Homewood Museum, a large “country” home in Baltimore, was not on my radar. I’ve been to Baltimore many times and like visiting historic homes. One reason may be because it sits on the campus of John Hopkins University in the middle of Baltimore (countryside at the time it was built). Recently I was invited to speak to a museum studies class held in the basement of the house and the director gave me a tour of this Federal-period Palladian gem built between 1801-1806.
Charles Carroll of Carrollton, was the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence and the only Catholic signer. He built the home as a wedding gift for his only son, Charles Carroll, Jr. But most people, even Marylanders, have not heard of Charles Carroll, Jr. and his wife Harriet Chew (of Philadelphia). Challenge one of a historic house museum: to build an audience, you must own something rare that people want to see or tell the story of a person that the public wants to know more about. And this starts with knowing who the person is. Charles Sr. was one of America’s movers and shakers, friend of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Charles Sr. must have had high hopes for his son’s accomplishments. He was sadly disappointed.
Every house museum must decide what stories to tell. For Homewood, the stories have changed. Tours initially highlighted the architectural and decorative arts features of the house; they now tell about the fascinating people who lived on the property, of their decisions in the midst of the challenges of life.
Charles Jr. and his family were hardly your average family of their time. They were the wealthy elite living in a time when America was trying to figure out what it would become. While well-connected, thanks to his father, and raised to make a difference in his world, Charles Jr. did not make any major contributions to the growing nation. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry.
Wisely, the staff has chosen to expand the stories told at the site, and include two other families who lived there, enslaved families. William and Rebecca Ross and their two children, and Izadod and Cis Conner and six children, also lived on the property, along with the Carrolls’ five children. That’s a lot of children! The house is large, but this is still a lot of people to manage. In total, at least twenty-five enslaved people lived and labored at Homewood.
As the Homewood website says, “But underneath the sheen of privilege, all was not well!” Life there was not filled with peaceful, lazy days of summer but with chaos amidst a booming time for Baltimore, including a British attack during the War of 1812. The house tour tells the stories of the three families, using primary sources to spin tales of escape, alcoholism, physical abuse, separation, and legal challenges. At one point the Carrolls leased Izadod and Cis to a plantation in Louisiana for several years. William Ross escaped in 1809 then was returned under unknown circumstances. The mistress of the house, Harriet, fled to her family in Philadelphia to escape an alcoholic husband (two quarts of brandy a day according to some reports!). These stories tell of the realities of family life during a time of racism, slavery, and gender inequality. There are many potential connections with present-day societal issues and much opportunity to make the site relevant to today’s visitors.
I especially loved the privy. Of approximately eight outbuilding that once stood, only the carriage house and the privy remain. The carriage house is now the theater department’s John Astin Theater and the privy is open to visitors on occasion. The spacious outhouse sat 7 people, with a side for each gender. Its walls include graffiti from 1897-1910 when the estate served as the Country School for Boys. The interpretive panel at the privy is one of the best I’ve seen, explaining location and ways to sweeten the air. It addresses what inquiring minds want to know, right?
Some people visit historic house museums to see beauty, and there’s definitely beauty at Homewood. But to me, the people story is so much more interesting and important. The key, in my opinion, is for history sites to transcend the purely fascinating information and go to the level of relevance. When a site can connect past to present in a meaningful way, it demonstrates history as the dynamic discipline it is.
Thanks Tim…terrific to see how an historic site explores relevance. Can imagine this site will be meaningful to many.
Thanks for the comment Barbara. Hoping more sites move from the fascinating to the relevant.