We say Newport is wonderful because it has not changed much, and often tout the fact that we have about three hundred structures still standing that pre-date the Revolution. Visitors love Newport’s timeless quality and look to us at the NHS to help them understand and interpret that. Certainly historical societies are not traditionally epicenters of change. Quite the opposite—we are generally tasked with preserving and protecting, activities which, for the most part, seem to limit change. But is our mission in fact to be the guardians of a static vision of the past?
Preserving the past is much like forecasting the weather: the universe of potentially relevant information is so huge that the practitioner must limit the things to be considered, and the data points deemed relevant define the outcome, for good or for ill. We are, as I recently heard at a conference on Heritage and Healthy Communities at the University of Massachusetts, defining what we want our futures to be when we make decisions about what to preserve. In fact, we are “curating” our futures by choosing what is important in the past; managing and defining the inevitable change that comes with the passage of time. Which, perhaps, makes historical societies particularly useful to any discussion of managing change.
Here in Newport, one could suggest that there is in fact less conflict between studying the past and supporting change, as our history is one of innovation and change, beginning with the earliest settlers who chose to live differently in a new world.
The staff at the Newport Historical Society has been recreating the Society’s traditional mission by rethinking how we interpret and what we interpret, how we think of our historic structures and their uses, and how we make our collections and data accessible to the public. We are innovating and we are changing as we work to be responsive and relevant in changing times.
We have also begun the work to transform our Headquarters building into a modern and attractive Collections Resource Center, using innovative approaches to egress, climate control and collections storage. Planning is also continuing for Revolution House at the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House, a new vision for a very old house, and a new way to tell an important and historic story.
Above: Building plans for NHS headquarters at 82 Touro Street.