Posts Tagged ‘Lisa Lee’

Hull House Reopens!

September 8, 2010

Hull House Museum reopened September 9 with a day-long celebration that started at Noon in Daley Plaza, celebrating the 150th birthday of Nobel-prize winning social activist and Hull House founder Jane Addams.

Come see what Lisa Lee and Mike Plummer (and my good friend Bob Johnson, who redid the interior) have done with the interpretation, which I reviewed last night:

IT’S GREAT! There is an openness to the overall design that is inviting and a contrast to the ancient stereotype of the house museum. It also more realistically conveys the use of the house, which was full of people and activities, and not a traditional Victorian house.

The interpretation is complex but crisp, innovative in its use of technology without being smitten with technology. In fact, it uses pretty much every kind of interpretation there is, from wall text and vitrines for objects to cell phone audio tours and interactive “find this thing” worksheets.

These are in the rear parlor, which served as a dining room early on, and has old historic books you can look at (and some you can’t, but they are both there) and art from Hull House residents.

I can remember being at a building conservation conference in Sweden three years ago and hearing about cell phone audio tours – Hull House used them even before this reinterpretation – and they are sagely used not to talk about the past alone but link the social justice mission of 19th century Hull House with similar (and sometimes identical) missions today.

I learned a lot in the front parlor, which focuses on key women reformers, Florence Kelley, who fled an abusive husband in the 1890s and helped eliminate child labor; Ida B. Wells, who fought lynching, Julia Lathrop, Ellen Gates Starr and more. Their stories are in circular vitrines that combine objects and text, while the wall mailbox used by residents is repurposed to link to present day issues.

One of the most innovative rooms is the octagonal bay, where there is a sound installation that combines audio files from Hull House residents and commentators with period sounds like streetcars, typewriters, sewing machines and more. Sound history is a relatively new field, and it is exciting to hear it in this context.

The thing that really got me excited when I walked in was the new model of the Hull House complex, lovingly rendered by John Peplinski, who dug even deeper for photos and images than I did when I first traced the history of the buildings back in 2003. The level of detail in the model is amazing, and it is set in front of the famous – but flawed – painting of the 1856 Hull House that was used for the 1960s restoration.

The model is fantastic – you can see the diamond-paned windows and diaper brick patterns so indicative of Pond & Pond’s work, you can see the bridges and balconies and even the TB tent on top of the Crane Nursery. It was very exciting to see it in such detail.

And just next to it, projected on the window – the wonderful 1930s film of Halsted Street by Conrad Friberg, a social documentary of the time that I always show my students (along with the 1997 Halsted Street film by David Simpson). And there it is facing Halsted Street…

Now one of the very exciting things about this reinterpretation is that the second floor is now open to the public. Jane Addams’ bedroom is well rendered with more decidedly Victorian wallpaper (a Morris pint), the famous painting of her longtime companion Mary Rozet Smith, a desk with significant correspondence, childhood memories and family items, her 1931 Nobel Peace Prize and a wall of press clippings that illustrate both her fame and the vitriol directed against “the most dangerous woman in America.”

Another room details the influential pioneering sociological study Hull House Maps and Papers, and another focuses on the Juvenile Justice System pioneered at Hull House.

It is mind boggling to think of all the reforms that came out of this place. Child labor laws. Juvenile justice courts. Housing and income surveys. Hazardous chemical controls in workplaces. Playgrounds. Kindergarten. Yes, kindergarten – they found and reinstalled this century-old plaque commemorating Jenny Dow’s innovation.

At the National Trust we have spent a decade trying to move house museums “beyond the velvet ropes” and this reinterpretation does just that. But the house speaks too, in new ways. A series of “Architectural encounters” demystify everything from wallpaper and paint to the original purplish bricks of the Hull House, buried under a new brick skin in the curious 1960s restoration.

We learn about the meaning of interior finishes and we see that it is BOTH a Victorian house like so many we have seen before but it is also something else.

One of the most felicitous moments for me was reading Jane Addams’ account of how nice and comfortable the dining room was, a typical bourgeoise appreciation of fine accoutrements, and then reading upstairs about her early encounter with poverty as a child seeing the crowded houses of Freeport, Illinois and declaring that she would live in a big nice house but that that house would be in the crowded poor district. Which is exactly what she did with her life. This is not pure benevolence or guilt nor is it some sort of sacrificial asceticism – she wasn’t slumming it, she was bringing her world to theirs and trying to understand both worlds and trying to figure out how to ameliorate the painful parts of society. But she didn’t walk in with the solution, only the desire to build a bridge – Hull House – between the haves and have-nots.

I have said it before and I will say it again, what is fantastic about the history interpreted here is that it is not interpreted as something removed in time or place, but something that happened in this place and is still happening and is still relevant. In the Juvenile Justice room you are invited to write a poem and send it to a prisoner. Because they asked for poems. You are invited to look at Jane’s books and to see the ceramics made by 1930s Mexican immigrant Jesus Torres in the Hull House kilns and you and I and everyone else are invited every Tuesday to Rethinking Soup for free soup and a chance to talk about current issues like food sourcing, nutrition, sustainability. They grow much of the food they serve across the street and they strive to engage all of the issues that the original residents engaged as they sought to understand the entirety of the society and city they lived in and to do something about it.

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!


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