A Reluctant Visit to a Local Museum

November 6, 2018 |  Tagged , | Comments Off on A Reluctant Visit to a Local Museum

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Rock Hall Museum is a colonial mansion situated in the town of Lawrence in Nassau County, just over the border from Queens. The house was originally built in the 1760s by Isaiah Martin, a wealthy planter from the Caribbean who moved to Long Island to retire near the sea and escape the threat of slave rebellions that were rocking the region. Today, the museum is furnished with artifacts from the American colonial era and offers tours of the house as well as several regular community events. I brought my husband Nate to Rock Hall during one such event, the annual Country Fair. In addition to the regular tours, the Country Fair includes traveling historical exhibits that are not generally found at the museum, including reenactors who show visitors how cooking, metalworking, spinning, and other crafts were performed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (The fair also offers face painting, a pumpkin patch, and sand art—but we left those out of the interview.) Despite the fact that Nate has lived in this area his entire life, he doesn’t generally have a particular interest in studying history and so had never before taken the time to visit the museum. After our visit, I interviewed him on his experience.

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3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Ilanna: Before we began our tour, what were your expectations for the experience?

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Nate: I thought it would be similar to other museums I had visited in the past. I was expecting to find a random collection of items from the time period. In my head, this museum would seem more like a showcase of collector items, similar to an art museum. I was also expecting a lot of plaques. I didn’t realize that it would be set up on the inside to look like a house from the period—and even if I did know that, I wouldn’t know what it would look like because before we arrived I didn’t even know in which era the house was built.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Ilanna: Did you expect to enjoy the experience?

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Nate: Not really. I felt like most museums and history exhibits are geared towards history students, and not the general public. Someone who knows history well or is already invested in it would be excited to see a real example of something they already know about, but most people don’t particularly care if these things exist.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Ilanna: Did your actual experience match your expectations?

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Nate: No, it was completely different. Not only was Rock Hall set up very differently from any other museum I had been to, it turned out it was much more interesting than I thought it would be. I enjoyed it a lot more because the museum explained a lot about my hometown where I lived my entire life. I wasn’t expecting the museum to feel as relevant as it ended up feeling.

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10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Ilanna: So it peaked your interest because it was connected to the history of your hometown?

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Nate: Definitely. If it was in any other town, I probably wouldn’t have particularly cared about the details of the presentation. But once our tour guide started talking about names of people and places that are familiar to me, I started really getting interested and curious to learn more. For example, he mentioned that one of the later buyers of the house was a Mr. Hewlett, which is the name of one of the towns nearby. So once I found out this town is named after a family, I wanted to learn about why they were important enough to have a town named after them. That really peaked my interest and I wanted to learn more. So I started asking the guide questions, and I got more invested in the tour in general. I thought it was so interesting that the Martin and Hewlett families lived so long ago, but they lived on a street I knew well, and had the same view of the ocean that I see all the time. We are from completely different times in history but we are from the same place.

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13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Ilanna: What did you learn today that you didn’t know before?

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Nate: First of all, I didn’t even know that there were settlements on Long Island this early in history. I also thought the guide’s explanation of music was interesting. I play music myself, and I never realized that in the past there was such a strong association with the ability to play sheet music and social class. I also didn’t know there was such a thing as bed warmers, so that was pretty cool. But honestly what I found the most surprising was the fact that Rock Hall had slaves. I had obviously learned about slavery in America before, but I had never connected it to this region. It never occurred to me that the day-to-day interactions in my hometown had once included slavery.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Ilanna: I’m actually glad you mentioned that, because I was planning on bringing that up. I’d like to hear more of your perspective on the more controversial topics that the tour presented. Like you mentioned, Martin was a slave owner—he had several enslaved people here at Rock Hall, and the Martin family’s wealth was originally from Caribbean plantations.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Nate: I think it was handled very well, actually. They weren’t trying to whitewash the problematic aspects of the past. Like you said, it was explicitly brought up during the tour, and there was a section of the museum that discussed the slaves who lived here. I’m glad that it was discussed. Even though it was jarring to realize that slavery is a part of the history of Long Island, the fact is slaves did live in this house, and it’s important to acknowledge that. At the same time, the slavery issue was not the main point of the museum. I think they handled it well enough to make it an important point of the tour, without it dominating the entire tour. It was also interesting that they portrayed the second owner of the house—the son of Isiah Martin—in a more sympathetic light. He was a community doctor trained in Scotland who wasn’t part of his father’s plantation culture, and he ended up freeing his slaves, educating them, and leaving them his inheritance. I thought that was very interesting.

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18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Ilanna: What did you think of the physical presentation of the museum? For example, the layout of the museum and the way the artifacts were exhibited?

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Nate: I like that they tried to put you in the shoes of someone who would have come to visit the house at the time. I liked that there was a pretty well-informed tour guide —you wouldn’t have gotten a lot of the information self-guided. It annoyed me a little that a lot of the items were of the time but didn’t necessarily belong to the owner. I was trying to get a vision in my head of what this individual family was like—I was trying to understand the Martin family’s specific tastes and preferences. But the items did not all necessarily belong to him and the museum didn’t indicate which were which, so I couldn’t infer things about him. So at first it felt more intimate, like experiencing a real person’s home, but when I found out the items weren’t all from the actual house it started feeling a lot more like a museum.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Ilanna: What did you think of the people displaying crafts outside?

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Nate: I think it was nice because it gave you a glimpse into how things worked back in the day. It highlighted the fact that basic household chores and making basic supplies was so much more difficult in the past. I don’t know if it added that much to my experience of Rock Hall, though. It was from the general time, but wasn’t meshed into the exhibit in the house. What really sold me on the whole experience of Rock Hall was that it was a story of a family that actually existed. And the outdoor crafts weren’t really part of that story. They felt more like peddlers trying to sell us things. The information that they provided was interesting, but it was more like an encyclopedia visit, like random presentations, rather than a cohesive narrative.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Ilanna: Do you think this tour was valuable for your understanding of history?

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Nate: I can see it being beneficial.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Ilanna: What would you change about the museum?

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Nate: I want to experience more of the story of the man and the family. I wish there was a way to be more in tune with the people who really lived there. I also wanted to learn more about the local history. If it wasn’t for me asking, I wouldn’t even know about the Hewlett family purchasing the estate. I want to know more about that family as well, and about this area in general. What was in this area besides for Rock Hall?

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Ilanna: So you have more questions. It seems like there is still a lot to learn.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Nate: Definitely.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Ilanna: Will you try to find answers to your questions?

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Nate: Probably not. It’s one thing to visit a site to have information presented for you, but I don’t really have the motivation to go and research all of this myself. I can see how this might rally peak the interests of someone who was more interested in doing historical research, though.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Ilanna: So if I were to do some research on the history of Long Island and Queens, you would be interested in hearing about what I find out?

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Nate: Of course! But I wouldn’t do it myself. If there were more museums like this in the area, I would definitely visit them.


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