relating to the Longfellow family members and their experiences in the house.
In contrast, the Harrison Gray Otis House in Boston, MA, features a furnishings plan more in line with visitor’s expectations of a historic house museum. While there are some pieces from the Otis family – the settee in the Withdrawing Room, the desk chair in Otis’s office – many of the furnishings are based in scholarly research that is shared with visitors while on tour. Paintings by Henry Sargent are on display in the two front rooms to demonstrate evidence from contemporary homes that have informed decorative decisions. Reproduction wallpaper based on sample layers, paint analysis, and personal letters inform the remaining rooms in the house, and guides freely discuss these sources and the conclusions scholars have drawn from them. Guides also situate the Otis family in the socioeconomic climate of the late eighteenth century and address historic issues such as slavery, gender roles, and class throughout the tour. While visitors may still have an emotional experience with the house, they are more likely to focus more on these larger historical issues because the house lends itself to scholarly study rather than only the emotional stories of the family who lived there.
These two sites demonstrate a different emphasis, a different goal, and a completely different visitor experience. While visitors after the respective tours may feel like they related to the Longfellow family on an emotional and personal level, visitors of the Otis family probably feel like they fully understand the context in which they lived. Neither of these is a better or worse experience for the visitor, but the level of originality in the house determines their engagement. Thus, these changes in interpretation and the visitor experience are often determined by the presence, or, in most cases, absence, of authentic family furnishings.