Michelle Moon just completed an MA in Museum Studies from Harvard Extension School and 6+ years leading adult programs at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Plus, she wrote a book on food interpretation.
If you had to choose one or two favorite historic sites, which ones are they and what about them interests you?
Only one or two? Boy, was this a hard question! After much consideration, I’m going with a pair of thematically connected sites that mean a lot to me, both in terms of personal biography and national importance: Ellis Island and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. These two very different spaces tell distinct sides of the story of American immigration. One is monumental, large-scale, governmental and institutional. The other is intimate, small-scale, familial and personal.
I first learned about efforts to revive long-disused Ellis Island as a high school student in the 1980s. News photos of the immense unrestored immigration facility showed scenes of ruin: discarded papers, peeling paint, broken window panes. It was hard to understand how this once-impressive site could have become so ignored.
Thankfully, the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration opened to the public in 1990, and soon afterward my mother and I made our first visit. At the time, plaques on the Wall of Honor dedicated to memorializing the 22 million immigrants who passed through this facility were not yet installed, but we did see the spot where my great-grandfather, Joseph Patrick O’Gorman, would be remembered for his journey from Ireland to America (Plaque #319).
The site was and is deeply moving. Its imposing, richly detailed Beaux-Arts edifice, seen from the decks of a passenger ship, must have induced fear, awe, pride, and hope all at once. Wide, echoing, structured interior spaces evoke a strange juxtaposition: the complicated chaos of travelers from all over the world, speaking myriad languages and wearing an astonishing variety of dress styles, alongside the official impulse to organize, rationalize and manage their arrival and Americanization. Small details encourage visitors to imagine ourselves in the shoes of new immigrants, disoriented and excited….and hungry. In her book 97 Orchard, Jane Zeigelman writes of immigrants’ first taste of America: a cup of cider and a hand pie, given out on the barges that ferried passengers into the processing center.
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum brings us into another chapter in the immigrant story. Inside an 1863 tenement building, a set of apartments – each its own immersive world – shares the tale of a single, real-life family as they coped with the challenges of adaptation and hardship in the new world. Based on oral histories, building archaeology, and contextual research, the tours are thick with personal detail, most of it quite moving. Through thoughtful experience design, the museum invites visitors right into the family: you climb the dim stairway into a firetrap of a hall, cluster in tiny rooms where natural light and fresh air are luxuries, and hear family stories told in a personal voice, just as they may be told around your own kitchen table.
Together, these two sites emphasize the central role of diversity and immigration in creating the American culture we have inherited. Also, they are places that highlight important scholarship contributing to our understanding of immigration issues today. How shall we manage the desire of people to come here for work and family betterment? What kinds of challenges do they face? And how do we balance assimilation and Americanization with remembering and celebrating unique cultural heritage? If I had my wish, every American and would-be American would be able to visit these two sites.
Which, if any, historic sites have you worked at? What was your job?
My very first experience in any museum setting was at Historic Longstreet Farm, a site in a county park in central New Jersey, where I grew up. As a summer youth volunteer, I donned a wool skirt (in July), weeded a beet field, and did embroidery while interpreting an 1890s Dutch-owned house, barn and farm. Later, after a career transition from formal education to museum education, I joined the staff of Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, where I oversaw Ship to Shore, an experiential overnight program for grades 5-12. Students slept aboard a historic ship and used the museum campus to learn about American maritime
history: whaling, fishing, shipbuilding, maritime literature and music, and skills like rigging climbing, rowing and canvaswork. Next, I worked as Director of Education at Strawbery Banke, a preserved urban neighborhood in Portsmouth, NH, that tells stories from 400 years of settlement. Most recently, at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, I worked on the interpretation of several historic houses, including the Ropes Mansion, a 2016 Leadership in History award winner for its interpretation of family memories (which also happens to enjoy pop culture fame as the exterior of the “Hocus Pocus House”).
If you’ve worked at a historic site, what is one challenge of running a site that most people be surprised to learn?
Keeping it lively. No matter how inspiring or significant a site, those who work there every day need to find ways to stay continually enthralled and excited, to challenge ourselves to find new and creative approaches. For our audiences, none of it is old hat , and sometimes we need to use imagination to make connections and reveal what can be curious, compelling, and interesting. The biggest staff challenge is not giving in to routine, resting on past research and assuming all questions have been answered, but to stay engaged and excited about every new moment of learning and experience.
What is a history site you hope to visit some day? Why?
I have a very long list. Since I’m very Northeast-based, one major gap in my exploration of American history sites is that I have not visited any plantation museums in the South. Currently, I hear and see lots of very interesting experiments going on in revising old interpretive narratives and memorializing enslaved people – projects like the reinterpretation of Montpelier and the opening of Whitney Plantation, for example. I’d like to see the architecture and history in Charleston and Savannah, and Alcatraz and Angel Island in California.
Why do you think people should visit historic sites?
I might be accused of professional heresy for saying: it’s not mainly for information. You can learn the specific tactics of a battle or the events in a heroine’s life without being on site. Instead, I think the power of historic sites is to bring about attention to and reflection on embodied experiences and the insights they generate – insights that are only available in that place. That includes things beyond the basic historical narrative – angles of light; sounds of waterways or birdsong; the narrowness of a stair hall; uneven floors; scents from cooking fires, gardens or orchards; the scale and materials of industrial machinery. These sites augment intellectual knowledge with the senses, sometimes helping people realize for the first time a physical logic to the way things happened. This takes history out of the abstract, adding a grounded, vivid, sensory and human experience of what it’s like to inhabit that space. That personal experience can become a memory container for the historic events themselves, and increase empathy with the past. People should visit historic sites to feel history, to enrich the vividness and detail of our imaginations and engage our emotions in the stories of the past.
Our Favorite Sites is a feature on Historyplaces where I ask my public historian friends to write about their favorite sites and share some of the challenges they face presenting history to the public. If you’re a public historian and you’d like to participate, please contact me.