The good, the bad, and the cringeworthy at the Commonwealth Museum

Day 533

I wish that I had visited the Commonwealth Museum when I first moved to Massachusetts. It’s attached to the state archives, and it has a nice overview of some parts of state political and economic history (and a bit of social history as they intersect with the former two). Their “treasures gallery,” which houses several of the most important political documents of the state’s early history, is very much worth seeing if you like to feel the power of the original.

A manuscript with a very ornate header beginning "William and Mary"
The 1691 charter for Massachusetts, one of the documents on display in the treasures gallery.
The museum, which is out at Columbia Point by UMass and the JFK Library and Museum, presents history from the early 17th through late 19th centuries in a handful of fairly well designed exhibits. (I don’t know where the 20th century went). The information is given in short, digestible pieces, and there’s an overall chronological flow but there’s no rigid order you need to read things in. Each exhibit has several interactive components -- my favorite was a “race to Boston” game depicting travel within Massachusetts in 1810 -- but when I visited, many of the interactives were broken or off, which is frustrating. There are plenty of historical documents incorporated in the exhibits, as is fitting for a museum at an archive. They did hit a pet peeve of mine, which is that the displays didn’t note which documents were replicas (which I think may have been all of them).

The museum is reasonably good, but I didn’t really like it. I felt like I had heard everything before, and I can normally enjoy and learn from museums even when I know a lot about the content area, but this one didn’t do it for me. It could have just been my mood that day, but more likely, I think I was very much not the target audience -- for one thing, already I know Massachusetts well. For another, I get the impression that the Commonwealth Museum is designed to receive a lot of school field trips, and I’m not in the demographic for that! Occasionally, the exhibit text felt a little like a textbook trying very hard to be engaging; the walls were sprinkled with thought questions about abstract versions of the subject being discussed, such as “Can you think of places in the world where cultural misunderstandings have led to conflict?”

A stone -- granite? -- building with the name Massachusetts Archives above the entrance.

It wouldn’t be appropriate to write about the Commonwealth Museum without addressing the way the museum addresses native history. The exhibit waffles between acknowledging the diversity of native nations and treating them as an interchangeable lump, and between acknowledging the European settlers’ drive for conquest and presenting any conflict as caused by neutral misunderstandings. For example, the exhibit text lists several different native peoples who live or once lived on the land that’s now Massachusetts. Then it goes on to say “Many Massachusetts locations retain Native names,” and list twenty place names with translations -- but it doesn’t say which language they are translated from, or which people created those names. More seriously, the exhibit text seems ambivalent on whether the English settlers were at fault for the wars between these settlers and native groups. In a section labeled “culture wars,” it does say “[King Philip’s] war’s deeper cause was the colonists’ relentless appetite for Native land.” The exhibit also seems determined to show that the colonizers did not set out to make war, but came here with ideas about settlement that were incompatible with local ideas. Not a bad or inaccurate premise on its own, when you’re looking specifically at English pilgrims and puritans of the early 17th century. However, the exhibit text takes this to a point that makes conflicts feel tragically inevitable, such as in the line, “In time, these cultural differences would lead to deadly conflict.” The “misunderstandings” question above is from the same section.

So, with that important caveat, I recommend the Commonwealth Museum if you’d like an overview of some local history and want to do that in a museum setting, or if you think the treasures gallery is going to be up your alley. Be prepared for some broken interactive elements, and to think critically about what you’re reading, especially if you bring kids.