Hull House Revisited

So I took my First Year Program Residential College Research Studio I class to Hull House on Tuesday. I blogged about Hull House in Spring 2007, gushing about how they were reinventing what it meant to be a house museum. Well, it is all true, thanks to Director Lisa Lee and her able staff, now including SAIC HPRES alum Weston Davey. We were there for “Rethinking Soup,” a weekly free soup kitchen-and-discussion session that fills the historic Dining Hall. Two programs on nutrition and food stimulated a participant discussion on everything from vegetarianism to sustainability. Books on the topic and crayons were in easy reach along with whole wheat rolls on the butcher-paper-covered tables. Several of my students spoke up during the discussion, which was excellent of them.

Our class also had another discussion on immigration, which the Hull House people set up via a visual language game – about 40 photos on the wall meant to start a discussion on immigration. Our group got into it well, and the students have a lot of such experiences, since many of their parents and even some of them were, in fact, recent immigrants. We of course toured the house, saw the latest in interpretation, which still includes the excellent public-participation component where visitors are asked to choose which of three captions should adorn the portrait of Jane Addams’ longtime companion Mary Rozet Smith.

They also have a very good film about the legacy of Hull House, as well as displays on many of its missions, ranging from day care and education to peace activism, crafts (the Hull House kilns) and their pioneering sociological study. Oh, there is also nutrition and public health and labor reform and all sorts of other mischief cooked up in the block of buildings once there. They even have a model of that block, now two false shells (with real interiors) of the old mansion and Dining Hall.

We come here as part of a class that is looking at different ways of interpreting history and I was struck again by how Lisa Lee has interpreted history in the most effective way possible: by continuing it. In our immigration discussion, in our nutrition discussion over squash soup, we were doing what Jane Addams and the Women of Hull House did in 1890 and 1910 and 1940 – discussing issues of the day in a free and open forum. You don’t have to tell people what happened there, because what the visitors are doing IS what happened there. And it is still happening there. There is no plaque, no sculpture, no display case, no film, no living history reenactment that can exceed that. Not only is the visitor interpreting the site by participating in the type of forum engendered in that Dining Hall, they are extending and expanding that history. I don’t know that I have ever found a better example of how history is interpreted and I don’t know if I have ever experienced more clearly the reality that history is a thing that began in the past and is not over yet. It doesn’t matter that the architecture was so badly restored in 1965, because the historic significance of this building is powerfully alive.

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