Historic House Museums

Jennifer Pustz, in Voices from the Back Stairs: Interpreting Servants’ Lives at Historic House Museums presents a fascinating look at the ways in which historic house museums can integrate class into their interpretations of the past through analyzing the work of domestic servants. She is responding to Crew and Sims’s “Locating Authenticity: Fragments of a Dialogue,” and to Handler and Gable’s New History in an Old Museum. Centrally concerned with standards of authenticity, Pustz argues that those standards should apply not only to the objects and buildings but also to the stories and people interpreted at historic museums and sites. Focusing her research on the period between 1870 and 1920, Pustz’s goal is “to help historic museum staff reach the objective of telling the whole history of their sites through interpretation of domestic servants in a rich and complex fashion that favors the ‘real’ over the ‘ideal.'” (12)

Pustz begins her work by providing a brief history of the historic house movement in America and examines the ways in which enslaved people at historic house museums are portrayed by detailing Eichstedt and Small’s typology of strategies to interpret slavery and African Americans. Eichstedt and Small found that there are four common ways of interpreting the lives and work of enslaved people at plantation museums: symbolic annihilation and erasure, which is interpretation that focuses exclusively on the material and social life of the plantation owners; trivialization and deflection, in which slavery and enslaved people are mentioned in ways that trivialize their experiences; segregation and marginalization, where their lives are interpreted separately from the traditional, white-focused information; and finally relative incorporation, where sites provide information about slavery throughout their tours that is not degrading, discusses specific enslaved people, and acknowledges the importance of learning about slavery. In order to gain a comprehensive understanding of the ways in which historic house museums currently interpret the lives of domestic servants, Pustz sent out a nationwide mail survey to house museums that interpret periods after 1865 and also visited several historic sites. Primarily concerned with the makeup of the site’s current personnel, its servants, its interpretation of servants, and their reasons for not interpreting servants, Pustz thoroughly details her findings in the second chapter of her work, “Interpretation of Domestic Service at post-Civil War House Museums.” She then moves on to discuss the history of domestic service in the United States during the post-Civil War period. In a way her third chapter, “The Ideal, the Real, and the Servant Problem,” reminded me of Trouillot’s Silencing the Past, because in providing a historical analysis of the lives of domestic servants Pustz shows her readers the best ways to go about using extant primary sources to uncover their history. Pustz offers suggestions for building an interpretive tour based on the “servant problem,” which was the difficulty many upper and middle class women faced when trying to find and retain hired help during the Gilded Age through the post World War I eras. She recommends that guides provide visual hooks to engage their audiences, such as images, artifacts, or architectural elements. While most artifacts found at historic house museums represent the lifestyle of the house’s owners, it is possible to interpret one to two objects in each space through multiple perspectives. While some sites have modified former servant spaces or removed their furnishings, some historic sites choose to interpret those rooms without furniture and instead focus on what the architecture can reveal about the function of the room. The idea of “reading” houses the way one would read primary sources is fascinating, and is a practice I am less familiar with, although I do believe the Tenement Museum does a great job of beginning their tours in this way. The ultimate goal in interpreting domestic service at these sites should be a balanced discussion of both the employer and the employee, according to Pustz. She then provides case studies of the historic house museums she has visited and details the practices she found to be insightful and useful. Pustz finds Maymont House in Richmond to be a particularly good example of a balanced and nuanced interpretation of the life and work of domestic servants.

Pustz’s work is paired with Tiya Miles’s The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story, in which Miles “tells a story of the historic place of Diamond Hill, the people who dwelled there, and their memory in modern times, tracing the plantation from its prehistory, to its heyday and downfall in the 1820s and 1830s, to its restoration and commemoration as the Chief Vann House State Historic Site from the 1950s onward.” (3) Rather than regurgitating the idealized version of the past that the Chief Vann House presents, Miles digs deeper and uncovers the history of the site and the ways in which Diamond Hill was uniquely situated as a place where “American Indians, enslaved people of African descent, and Euro-American missionaries, craftsmen, and laborers lived incredible, intersecting lives.” (3) Miles successfully uses the history of the house, the space, and its inhabitants as a window onto the history of European colonization of Native Americans and Native American land, the history of Native enslavement of other Natives and Africans, enslaved people’s resistance, and the work of Moravian missionaries.

The first three chapters introduces the key players in this history, such as John Vann and his Cherokee wife, Peggy, the Moravians, and the community of enslaved Africans and African Americans that the Vann family owned. Miles is particularly skillful at detailing the ways in which Vann’s white violence was different from Cherokee violence, as well as elucidating the problems the Cherokee Nation was facing in the latter portion of the eighteenth century due to increased white interaction and colonization efforts. She also adeptly illustrates how James Vann straddled two identities: he could not pass as a white planter of the southern elite but stood apart from most of the Cherokee Nation. Miles details the various spaces in which enslaved people lived, work, and built communities on the Diamond Hill plantation, as well as describing the diversity within the enslaved community and the ways in which the social lives of the enslaved people and Cherokees continually overlapped. Miles juxtaposes Vann’s abuse of his wife with accepted forms of violence within the Cherokee community, and the ways in which Cherokee forms of violence were changing due to white colonization. Miles also details the Christian conversion of Peggy, and how Peggy’s conversion affected the Cherokees, whites, and enslaved people at Diamond Hill. She also discusses the ways in which the federal government of the United States began significantly curbing the political and social agency of Native Americans, and the impact of that limited agency on the residents of Diamond Hill.

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