Posts Tagged ‘house museum’

Hull House Again

March 10, 2009

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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.
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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
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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!

Hull House Revisited

October 3, 2008

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.