History involves more than the rich and famous

Avery and Hempsted are two of southeastern Connecticut’s most familiar historical family names. Nearly lost to history, however, are the names of all those once instrumental in maintaining their famous employers’ or owners’ properties that now stand preserved as historical museums in New London and Groton.

Despite the fact we know relatively little of these workers, it seems significant that some of the more popular recent programs at Groton’s Avery-Copp House and New London’s Hempsted houses focus on the servants and slaves whose no-doubt difficult, physically demanding lives allowed members of the wealthy, better-known families to live in relative comfort.

History-focused museums throughout the region should take note of this. Contemporary audiences, who often are culturally and ethnically diverse, are eager for a more realistic image of history. They want to understand the lives of the servants, slaves and common people. They more often readily connect with the stories of those who toiled.

At a time when attendance figures are stagnant or slumping for many history-focused museums, this is an important lesson – one that could make a difference between these museums remaining viable and vibrant places that connect contemporary visitors to the past, or ultimately fading into oblivion.

History-focused museums in the U.S. are struggling. One of the most notable examples is Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg – the Grand Dame of American historical museums. In June, those who oversee the living history museum announced major cutbacks after noting operating losses averaging $148,000 a day in 2016.

Many American history museums have experienced attendance sliding since a peak that occurred around the time of the country’s bicentennial in 1976. Since the great recession of 2008, many of the museums have achieved some amount of stability, but growth occurs only via significant changes.

Southeastern Connecticut’s major historic attraction, Mystic Seaport, for example, experienced stable attendance in the vicinity of 250,000 annually since 2010, with an uptick to some 274,000 in 2016. That increase likely was fueled by the Seaport’s new exhibition hall and began when the restoration of the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan drew a flood of publicity and attention to the museum and its work.

Some have attributed the decline or stagnation of interest in history museums to a general lack of knowledge and interest in history among Americans. But it seems there could be a deeper question that these museums must answer before charting a more prosperous future: Is the general lack of interest exacerbated by the fact that history too often focuses on the elite, the powerful, the monied and, yes, the white?

A recent National Public Radio podcast, for example, noted the experiences of an African-American woman who worked at George Washington’s former plantation, Mount Vernon in Virginia. She said she alone represented the entire slave population who worked at the plantation, while there were many white workers portraying members of the Washington and Custis families. This is quite a skewed view of reality. More than 300 slaves actually lived and worked at Mount Vernon in 1799.

Locally, the Hempsted houses recognize the reality of slavery in Colonial New England and the desire among contemporary audiences to better understand their stories. A recent program focusing on the lives of the family’s slaves packed a small lecture room to standing-room-only in one of the historic properties.

Leslie Evans, executive director of Groton’s Avery-Copp House, notes that because their lives were more difficult, more financially at-risk and consumed by physical labor, the everyday workers of the past did not have the time to keep detailed journals nor did they own many items passed down through generations. This makes it more difficult to now research and discover the true scope of their lives.

Still, she and others at the Avery-Copp House understand the importance of doing so. As such the museum now tells part of its story from the perspective of the many Irish immigrant women who were domestic servants for the Avery and Copp families. These immigrant stories resonate with audiences ranging from Groton fifth graders to Connecticut College students to New London adult education students.

History resonates and attracts when it is relevant. History-focused museums and attractions will survive and thrive only if they connect in real and relevant ways to contemporary audiences.

 

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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