Chicago Case Study: Dismantling the Historic House Museum?

Have you ever been to a Historic House Museum (HHM) where it wasn’t at all important to know who lived in the house before it became a museum?  It seems almost antithetical to the concept—historic house museums have, traditionally, been set up to honor the people who lived in them, which often means rich, white men. It’s only recently that historic houses have embraced new philosophies on what they embody and display. When I went to Chicago this past weekend, I searched for historic sites or history museums that I hadn’t visited before. We did the obvious things, the Art Institute (Manet show!) and the Field Museum (boyfriend’s choice), but there was another museum that caught my eye: the Richard H. Driehaus Museum. It appeared to be a historic house, clearly a beautiful Gilded Age site. I saw that they had a Yinka Shonibare, CBE installation in their rooms. Sold!

The foyer of the Driehaus Museum. (My photo.)

The foyer of the Driehaus Museum. (My photo.)

We arrived at the Driehaus Museum in the middle of a rainstorm, and the staff ushered us back to the ticket counter. There, they had a small display about the people who had originally built and owned the house. Samuel Nickerson, first a liquor merchant and then a bank president, had built the house between 1879 and 1883 and spared no expense. He and his wife were art collectors, using the house as a gallery. When he died, the art collection went to the Art Institute, and after another private owner, a banker as well, the house was sold to the American College of Surgeons. That 1919 sale was an act of historic preservation, and then, in a second act of historic preservation, the house was sold to a philanthropist and collector named Richard Driehaus in 2013. Consequently, this museum is not a traditional HHM, but rather a showpiece of Driehaus’s dedicated restoration, a composite of the family histories and something else as well.  It has been open for only about 11 years.

Before heading into the restored museum spaces, I had a moment of fear after reading about the building’s history—where’s the historical authenticity if a house is restored not to its original appearance, but to some in-between ideal of a funder? How does that affect the mission of the museum? Does presenting a restoration as thoroughly historic reflect a broader attitude toward representing “the way things were” in the house’s original time period. One particular differentiation from the original appearance of the house would be the prevalence of Tiffany light fixtures, apparently a focus of Mr. Driehaus’s collecting. However, the most exquisite Tiffany works were produced after Mr. Nickerson had died.

Yet it turns out that perhaps this model of HHM can be liberating. The museum did have notes about how Mr. and Mrs. Nickerson originally used the rooms.  They also had fairly precise and careful indications, much more in the way of passive interpretation than I’ve seen at other HHMs, of what was original and what was restored. They also clearly felt free to comment on the institutions that gave way to the ability to create such a gem of a house in a city that has always been deeply stratified by class.  The signs that discussed the restoration made clear that one difficulty had been cleaning the Berea sandstone exterior of the house; a century of industrial smog had to be carefully removed to find the underlying color.

However, they mixed that context with a powerful critique of how such institutions came to be, simply by allowing the contemporary to mix productively with the historic. Currently, the Driehaus Museum is playing host to an exhibit called A Tale of Today: Yinka Shonibare CBE.  I’ve been fascinated by Shonibare’s work for a long time; I once wrote a paper that tried to compare his method of quoting art history to Edgar Degas’s. Shonibare, a British-Nigerian artist, borrows familiar tropes, plots, and visual configurations to disrupt the history of art from the inside out. Placing this exhibition in this kind of museum suggests that, by abandoning the strictures of one historic period, more thematic analyses are possible.

An excellent example of the clash between Shonibare and the traditional model of an HHM is Party Time: Reimagine America (2009), originally produced for the Newark Museum and on display here in the Nickersons’ dining room.

Party Time: Reimagine America  (2009) installed in the Driehaus Museum. (My photo.)

Party Time: Reimagine America (2009) installed in the Driehaus Museum. (My photo.)

The figures wear Dutch wax clothing, a critical signifier of colonialism in Shonibare’s visual language—the cloth, usually associated with Africa and imported into African markets, was actually made in the Netherlands. In Shonibare’s hands, it calls a viewer to consider who is really responsible for the societies that we inhabit. Party Time shows a dinner table full of people whose actions, like feet on the table, betray the exclusive and elite activities the circumstances are supposed to recall. The headless mannequins, nearly disembodied suits of clothes, also recall the ghosts of the people who once lived in the house, who likely had servants, and whose actions reified divisions of social class, race, and gender.

The Driehaus Museum was my most pleasant surprise of this trip to Chicago, the exact opposite of that moment of fear that had me rethinking all of my choices to go there.  While I have been wary of contemporary art installations in historic settings in the past, the Shonibare exhibit enriched the experience of being in the museum. It gave me so much more than if the house had simply been full of the Nickerson furnishings or a museum to the surgeons who called it their professional home for a century, even if I would have happily gone to either. It might not be rocket science, or even the interventions spelled out in Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, but other museums could certainly learn from being so open to new ideas.

Telling Stories of Storms

A little over a year before I was born, a tremendously strong tornado barreled its way across my home county in Ohio. It did not touch my family, except that they, like so many others across the county, remembered heading down to the basement with a battery-powered radio and keeping their fingers crossed that nothing worse than rain would befall them. Nearly every summer as I was growing up, tornadoes would threaten northeast Ohio, and my parents would retell the story of that particular tornado. It stuck in their memories even though they had both been relatively safe and out of harm’s reach. That May 31, 1985 tornado was both something to fear and a source of wonder, of devastation and merciful coincidences.

Here is the story my parents told over and over again, about an event that happened seven miles from the house where I grew up.  On the night the tornado hit, at a roller rink on a busy corner of Route 422 in Niles, Ohio, the local schools were scheduled to hold a skating party.  When the tornado hit, just before 7pm, less than an hour remained before the party would start. The skating rink, along with the plaza nearby, suffered complete destruction--if the tornado had touched down even an hour later, that building could have been filled with children and teenagers skating the bunny hop and hokey pokey and oblivious to the winds brewing outside. That near-miss proved to be just one serendipitous story, but it loomed large for my parents and for me. The roller rink in my town, probably about 20 minutes from the one the tornado destroyed, would be a consistent point of reference for my entire youth from my school skating parties, to birthday parties for friends, to teenage years where they played edgier alt-rock on Friday nights and we debated whether or not to smoke in the bathrooms.

“Top O' the Strip and State Route 422, Niles, Ohio.,”  Trumbull Memory Project , accessed June 2, 2019,  This image of the destroyed skating rink is, specifically, part of the Tornado Memory Project undertaken by the Warren-Trumbull County Public Library.

“Top O' the Strip and State Route 422, Niles, Ohio.,” Trumbull Memory Project, accessed June 2, 2019, This image of the destroyed skating rink is, specifically, part of the Tornado Memory Project undertaken by the Warren-Trumbull County Public Library.

It occurs to me now that I never bothered to look up any more about the tornado. I did not know, as I do now, that it was a rare F5 tornado with winds ranging above 300 miles per hour. It was supposedly the largest tornado in the world in 1985. I did not know, as I do from reading remembrances and looking at photos, that Niles was not the only community that was hit so hard.  One news article told a similar story of luck in Newton Falls, a small city that the tornado hit first.  A veteran storm-spotter and reserve police officer had been watching the skies from the roof of the City Hall and sounded the tornado sirens in time to give everyone full minutes to take cover. And no one died in Newton Falls, despite the fact that “seemingly half of Newton Falls was simply swept away by the storm.”

Perhaps because my parents had already seen the worst a tornado could bring, I never really grew up fearing tornadoes.  When I was little and the weathermen issued a warning, my parents would help me gather my critical things--preferred stuffed animal, blankie, books--and we’d head for our cinderblock basement, where it seemed like nothing could touch us.  I remember one time, after I could drive myself, when I went to the movies alone on a summer night. Suddenly, the movie stopped and the lights came up; a member of the theater staff explained that a tornado warning had been issued and that it was our choice to shelter in place at the theater or to drive home.  I remember two things: 1) they did give us each a free pass to return, and 2) I chose to calmly get in my car and head home to my parents and the cinderblock basement as fast as possible.  Nothing else happened that night. The movie theater is only two miles from where that skating rink had stood.

I lived in New Jersey when Hurricane Sandy hit. It was not my first hurricane, and I was not close enough to the shore to really be in danger. But that night, I stayed in my bed watching the weather on TV until the power went out, and then listened to audiobooks until I fell asleep finally, too exhausted to continue being upset by the wind and rain whipping at my poorly insulated windows. My friends and I went out the next morning and walked around our broken town to survey the damage. Trees barred sidewalks and roads, and no one had electricity so we kept our eyes open for downed lines. We noted that we’d be able to walk to school still because the bridge hadn’t flooded the way it did during Hurricane Irene. As we stumbled over piles of branches, I confessed that I had been terrified all night, and they said, “But you grew up in Ohio! Aren’t tornadoes a lot scarier?” I’m still not sure what the answer to that is. I do know that, the next day, I got into my car, thankful that I had enough gas in what became a serious shortage to make it to the Pennsylvania border, and drove home to my parents for a week. When I returned to New Jersey, my power still wasn’t back on.

As tornadoes moved across the Dayton area about a week ago, I was thinking about these storm experiences and checking radar maps to see whether my friends near there would be safe.  I’m acutely aware of how tornadoes, like Trumbull County in 1985 or the storm that struck Lorain and Sandusky in 1924, live long after they end, as communities try to heal and rebuild. The likelihood for an Ohioan to experience a tornado that strong again in the same way is so small that the stories become tall tales, stretching up to point where they can hold the horror of their teller in their events. In the course of a research project in Lorain, I read story after story of that 1924 tornado, trying to fact-check a claim about a historic house. One story in particular kept haunting me weeks later; the tornado had swooped in from Lake Erie and hit a bathhouse on the beach, sucking off the roof and subsuming the people inside into the storm.

When we tell stories about past tornadoes, we know that our ancestors lacked our modern weather warnings and simply had no idea the storm was coming. Yet even with our sirens and sophisticated radar, the days after Dayton have revealed those same stories of how, if one easy thing had been a little later or if a wife hadn’t talked a husband into heading to the basement, already terrible things could have been made so much worse. And when we tell stories like this that are steeped in tragedy, we can easily lose sight of the facts, even as we endeavor to preserve this history for future generations. The 1985 tornado in Trumbull County colored my life in so many ways, even though I hadn’t yet been born, but I never bothered to look and see if the stories my parents had told me were really true.

It is, however, true that the most famous tornado in American history did not occur in real life. When a tornado picks up Dorothy Gale’s small farmhouse and spins her into a new world, she learns that her fantasy isn’t what she needs after all. In our real life, we must be careful to keep pointing toward “home” in telling our storm stories.

For more pictures, oral histories, etc., see the Tornado Memory Project, part of the Trumbull Memory Project at the Warren-Trumbull County Public Library.

The Return of the Professor

Cathedral in Bayeux

Cathedral in Bayeux

I pulled something in my neck the other day.  I didn’t notice the pain then, but now I am balanced in our cat hair-covered recliner with a heating pad behind my neck and my computer on my lap.  This is fine, for the moment, and I’m sure it will be better soon. Being still able to type is good because I certainly have a lot to do in the next week or so – in less than two weeks, I’ll be back in the classroom, teaching an art history survey class at a nearby community college.  I have a syllabus to finish off, some reading to do, and some lecture notes to write. 

I’m excited!  It’s fair to say that I didn’t realize how excited I would be to go back into the classroom until it began to seem like it would happen.  A friend put me in touch with the department—she heard they’d lost an adjunct lecturer to a sudden move, and she happened to know an Art History Ph.D. (me!) who could handle such a class.  This has little effect on my day job at the museum, for the most part, it’s additional and outside hours that I would not normally be working, so while I will soon number among the contingent faculty of the world, it’s not quite the same as relying on piecing classes together.

I finished my dissertation three and a half years ago.  After that, I took a FULL break, cut the cord, barely thought about my dissertation or trying to publish anything until last year when a call for papers came up that was too good to pass up, even if it meant finding the money for a trip to Europe.  I came home from the conference a little frustrated—it seemed like people were only just coming to conclusions that I had come to literal years ago now.  I had a greater sense of what it would mean to have my scholarship out in the world because I believe that it’s true that no one has replicated my work since.  As I think about that conference experience, and as new opportunities present themselves, I’ve been thinking more about trying to publish parts of my dissertation.  With a few years distance, I have better sense of what I want from academia and perhaps what it can give me in return. 

And with this distance, and the opportunity to return to the classroom, comes the hope that my years away from academia working directly with museums and nonprofits, places where humanities majors apply their skills, will help me be a better educator.  If I have a better sense of what my scholarship could mean, I am also more able to make case for why it’s important for students to study art history.  I know what skills they learn from art history because I have had to deconstruct those skills myself, repackaging my knowledge and experience over and over to get the jobs that I cobble together to get to the point of having a CAREER.  (I have thoughts about the recent Twitter feeds exploring the twists and turns of careers after leaving academic. I have thoughts about the notion of having careers.)

When I was in the classroom while I was still in grad school, especially when I was teaching expository writing, I tried to be deliberate in explaining why I demanded they do an exercise over again or why it was so important for them to see one thing or another in the text—there is always a reason. A lot of academics, especially, are bad at this. They replace the idea that people deserve a justification of how they spend their time with the belief that certain things are inherently worth knowing and require no justification.  That may be true.  It may also be true that knowing why they are supposed to learn something enables people to take it further into their minds and hearts.  So here’s to a new semester, my first proper semester in three and a half years, and here’s to art history!  Hopefully my neck heals enough, soon enough, to make those lecture notes as interesting as I know they can be.

The Zouave Watching Paris


In Paris, along the Pont de l’Alma, a sculpture of a Zouave soldier stands proudly at the base of one of the bridge’s supports. The Zouave was originally sculpted in the 1850s by Georges Diebolt as one of a set of four types of soldiers—a Zouave, but also a grenadier, a chasseur, and an artilleur. The bridge itself was first constructed in the 1850s, and then quickly named after the Battle of the Alma, which was a less than decisive French and British victory in the Crimean War. Now, only the Zouave has persevered, with the other three soldier statues repurposed as public art in other parts of France.

When the water level remains low, the Zouave marks the interstice between road level of the bridge and the flowing water of the Seine.  His blousy pants, coupled with the cape around his shoulders, distinguish his identity from more traditionally western soldiers seen on other war memorials and Napoleonic historical sites—he has not only survived a century and a half of exposure to the elements, but also our increasing understanding of the mechanisms of appropriation and control that resulted in the creation of colonial regiments like the Zouaves.  Formed near the beginning of France’s African conquests, the Zouaves were originally made up entirely of native Algerians, and then, over time, they recruited primarily native Frenchmen who still wore variations of the original uniform. They fought bravely in Crimea, during the Franco-Prussian War, and in World War I before being subsumed into the rest of the French army.  American Zouaves, adapting the French uniforms and reputation of fierceness, fought in the Civil War.

The Zouave on the Pont de l’Alma, vigilant and strong, also alerts Parisians to the rising water levels of the Seine.  A couple years ago, when the city experienced a moderate flood, the water rose to the Zouave’s waist—when I saw articles about parts of the Louvre being on stand-by and then temporarily closing, my first thought was to check to see where the water sat on the Zouave.  In early 1910, when an extreme winter flood crippled the city and caused 400 million francs in damage, the expanding waters of the Seine came up to his shoulders, the highest, to my knowledge, that it has ever reached.

June 2016. Image from Wikimedia Creative Commons.

June 2016. Image from Wikimedia Creative Commons.

I was thinking of the Zouave today, of all days, because I’ve been following closely as France has been shaken by the gilets jaunes protests that have occurred in the past few weeks and threatened major cultural institutions and monuments in the center of Paris that have come to mean so much to me in my years studying France and its art.  From the U.S., it has been hard to follow a series of events that American media is barely covering—we have our own perplexing, dangerous series of events at hand. I never picked up a fluency with French media beyond the nineteenth century, never enough to know which commentators or publications to trust.  Some of the most well-established publications have even more draconian paywalls than their American counterparts. It’s hard to know who, like the Zouave, stands as an reliable indicator of the impact of a political flood on French society. 

If these last months of shootings, bombings, and fiery protests in Paris have taught us, it’s that European cultural heritage isn’t as sacrosanct as we think.  The Zouave may not stand forever; it may even be poetic symmetry rather than outrage to see him disintegrate over time into the water and swept out to sea.  Today, in his address to the French people where he promised a higher minimum wage in the hopes of quelling the protests, Emmanuel Macron said, “When violence is unleashed, freedom ends.”  The nineteenth century showed over and over again that the exact opposite of Macron’s words can be true, especially in France. And so we wait to see what will happen, and we watch, like the Zouave guarding the Seine, hoping that the water will not overflow its banks again..

Mapping Out My Family's History

My dad (lower right), my uncle, my grandmother, my grandpa.

My dad (lower right), my uncle, my grandmother, my grandpa.

I’ve been thinking about family history a lot lately—both mine and other people’s, as well as how we practice family history in historical societies and as amateur genealogists.  If the stories I’ve heard over the years are true, on my dad’s side alone, my ancestors include:

  • A Belgian anarchist descended from French Huguenots who fled religious persecution;

  • A teetotaling temperance activist and Methodist minister who founded colleges out west, and his wife, who may or may not be a relative of Oliver Hazard Perry;

  • A Kentucky couple that used family ferry boats to bring people who had escaped from slavery across the Ohio River as part of the Underground Railroad.

My mom’s side does not quite have the same tall tales as my dad’s side does. Her tree, though, boasts veterans of both World Wars and immigrants from Italy, Germany, Sweden, and maybe Switzerland. 

Genealogy was the hobby that my mom took up when I went to college, and I know that she has done much of her side already.  She carefully scrapbooked out her lineage and gave copies to her siblings for their benefit. So I’ve spent my free moments in these past couple weeks digging through records on Family Search trying to confirm and extend what I already know about the people who make up my family tree, especially my dad’s side where the potential for excellent stories seems so great. Much of my experience with genealogical research is doing research into local history for the organizations I’ve helped in the past—genealogical resources can provide the most accurate information faster than any other source.  There’s probably an essay to be written about the democratic nature of these primary sources and the guarantee that so many people have had their names inscribed in documents for their ancestors to find.

It’s exhilarating to use the expertise I’ve honed professionally to discover more about my heritage, especially when it intersects with touchstones I have from research for work.  That prior knowledge helps me imagine the interior lives of my ancestors who spread across the true Midwest and the Great Plains in the middle of the nineteenth century.  For example, I spent two years serving as an AmeriCorps Member in Oberlin, Ohio, where religion and temperance activism went hand in hand throughout the city’s history.  This helps me see my ancestor, the minister and temperance activist, through their eyes because I understand why Oberlinians had signed on to the cause.  Coupled with my dad’s memory of my grandmother saying she had never found him to be that kind or attentive (despite that he was her grandfather!), I have learned much more about the ingredients that compose my people today.

The marriage record for my great-grandparents.

The marriage record for my great-grandparents.

Some caveats: it bothers me that you often cannot see the actual documents when you’re using a site like Family Search, and that means I cannot verify connections or spellings with the certainty that I would like as a historian.  Sometimes results don’t come up in searches, even when I know I spelled names right, because they were transcribed incorrectly—“Amna” instead of “Anna” in a census record.  Sometimes whole lines of family tree results come up incorrectly because another user has mapped a line based on their belief that they have the right information. For example, the father of the supposed Underground Railroad conductor’s wife currently has three contemporaneous wives listed. I am not currently sure which one is right, but the WASPy nature of the family tree makes certain that there can be only one.

I know I’m lucky to know so much about my family history already, and I am lucky to be able to apply my training and resources to finding out more.  It’s weird to know that some of my ancestors are all over the historic texts on Google books. Of course, other ancestors, ones that I would like to know so much more about, have barely left a trace—they left only what my parents can tell me now.