Well, I took my grad students to the Jane Addams Hull House Museum and Director Lisa Lee did it again – wowed everyone with her enthusiasm and creativity in reimagining what a house museum is. Not that Jane Addams’ Hull House was ever a typical house museum – preserved under duress during the construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago, the house was sort of a shrine to Addams herself and the institution she created, which still exists elsewhere. It was also subject to an absolutely bizarre restoration – you can see my 2003 research on the subject at http://tigger.uic.edu/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/urbanexp/main.cgi?file=new/show_doc.ptt&doc=834&chap=32.
Addams was all about the radical democracy of speech and free interchange of ideas, and solidarity much more than service. The “residents” of Hull House were people who could live elsewhere but chose to live among working class immigrants, not simply to “help” them but to be with them and learn from them. It was a melding of public and private space and it was an extension of the ideals of a nurturing family to the entire city. I learn something new everytime I go there. They have even started the cell phone tours that will soon be EVERYWHERE
Anyway, Lisa reported that they recently received an NEH grant to put into practice her radical reimagining of this historic site. They are going to restore Jane Addams’s bedroom while they continue to make the main floor of the house a hybrid interactive museum space that interprets the many stories of Hull House, of the women (and some men) who gave us public health, public schools, playgrounds, parks, child labor laws, universal suffrage and a whole lot of art. Lisa talked about art today and it was a taut reminder that art must be in the everyday because it acculturates the other things we do. I suppose many schools will cut art in the name of the current economic conditions, as they often do, but it is no more separable from the body politic than your left arm. Yes, you can cut it off, but the rest won’t function nearly as well. Lisa also repeated the things she learned about TRUTH in South Africa. There are four kinds of truth: Forensic truth – the provable, scientific kind; narrative truth, which is what each of us tells ourselves about ourselves and our experiences; dialogic truth, which is the truth we share with others and thus not identical to our personal narrative truth; and finally restorative truth, which is the hardest of all because…I think because it requires a reckoning of all three other truths. This is what they were doing at Hull House HISTORICALLY and what they are doing there NOW.
I have blogged before about the “Rethinking Soup” they do at Hull House every Tuesday that carries not just the MESSAGE of the building but its historic PRACTICE into the present day, fomenting modern conversations about things like food and health and sustainability just as the Hull House residents debated these subjects for generations in the same space.
This is how historic interpretation should be done; a combination of third person, second person and first person, not one or the other, but all of them. That is the beauty of Jane Addams’ original Hull House – it was experimental and open, it evolved constantly, and it was constantly reinvented and reinvigorated by new blood. Which is what every museum – every institution really – needs to be to be relevant and worth preserving.
Hull House was saved at a time when house museums were shrines, when they told singular, uninflected and generally SAFE stories. Jane Addams’ Hull House museum is one of the best in the world right now because it is always experimenting, never safe and fueled by the energy of people like Lisa Lee. Half of my students wanted to BE her after the visit. Her energy is that infectious. How do you bottle that? That is the great challenge of interpretation, which if it works, is a constant reinterpretation, and like Einsteinian physics, that interpretation understands that the interpretation itself is affected not only by the interpreters but by the viewers. Hence, it is best if they are both, which they are at Hull House. Go. See for yourself. Better yet, see, hear, touch, taste and feel for yourself. Better yet again, do for yourself. It is the story of transformation, of immigration, of a constant arriving and redefining, of the formation and reformation of self and society.
2010 UPDATE: See my posting on the brand new reinterpretation of the Jane Addams Hull House Museum HERE!