If you’re visiting Washington this summer, here is a must-see exhibition: Within These Walls at the National Museum of American History. It features the largest artifact in the museum’s collection, a house that stood at 16 Elm Street in Ipswich, Massachusetts for two hundred years. It has been on and off display since the museum opened in 1964, and eighteen years ago, the staff opened a new exhibition surrounding it, telling the stories of five families who made it home over the centuries. Yes, EIGHTEEN years ago. But, they’ve refreshed it recently, improved the lighting, added more to the stories, and it looks spectacular! I visited recently and its stories continue to grip me and hold their power to ignite my imagination. History at its essence is change over time and this house is a concrete example that most people can relate to; our living situations change. The structure stood as people rotated in and out, the neighborhood changed around it, and its rooms were decorated and re-decorated to reflect the tastes and styles of each era.
The people who lived in this house were not famous, you haven’t heard of them. But, their lives intersected with major themes in America’s past. The original owners built the house in the 1700’s to show their status in the community. Abraham Dodge and his family lived in the house during the American Revolution. He fought for the patriot cause and pondered the meaning of liberty, all the while owning a teenaged boy named Chance Bradstreet. Slavery was legal in Massachusetts. When the exhibition opened in 2001, the curators knew an enslaved young man named Chance had lived in the house, but they didn’t know much more about him. Today, after years of research, his story is revealed. The Caldwell family held anti-slavery meetings in the parlor and were strong abolitionists. The neighborhood changed as did the house’s occupants. Soon it was divided into two apartments and became a rental property. Irish immigrants Catherine Lynch and her daughter Mary rented the house. Catherine was a laundress, Mary was employed at the nearby Ipswich Mills. A woman named Mary Scott and her family lived in the house during the dark days of World War II. Mary’s daughter and son-in-law lived with her, along with their young son. They grew a victory garden, did their own canning, and installed blackout curtains at the windows.
I happen to have a personal connection to this exhibition: I was part of the team that developed it twenty years ago. It remains one of the most fascinating Smithsonian projects that I’ve worked on. When developing the exhibition, we struggled with how to bring the space to life. Today, the museum staff has brought new energy to the display, they’ve added projections that hint at the families living there. The constant movement makes the space more dynamic.
And, the most popular interactive in the museum (so I’m told) is still there to lure visitors to try their hand at wringing out laundry. We wanted visitors to get a sense of how hard it was to do laundry by hand in the 1880’s. We explained the process on clothes hanging on a line. Then we came up with an idea: the wring-o-meter. It simulates wringing a piece of laundry, a meter with an arrow measures your strength, and you learn how many pieces Catherine Lynch would have wrung out in a day. Plus, visitors can lift up a bucket of “water” nearby and find out how many buckets went into one load of laundry. One cannot leave the section without a better appreciation for all the women in the past who washed laundry by hand (and for the inventor of the washing machine!)
The exhibition ends with a section that explains about the research process and encourages visitors to research their own homes. I’m always saying museums need to do more to encourage visitors to apply what they learn. Here’s a perfect example of providing practical advice that may help visitors learn more about their own history.
This exhibition is a long-term exhibition and should be around for a long time. Go visit it!