Traipse through Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, and you’ll catch a glimpse of 1830s life in New England. But this so-called “living history” museum might not be telling the whole story. So Sturbridge staff are rethinking their presentation of the past.
Visits to museums and landmarks have been declining since the 1980s. People today have many options for entertainment and leisure. To survive, museums must compete for people’s time and money.
But the problem goes beyond outdated costumes or brochures. Sometimes museums are getting history wrong—or at least leaving a lot out. “Many historic site interpretations have lagged behind scholarship,” says Jeff Hardwick, from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Most visitors at Old Sturbridge Village (OSV) feel positive about their interactive experience. They ask questions, participate in crafts, and watch folks in historical clothing go about daily routines in homes, workshops, or farms. Yet surveys suggest that many feel something is missing: Minorities and women are often absent or so far in the background as to seem unimportant.
The early 19th century was a time of social upheaval. Slavery was less common in most of New England, and social change movements were in full swing. The roles of minorities and women were changing.
OSV hasn’t done enough to present those stories. Rhys Simmons, museum director of interpretation, says, “You leave here with the sense that it was an almost exclusively white- and male-dominated picture.”
That wasn’t the case. Life in New England wasn’t easy or fair for African Americans. But they were sometimes barbers, blacksmiths, or small shopkeepers. Women wouldn’t get the right to vote for another 90 years, but they often managed large households.
“The home was the foundation of every family, so women played probably the most important role in rural New England life,” Simmons says.
In an effort to change its history presentation—and possibly gain customers—OSV is rebooting its program for the first time in 40 years. Researchers are conducting a multi-year study into how the museum portrays race and gender. They’ll also study agriculture and food, civics, and industry and economy—areas where recent findings have challenged what historians believe about the past. (See also “Native American Fort Found” at teen.wng.org/node/4764)
Searching for and speaking truth is always right. (Ephesians 4:25) Simmons hopes OSV’s pursuit of accuracy will “dive deep into making sure that it’s a cohesive, purposeful experience for the visitor”—and make history more . . . historical.