Nothing in a Vacuum: Some Thoughts on the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center

Day 213

I want to start this post with a quick blogkeeping update. I'm 213 days into my project of trying 100 new things in 1000 days. I started out keeping the blog fairly open-ended. It's a blog about a learning journey, and I wanted it to be enjoyable to people who like following along on other people's adventures, and also useful for people looking to learn about specific things I am trying out. But I feel that somewhere along the way, I started trying to accomplish too much with the blog and lose focus. It's already a wide spread of topics, because the connecting theme of the things I'm doing is a loose one: the "things" are all related to my work in some way, and I define my work as being connected to history, writing, teaching, and navigating the role of museums in their communities. Some of my posts have been highly analytical, some more reflective, and some have had a specific audience in mind. So, I want to narrow down my focus, to make it easier for me to keep up in writing and for you to keep up in reading.

I'm making two small changes: first, I'm going to write most of my posts on the day that I try the thing they're about. Sometimes it won't be possible, especially when it's a multi-day activity, but it's a goal, and I hope that it will help me keep the flavor of recording a journey. I want to tell you what I liked, what I learned and what I'm wondering. Second, I'm going to ask that any commenting and discussion goes in the comments of the posts on this site, rather than where I re-post to Facebook and Twitter. I hope that this will help commenters interact with one another more by keeping it all in one place.


With these changes in mind, let me tell you about my visit to the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center on Sunday. It was drizzly and gray, not a great day for a multi-building tour, but my partner and I were passing through Hartford, CT, and I had been meaning to see this museum for a long time. I didn't know until we got there that they are doing major restoration to Stowe's house through next summer, so very little of it is on display. But, the tour and many of their artifacts have moved to their visitor center and to another historic house on the property, and we still got to see inside the house while it's under construction.

An engraving of a dramatic scene involving a mother clutching a young child, escaping from slave catchers over a floe of ice.
An illustration of an iconic scene from
 Uncle Tom's Cabin
The Stowe Center is known within museum circles for leaving behind the traditional historic house tour and having taken inspiration from their subject Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote the famous abolitionist novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Many museums grapple with how to connect the issues of the past to the present day without getting too far into visitors' political opinions, and the Stowe Center has chosen to take the bull by the horns and actively encourage visitors to discuss their views. I had heard that they make their visitors sit down and talk about community issues, and I was imagining something like the "Salons at Stowe" program they actually have, but happening with every tour. I don't know whether they used to have more direct mandatory discussion time during their tours and they have changed, or whether the stories that I heard were exaggerated or misunderstandings of what a Stowe Center tour is actually like.

What we had was a fairly traditional historic house tour, at least as much as it could be given that many of the stops were in one of two buildings that aren't the house (because of the restoration). We learned about Stowe's family and early life, her marriage and children, her writing career, and her retirement in this grand house in an exclusive neighborhood. We saw artifacts such as the dining room table where she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the writing desks she used when her children were older, she was a bestselling author, and she presumably had more time to dedicate intentionally to writing. However, the visit included several points where the guide seemed to switch roles from giving a tour to trying to spark and facilitate discussion. 

At the beginning of the visit, we saw a wall of book covers, all of influential books from Uncle Tom's Cabin through the present. The guide asked us if any jumped out at us or made an impression, but as there were only two of us on the tour, my partner and I, the conversation didn't go very far. She invited us to add any titles that came to mind to a bulletin board on the wall, but I was looking forward to the rest of the tour, and didn't want to do what felt like stalling. Maybe a third of the way into the tour, we sat down around a parlor table to examine reproductions of primary sources from the time period. I loved the idea, but I felt like I wasn't the target audience. We talked about them for a few minutes, and then moved on. Probably two-thirds of the way through the tour, we stopped at another table, this one covered in paper and in people's notes in different colored inks. The guide encouraged us to write down a topic that we feel strongly about, the way Stowe felt strongly about slavery. What change did we want to see in the world? 

I really enjoyed the tour, but I think I would have gotten more out of it if there had been a larger group. I never want to be the stick-in-the-mud visitor who won't contribute to the conversation, but I had a hard time engaging with the prompts. I'd just be talking about my political views with my partner whom I know very well, and a tour guide who can't share much of her own views because she's at work. I am sure that the Stowe Center knows that this happens sometimes, and that they either feel it's an acceptable risk of the format, or that they are working to address it. But when there aren't enough people to converse with, conversation falls flat. I usually like visiting museums when they aren't too crowded, but I'd love to take another tour on a day where it's busy.