Friday, March 9, 2018

The Plantation Next Door

I was first drawn to the book Slavery in the Age of Reason: Archaeology at a New England Farm, by Alexandra Chan, because the research in this book was used extensively by the museum that now interprets that New England farm, the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, Massachusetts.

In some ways, I found this book a more useful and interesting introduction to archaeology than From Stonehenge to Las Vegas, a book I picked up specifically to learn more about archaeology (and reviewed on the blog here). I’m partly biased because Slavery in the Age of Reason focused on the sub-field I’m most interested in, historical archeology (as in not prehistorical) that’s done in conjunction with historical or archival understanding of the same space. But, it’s really not comparable with From Stonehenge to Las Vegas, a book about archeological understanding in popular imagination, while Slavery in the Age of Reason describes the findings and implications of a specific archaeological investigation. The book originated out of Chan’s dissertation at Boston University, and it shows in the embedded tables of aggregated data. It’s a book that leaves its methods exposed, which I appreciate, although that sometimes slowed down the narrative.

The book's cover uses a photo of a 1905 
pagaent at the historic estate, a silhouette 
replacing the "servant" in blackface in the 
original photo.
Overall, I think the book would be quite comprehensible to someone who has never visited the site. Being very familiar with the Royall House and Slave Quarters in its current incarnation as a museum -- the lawn that once made up part of the gardens, the slave quarters building which had been renovated and finished before it became a key part of the site’s interpretation, and the house’s first two stories, furnished to evoke the Royalls’ lives -- I found the book’s descriptions of the site easy to navigate. I worked on a visitor data project for the museum a few years ago; I’ve been on more than a dozen tours of the house, so I’m not exactly the typical reader, but I was readily able to visualize the spaces Chan described, remembering scenes I hadn’t thought about at all recently. The book doesn’t rely heavily on having a mental map of the estate, and only a few chapters rely on that at all. I definitely recommend a visit to the Royall House and Slave quarters if you’re in the Boston area, but you shouldn’t avoid the book if you haven’t been. However, I do think my knowledge of the site helped me feel less lost while reading the sections that were heavy on archeology terms or methods. I suspect that readers without familiarity with either the site or archeology would find the book denser.

The book provides insight into a situation that was in some ways, remarkable -- the Royall family was extraordinarily wealthy and held more people in slavery than anyone else in Massachusetts at the time. In other ways, it was very commonplace -- slavery was a regular part of New England society at the time, and while the practice wasn’t universally unquestioned, it wasn’t regarded a shameful secret or a mark of bad character to hold people in slavery. Chan returns to the contradiction pointed out in the title several times. This was supposed to be the Enlightenment, a time when justice and rationality were en vogue, and yet people were enslaved. The book does not resolve this tension (how could it?) but does some work to reveal the myth of benign Northern slavery, such as by calculating how often the Royalls separated enslaved people from their communities and families through sale or trade. Moreover, it shows us glimpses of the real and human lives that the people enslaved on the site lived, from their clay pipes to their salvaged and repaired plates.

Monday, January 8, 2018

History Happening in Manhattan: the African Burial Ground

Unintentionally, I use analysis as a way to distance myself from the emotional power of difficult historical truths. At least, I do this some of the time, and it’s something I need to stay aware of. I noticed this, although perhaps not for the first time, when I was filling a notebook page and my phone’s photos folder at the African Burial Ground National Monument Visitor Center in Manhattan. There was so much I wanted to analyze and document about the informative and moving exhibits -- I took notes for this blog post, for a work project about museums and human remains, and for a personal research project about using historical documents in exhibits. At the same time, other visitors were engrossed in the material, while I was one step back.

I’m not unique in this regard. Museum professionals and historians as well as anthropologists, journalists (...the list goes on) are frequently guilty of over-intellectualizing historical (or present) trauma. Sometimes it’s a measure of self-defense, and often the analysis isn’t the problem, but the way the analysis is handled is. American academic fields and related professional fields are still dominated by white people of European descent, while so many of the historical injustices we study were perpetrated by white Euro-Americans against other groups. In a related issue, some of the analysis can veer into “trauma porn,” or a salacious fascination with picking apart others’ trauma. The personal element is only a piece of this landscape -- the problem is reinforced by who gets grant money, jobs, and publication opportunities, and whether researchers treat people in affected communities as study subjects, or consult them as valued experts. But it was personal distancing I caught myself doing at this visitors center. The exhibits are about American history, so the topic is my heritage in addition to being moving on a basic human level, but as a white person, it’s already easier to distance myself from the enslaved Africans buried on the site than it would be for many others, as they are not my ancestors. I tried to check back in to the powerful story, while still taking notes on the museum’s approach. Continuing to distance myself completely would have been a disservice to my own experience of the site, as well as irresponsible.

The African Burial Ground was used from 1627 to 1794 by the community of enslaved Africans who lived in Manhattan and whose forced labor built much of the city. Slavery continued in New York until 1827. Scholars estimate that 10,000 or more people were buried in the African Burial Ground.

The visitor center, which opened in 2010, takes about an hour for a thorough visit. It starts with a short introductory film, which moves back and forth between depicting an enslaved child in the 18th century preparing for her father’s burial, and telling the story of the site’s rediscovery in 1991 and the work on the part of African-American activists -- the descendant community -- to save as much of the site and the intact burials as they could from development, damage due to rushed excavation, and most of all, from being ignored by the city and the federal government. The compromise they won involved a relatively small area of open space. In 2007 an artful, meditative monument was dedicated on the site as a memorial to the burial ground’s unnamed occupants. Interpretation in the visitor center does not shy away from describing the effort it took to get the site recognized; both the advocacy and the celebrations by the descendant community is now part of the site’s story, and of the story of New York City.

More than 400 intact graves were excavated by a team of archaeologists, and meticulously studied and documented by specialists at Howard University. The film quotes a member of the team who recalled being asked repeatedly, “are you going to show the bones?” She remembered realizing that for a lot of the public, the bones are what would make the story feel real. The visitor center does not display any real bones, or any of the real personal effects of the dead. All of them were reinterred in a joyous and reverent public ceremony in 2003. However, it does have a wall with an image of each grave site during excavation, so the visitor can see every skeleton. I’m sure the decision to display these images is controversial -- the people buried there were certainly not able to give their permission -- but it sounds like it was a considered decision, led by the descendant community, and the effect is quite powerful.

The small visitor center packs a lot of information and emotion. It includes replicas of items buried with people on the site, a good explanation of various techniques used to understand as much as possible about each person from their remains and grave site, and an exhibit about the lives, culture, and work of enslaved Africans in New York. When you visit, I recommend taking the time to immerse yourself fully in the exhibits and in the meaning of the site.

The outdoor memorial. Image by Wikimedia Commons user dmadeo.

Postscript: What I’ve said above about over-intellectualizing historical trauma is simplified, over-simplified, for the sake of space. If this is an issue that affects you and you feel I got it wrong, please feel free to let me know in whatever level of detail you have the energy for. If you’re new to the idea, here is an article about what trauma porn is (although the article relates to current events). Here's a scholarly source on the historiography of trauma as a category (which I have not yet read, but it is well-recommended). For more on the scholarship and lived experience of race as it intersects with the museum field, I recommend LaTanya Autry's blog Artstuffmatters, and the blog Visitors of Color. That's nowhere near an exhaustive list, just two that are on my mind at the moment.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Horrible stories well told: reviewing “Complicity: How the North promoted, prolonged, and profited from slavery”

Three journalists, Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jenifer Frank, were shaken by what they found as they did research for a special edition of Northeast, the Sunday magazine of the Hartford Courant. Their mid-2000's project exposed the newspaper's and Connecticut's participation in slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. After saying, “but wait, weren't we the good guys in the Civil War?” and grappling with their new understanding, the three expanded their focus to write the book Complicity: How the North promoted, prolonged, and profited from slavery. Between the ivory trade, the business of kidnapping blacks from the North to sell into slavery, the rum industry, and the textile industry, all of which are described in the book, Northerners were not just complicit in the system of slavery. They participated.

In some ways, I think Complicity would be a better book if it weren't written in the face of the national myth that the North was against slavery without complications. The introduction in particular feels a little sensational and “gotcha,” as if the authors expect readers' minds to be blown by the new information, and that style doesn't hold up well if the reader already knows some of it. The mere fact that Northern traders and industrialists profited handsomely off of slavery is shocking in the sense that it's appalling, but only a surprise to some. In addition, the chapters are poorly linked together, without much to describe how the New Haven carriage makers, Philadelphia taxonomists, and New York slave smugglers fit into the same larger economy. The effect is that each chapter stands alone, but together they form a litany of the different ways the rich and powerful in the North were some of the worst offenders in perpetuating the cruelty of chattel slavery. The exhausting effect on the reader could not, and should not, have been avoided in writing about this subject. However, because Complicity does not have much pulling the chapters into a cohesive whole, you could read three chapters profiling different industries, or thirteen, and get a similar effect.

Of course, this book was indeed written in the face of the national myth that the North was not complicit in slavery, with the intention to wake readers up. The extent to which Northern fortunes were made on the backs of slaves – including those newly kidnapped from Africa in the 1860s, decades after the US outlawed the international slave trade – is not just shocking but genuinely surprising to most people. If we ever reach a time in our society when the impacts of Northern industries are a part of the story of slavery as it's commonly understood, a book like Complicity might be written somewhat differently, making more of a scholarly argument even though it's for a general audience. As it is, the book focuses on making just one statement: this really happened.

Despite my wondering what the book would be like if readers already understood “how the North promoted, prolonged, and profited from slavery,” I learned a lot from the book, and enjoyed it to the extent that you can enjoy reading a history of exploitation. I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in American history. The profiles it gives of various industries involved in the slave economy are highly informative. I sometimes think that journalists make the best history writers in terms of storytelling. Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns which I reviewed on the blog, is an example, as well as modern classics like Barbara Tuchman. In Complicity, Farrow, Lang, and Frank join this tradition, with horrible stories well told. Recalling the Philip Graham quote that journalism is “a first rough draft of history,” the authors mused in the book's conclusion that they were “doing what reporters rarely have a chance to do: present a second draft of history.” The legacy of slavery has been retold and reshaped countless times in American history, so often with the aim of dismissing the extent of the harm or shifting the blame. As a historian and a citizen, I deeply believe that each successive draft of how we understand our past ought to be a more accurate one. It's clear that Farrow, Lang, and Frank share this goal, and have done useful work toward it.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Not just another brick in the wall

"Read some publications from one of the urban youth writing programs in the Boston area, like 826 or WriteBoston" was on my blog list as an interesting way to learn more about my community from perspectives I don't ordinarily encounter. Since I sometimes teach high school field trips but know very few high schoolers personally, I also thought reading some student writing would be a nice way to reconnect with the thoughts and experiences of that age group. 826 Boston is a program based in Roxbury's Egleston Square that teaches young people creative writing, essay writing, and more. I wasn't sure whether I'd end up recommending what I read to other people, since at least some of the writing is bound to be unpolished. 826 has a lot of student work online for free, but I wanted to give some money to the cause, so I bought a book, "Tendríamos asistencia perfecta/Attendance Would Be 100%: Student Proposals for High School Redesign Boston." It ended up being one of the most thought-provoking books I've read this year.

The book, which came out last year, was written by seniors at the Margarita Muñiz Academy, a new bilingual high school in the Boston Public Schools. Each student interviewed an adult who works in education or is connected to a mentoring or internship program. It's also clear that they did research on an education-related subject of their choice. The result is that the book serves as a useful crash course in current education design theories and practices, as well as a window into real high schoolers' perspectives. The students' proposals included some programs beyond the current BPS budget, but well within the realm of possibility, as other schools do them. A couple of distinct patterns emerged. Students are still asking the age-old question "When am I going to use this?" but here, they envision more vocational training, applied arts and business classes, internships, and dual-enrollment college courses. High schoolers care deeply about whether they fit in, but it's not (solely) about the approval of the popular kids. The student authors talk about school as a place they could be getting the mentorship and support not all of them get at home, and a place where being bilingual can be a source of alienation or of community and cultural exchange depending on their school environment. They also returned often to the theme of learning to be independent and do well at work or college. The de rigueur term for this is "soft skills," such as time management, self-directed tasks, and knowing the implicit dress code of a workplace. Some students wrote about their high school's programs that they want all students to benefit from, and others wrote about opportunities they wish they had. 

The cover of the book is sort of yearbook-style, with small photos of each student in a grid.

The book was an engaging and quick read, but it often challenged my thinking. All of the students wrote their articles in both Spanish and English, but with the exception of the a short bio of each student, the text doesn't appear in both languages. Most of the essays are printed in English, but some are in Spanish and some include an introduction in one language and more detail in the other. As a museum person, I'm used to bilingual text being a feature to help more people access the content, so I expect the same information to be present in both languages. This seemed to be more of a cultural choice, reflecting the use of language at their school, and allowing students to choose which version of their essay they wanted to show the world. As an English speaker in the US, I'm used to being the target audience, language-wise, of anything I pick up. 

One thing that really struck me was the way the students spoke about themselves in their bios -- for many of them, the bio was like a little manifesto of who they are and who they plan to become. In many cases, it was clear to me that the students' lives are very different from my own at their age. Some of the high school seniors are as old as 20, many of them having come to the US partway through their education. They write about not having time for homework because they have work five nights a week, and they all know kids who have dropped out because they want to earn more money to help their families. Several pointed out that vocational training in high school would save them tens of thousands of dollars by allowing them to bypass or shorten their training after graduation. I share some other adults' worry that kids will get tracked too young, and particularly that minority students will be pigeonholed by socioeconomic status rather than by their own career goals, but this book helped me see the value in offering vocational training to the students who want it. 

It was obvious that this was not just a school assignment to these students, that many of them really care about what happens for the classes below them. By now, the authors of the book have graduated. I hope they are all on to do the things they dreamed about doing next. I'm left thinking about what those of us who don't work in the school system can do to help students grow. Paid internships and workstudy will help, but all of the high school redesign in the world won't fix some of the underlying problems, whether the students are studying for their cosmetology license or APs -- Boston has a known affordable housing problem and far too many families stuck in poverty. Certainly, voting for city leaders and school committees that will effect change is one step we can all take. We can also get more of our workplaces involved in the internships and other connections to the working world that help kids understand what they're studying and translate it into careers.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

A Day in the life: watching a museum in action

Day 548

11:30 am
It’s been at least a year since I’ve spent a full day in the galleries at the museum where I work, a small medical museum in Boston. Normally, I have contact with visitors a few times a week, when I give tours of the museum, a responsibility that’s shared between staff and our volunteer docents. I’m effectively a curator/educator, and my days are full of researching, designing, and writing exhibits; scheduling group visits and working on educational programs; and putting out fires -- luckily, none literal yet. I spend time in the galleries when I’m refilling supplies, measuring an area for an exhibit in development, installing an exhibit, or talking with our docents or security officer. I strongly believe that spending time in the galleries and observing how visitors interact with the museum is important for museum staffers at all levels. Visitors give us our purpose, and we have to have our finger on the pulse. However, it takes real effort to make the time when there’s so much else to do. Today I’m covering our security desk, so I don’t get to interact with visitors that much, but I do get to be a fly on the wall.
A hand-held clicker for counting visitors.
When a museum's very busy, clicking
in visitors while also talking with them can
take a little dexterity! Today it was easy.

12:30 pm

I got here at around 10:30, and we opened at 11. Since then, we’ve had five visitors, which is about what I expected for a rainy Saturday. Because I’m covering the security desk, I get to use the computer program that shows us a feed from each security camera, tiled in one screen. It’s hard to get used to. People are small in the slightly warped lens views, and sometimes they show up in more than one camera at once, where there’s overlap. It’s hard to distinguish people when they’re not moving, but also, their movements are jerky. It even took me a second to recognize myself. Last summer, we had an intern do some visitor studies using our camera footage, looking at how long the average visitor stays, which corners of the exhibits they walk right by, and so on. I have even more appreciation for the work that she did, and that our security officers do, when I’m reminded of the trickiness of this way of observing people.

1:30 pm
I’m seeing a mix of people who appear to be completists, working methodically through the exhibits, and people who wander around stopping at things that catch their eye. Some of them use our interactive computer screens that play videos, and I’m finding that more than one soundtrack playing at once annoys me, especially on a day like today when it’s otherwise quiet in the museum. We have two films which play on a loop all day; one is silent, but as soon as anything else plays the sounds compete. Part of me wishes that we had less noise and some headphones on the kiosks, but I know that on a busier day the videos mix with the sounds of visitors talking, and while it’s louder it’s also more pleasant. Many museums have moved away from the old model of being still and hushed, and I think that while quiet contemplation has its place in museums, overall, an environment where people can talk and watch videos is great. Still, there’s no perfect balance. A big drawback to our model is that it’s unfriendly to people who are prone to sensory overload. An advantage is that it’s lively and engaging to many visitors who like the “wander and explore” method of visiting.

2:30 pm
Just a silly thing: of course, the phone rang and two visitors walked in just as I was taking a bite of my sandwich. It’s been slower for me now that our afternoon docent is here.

3:30 pm
One thing I’m noticing is that most people coming into the museum are in pairs. I don’t want to presume relationships between people, but it’s probably safe to say most of them are couples. I’m reminded of a blog post I read that pondered why museum-goers are more likely to be married than non-museum-goers. The untested theory, which I feel rings true, is that people with a live-in partner (whether or not they’re married) have an easier time planning trips to a museum, since most people go to museums with other people. Personally, I really like going to museums alone at least some of the time, but I know I’m in the minority there. After the first time I read the statistic about married museum-goers, I daydreamed about designing some sort of app or social media plugin for setting up platonic museum dates: you could post that you’re interested in visiting a particular museum, or any museum on a particular day, and be matched with a friend or stranger. I know some museums take the opposite approach, and have singles nights or general mixers, often catering to the young professional crowd. In reality, I’m not sure this pattern is a problem to be solved, as I think it’s true of a lot of leisure activities -- I’d be interested to see whether matinee movie-goers are more likely to be married, for example.

4:30 pm
We’ve had more visitors since 3 pm than we had the rest of the day combined. The ebbs and flows are pretty unpredictable sometimes. We close at 5, so I’ll be here until a little bit after that. Sitting at a desk near the entrance of a museum is no replacement for actually wandering around the galleries, interacting with visitors or seeing how they react to the exhibits. Still, it’s been an interesting day. I’ll continue to try to make time to be out on the floor. Even fifteen minutes a week, that isn’t for tours or anything except seeing what the visitors are doing, can be a way to help me better understand what resonates with them, which in turn helps me create better exhibits and programs.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Digging into Decorative Orbs

Day 544

One of the new things I told myself I would try as part of this blog project was, "Buy something inexpensive and unfamiliar from an antique store and research its story." On a rainy Sunday, I stopped by the Cambridge Antique Market in search of an object to blog about. By the way, for those of you in the Cambridge/Boston area, if you haven't checked this place out, you really should, it's huge and a wonderful place to wander around. As I started browsing, I realized a small hiccup in my plan: when I'm looking at things I know a little about, I can kind of tell whether it's worth picking up and looking at the price tag, or whether it's not priced for me. I don't mean I have any kind of antiquing expertise, just general knowledge, and sometimes I'm very wrong and very surprised. But, when I was specifically looking for things I did't know anything about, I had no sense of whether the doohickey I was looking at would be $5 or $85.

I kind of hoped to find something with traces of its former owner, but that's easier said than done. I found some pieces I'd happily write fiction about the owners of, like a sleek black purse that was either from the 1950s or imitating that period. I went back and forth as to whether I should limit myself to something with a maker's mark -- a brand name, signature, or something else that indicates who made an object. If it had that, I could dig for a little bit of the history of the particular item, rather than just the type of item. I considered a baking tin that had a brand embossed in the side, but I wasn't particularly struck by it.

The thing I settled on has almost no identifying marks, and I'll never know who owned it before me. It could be from one of many different time periods. It's a porcelain sphere about the size of an orange, with a design in white and blue glaze that feels somewhat Asian or Asian-inspired to me. The price tag called it a "porcelain parlor ball." I wondered whether that's an established name for these things, or whether the vendor just decided to call it that -- I've seen a few misleading object names on Cambridge Antique Market price tags. I've seen these balls before. They're just decorative spherical things, as far as I know. But, I found this one pretty, and it was $6, so I decided this would be my object.

A blue and white ceramic ball sitting on a wood floor.
I own this thingy now.

Before the internet, my first stop would have been a regular encyclopedia, or a collector's guide to antiques (available at a lot of libraries). The search is much easier now, although there's also more irrelevant stuff to weed through. In searching for "porcelain parlor ball," "ceramic ball" "ceramic sphere," and similar terms, I found a couple of articles on the Victorian pastime of "carpet ball," also known as parlor ball, carpet bowl, or parlor bowl. It was essentially indoor bocce, or like a game of pool on the ground without cues, using wooden or ceramic balls. Some places claim that it's Scottish, others Canadian -- my guess is that it was popular in the greater United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. The versions I saw used ceramic balls that were kind of striped or plaid, which is pretty far from the swirly blue and white pattern on mine, but it seems plausible. My next stop was to look in history museum collections. These days, museum catalogs are readily available online, and often have more complete information than antiques catalogs. I used many of the same search terms I used in Google, and focused on museums around here and in places the game was popular. The Canadian Museum of History has several, and the National Museums of Scotland have at least a dozen, but with very bare catalog records. From the former, I learned that the average size of carpet balls is about five to eight centimeters in diameter -- mine fits right in that rage at about 7 cm, which makes it even more plausible that a carpet ball is the answer.

A somewhat dingy white sphere with thin black lines circling it in two directions, to form an irregular checked pattern. Beside it is a card with blocks of several colors.
A ceramic carpet ball in the Children's Museum of the Canadian Museum of History. The color strip beside it is commonly used in photographing museum collections, to compare the color to a known standard across different computer screens, photo prints, and aging objects.
This blog post was going to end with me getting more detail, hopefully corroborating my theory but possibly giving me new, different theories, by looking through books on antique ceramics and toys. I had an "adventure" with my library's delivery desk that ended up taking much longer than planned and only got me one of the books I had requested. That book, on toys, didn't mention carpet balls or anything else this is likely to be. Honestly, that's what a lot of history research is -- shots in the dark, and "this source probably won't have anything, but how sad would it be to miss out if it did have something?" If learning about this ball I bought was part of a bigger project, rather than a blog post (or it had really hooked into my curiosity), of course I'd keep at it, but in this case, I'm satisfied with the answer that it's probably for carpet bowls.

A tall, slender teapot or pitcher with an intricate floral design and some gold or copper around the edges.
An early example of blue and white porcelain from China, c. 1335
In the Musee Guimet, image by Wikipedia user World Imaging
I've picked up some small tidbits of knowledge on styles of ceramic glazing, mostly from visiting decorative arts museums. One such tidbit is that blue and white glazing isn't just two colors together, it's practically its own genre, one that originated in Asia. I looked online (and in that ill-fated library adventure) for resources on blue and white ceramics, and found that the Wikipedia article is pretty helpful. Blue and white glazing has its origins in Iraq but first became widespread in China in the 14th century, starting with glaze made from Persian cobalt. These ceramics became popular in the export market, and by the 16th century, European makers were imitating the blue and white styles, as well as attempting to replicate the delicate porcelain often just called "china." The famous blue-and-white pottery from Delft, in the Netherlands, came out of this trend. 

It's not surprising, then, that my blue and white ball has the feel of an Asian art style. I can't put my finger on what style that is, which may be due to my own lack of knowledge on the subject, or because it's a loose adaptation. The Wikipedia article doesn't say much past the 18th century, but a little more scouting around told me that asian-inspired blue and white ceramics were still popular in the Victorian era. With no other marks on the ball or information from the previous owner, I have no way to tell whether my purchase is from the era when carpet bowls was all the rage, or whether it's a recent reproduction. It doesn't matter to me. I have a new curio, and know a bit more about history.

P.S. If any readers have more information or informed guesses about my ball, please feel free to let me know! 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Spoiled for other lighthouses

A tall white lighthouse and two one-room buildings at its base, against a blue sky.
Boston Light, plus the small "museum room" where you enter
and a cistern house that collects rainwater for the island.
Day 538

As I mentioned when I added “visit a lighthouse” to my blog list, I don’t remember the last time I toured a lighthouse but I remember telling my American Girl doll all about it when I got home, so it was probably a while ago. On Saturday, I played tourist in my own town and visited Boston Light. At $45 for an adult climbing the tower, it’s a steeper price than I’m used to for an afternoon’s adventure, but I liked it enough I’d consider going again (just not all the time, because $45). I had such a good time, I wonder whether other lighthouses will compare.

It’s not the lighthouse itself that’s so special. It is lovely, roughly 100 feet tall, with a second-order Fresnel lens, a particular style of lighthouse lens which is a pretty cool piece of engineering. What made it for me was that the outing had a bit of everything I like in a tourist or “tourist” experience: history, scenery, nature, and exploring. It’s the oldest light station in the country, and second-oldest standing lighthouse (it would be the oldest if the original hadn’t been burned by the British in 1776). I was there on a day when it had been foggy in the morning but the fog was lifting as we boated out there, and everything was perfectly picturesque. A staff member was there to point out the most interesting things in the tidepools on Little Brewster Island, the home of the lighthouse. I’m not afraid of heights, per se, but I felt a little challenged by the two ladders leading up to the upper levels of the lighthouse. It didn’t feel like we were there for very long, and I would have enjoyed a longer stay -- most of the 3.5 hour round trip was taken up with the ferry ride -- but I tend to be more thorough than many people when I visit a historic site.

I appreciated a lot of what the staff did to make it a good experience. I say “the staff” because they included people from a mix of organizations: Coast Guard officers, National Park Service rangers, and a volunteer from Friends of the Harbor Islands. The ferry ride included narration about the history of the islands and landmarks we were passing, which unfortunately was rather hard to hear unless you found the sweet spots on deck where the sound was good. On the way out to the island, it was mostly Native history, and on the way back, it was mostly US history. It was closer to a proportional divide, based on the length of time each set of cultures has been dominant in the area, than you normally get, which I liked. The staff was also good at making sure the visitors had the information we needed, which I’m sure was informed by dealing with lots of tourists. For example, they emphasized that there’s a public bathroom on board the ferry but not on the island. They also repeated that in going up the lighthouse, you can opt out of climbing at any point. One staffer said, “you won’t be the first, and you won’t be the last.” While it made the lighthouse sound a bit intimidating, it was also great that they made it so clear that a visitor who didn’t feel comfortable going to the top was not going to cause any problems. For me, determined to get to the top, I appreciated that once the stairs stopped and the ladders started, they had very clearly marked hand-holds at the top. 

Looking down a spiral staircase with black treads at the edge of white steps. A curved brick wall is at the left.
The spiral stairs weren't bad, but not quite as comfortable as the stairs at home.

They had us go up the tower (can I call a lighthouse a tower? Well, I’m a landlubber, I don’t have to be precise) in groups of 8 people at a time. We only had fifteen minutes, but the top of the lighthouse is actually very warm and small, so after the initial oohing and ahhing at the view and at the light itself, I was fine coming back down to explore the rest of the small island. This time, I went alone, but next summer, I’ll be back, and bringing friends.