Heading Forward, Looking Backwards, Letting Go.
The Newport Historical Society is currently working on a capital rehabilitation of its headquarters complex on Touro Street, last comprehensively improved in 1915. Over the past 100 years, the building has moved from a Victorian cabinet of curiosities and reading room towards more modern models for our work. But because so little has been done to improve the building over time, reminders of the past are everywhere as we prepare to renovate. We are finding 19th century flags behind bookcases and boxes of research notes from the early 20th century. We are revealing collection items that have not been seen in a generation. It would be impossible for us not to find all this cause for reflection. As we begin the process of creating a modern building, we are also exploring how we intend to be a modern Historical Society.
When we consider forward-thinking ways of doing business, we think about being data-driven, we think digital, and we think about broad public access. These approaches are often discussed in their most reductive forms: how can we measure and quantify what we do to prove we matter, how do we get our collections up on the web, and how can we make sure that anyone in the world can type “Newport” into Google and learn everything they need to know about Newport’s history. I don’t want to irritate every foundation that has ever funded us, so I won’t suggest that these goals are not laudable. But they are neither subtle nor complete. And, by looking backwards a bit, as a historical society is wont to do, I think I can suggest that something is lost when we do not recognize and examine our past as we look to chart a path for the future. Furthermore, this exercise might be an example of the value of studying the past in general.
The original model for the NHS was a product of its time. In 1853, the Society was formed to hold the records related to the formation of our Nation, emphasizing Newport and Rhode Island’s place in that process. The impulse was scholarly, educational, and civic. Soon afterwards, the Society also began to collect “relics,” with the idea, although it was debated, that these objects also were useful to help the public learn about the past.
What was taken for granted at the time was the notion that it was important for the public, which included American citizens and new immigrants, to study American history. Today, when many of the assumptions through which our antecedents looked at the world have been put aside, what can we learn by looking at this idea, and also at the experience of visiting the NHS one hundred years ago?
One hundred years ago a relatively small segment of society – educated, middle-class or more, and presumably, predominantly male – came to the NHS to read the correspondence of Newport’s founders, and of those citizens who participated in the build-up to and conduct of the American Revolution. They read the original documents, touching the paper and ink that founding fathers used to make history.
A slightly larger group – families and tourists included – visited the Museum to see such objects as Benedict Arnold’s chair, Gilbert Stuart’s paintings, and seaweed samples collected from Newport’s beaches. Both groups of visitors had an experience that is not possible at a distance. They were able to have a tangible connection to the past through direct interaction with the objects and documents.
Figuring out what parts of these experiences, as limited and exclusive as they may have been, continue to be useful today is essential. After all, in this era of Big Data, it is possible for a foundation officer to ask (as one local did recently) “Is there any proof that studying history does any good at all?” Is the experience of interacting with the past more than merely a curiosity – an entertainment from times gone by?
Many eloquent and amusing cases for the study of history have been made. One recent effort, a video made by The School of Life can be seen here. While I am also certain that there have been quantitative studies, I think the answer to this question is bigger than data points. The case for studying history is based on the belief that knowledge is not created anew with each generation, but is rather enhanced and added to. The past is the source from which the present flows, and we limit our understanding of the now, and our condition in it, when we neglect to examine what came before. As a very practical matter, the past is a source of information about how problems were solved, how humans behaved, and even how the environment is a factor in our lives. Why on earth would we not think that this is just flat-out useful?
I want also to state the case that there is value in studying history not just from secondary sources and the images of objects, but by interacting with the actual things from the past that remain with us (and to preserve such things, whenever possible). If indeed we are connected to the past, then that connection is evoked in a very visceral way by being in the presence of objects, significant and ordinary, that survive from long ago. The sense of wonder, and of contact, provides an opportunity – a teachable moment – for us to begin to pay attention. It is certainly easy to walk past the original 1663 Rhode Island Charter without thinking about it much. But it is far easier to click away from an image of it on our computer screen, no matter how readable.
I want to make the case for the value of the tangible, the real, without diminishing the value that the digital world provides in expanding access to information. The internet expands access exponentially, and that is a very good thing. This should not encourage us to ignore the originals. It is also the case that our notions of how limited traditional access has been may be to some degree mistaken. As I said earlier, we have presumed that the 19th century users of the Newport Historical Society were primarily well-off, male and local. But a look at the photo of the 1915 staff shows more women than men, and a review of the various logs and sign-in books reveals international visitation to Newport, and the names of a surprising number of women. A more in-depth analysis of these names might confirm, or deny, the assumption of economic exclusivity. Our process of modernizing may be a bit less casting off outdated ways of thinking, and a bit more building on solid foundations, than had been originally apparent. Again, the past is the source from which new ways of being arise.
But there is no doubt that some old ways of doing business must be put aside. The old mahogany cabinets that held our curiosities are no longer functional, and must find new homes. A notion that the interested public will find us where we are has been put aside in favor of a more active pursuit of audiences where they are. A reluctance to address the past’s injustices must always be surmounted, as these narratives also contain important information for all of us to contemplate. Our approach to history must be as broad and inclusive as we wish our audiences to be, and we must also be willing to challenge our assumptions about this history, and about ourselves, as we discover and interpret the past.
This spring, the NHS will have a functional new facility from which to practice our brand of discovery and interpretation. We hope that by doing so we will advance the cause of understanding the value of history generally, as well as specifically supporting Newport’s own.