Published: March 1, 2021
During the summer of 2020, Historic New England (HNE) announced that it was one of 317 cultural institutions in the United States to receive a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) CARES Act grant. HNE’s grant was in the amount of $300,000 making it one of just 35 grant recipients to receive more than $290,000. At the time the grant awards were announced, funds were said to be earmarked for creating virtual visitor experiences for six sites, including at the five HNE properties: Casey Farm, Roseland Cottage, Otis House, Sarah Orne Jewett House and Rundlet May House. As HNE launched their new virtual experiences, we caught up with Gwendolyn Loomis Smith, HNE’s Regional Site Administrator for Northern New England for some insights on the overall project, some details about the Rundlet-May house and what the response has been.
Is the NEH CARES Act grant something HNE has received in the past?
Historic New England has received grant funding from the NEH before for different projects, but the NEH CARES Act was specifically developed last year to help cultural organizations fund meaningful projects during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Was the pandemic behind HNE’s application for, and focus toward, the grant?
The six online experiences, one for each New England state, were developed during the pandemic as a way to allow greater online access to five of Historic New England’s properties and our work with local markets in two Vermont neighborhoods. We wanted to provide unique engagement opportunities to the stories we tell – especially those not shared with the public before.
Are the six online experiences currently available?
The six online experiences debuted in mid-January and are available online for the public here.
Is the $300K grant money distributed evenly throughout the six HNE properties?
The funds were distributed throughout the six tours. The projects allowed us to work with many of our colleagues in new and innovative ways, especially as we have been communicating largely remotely. I really think the projects brought us all closer together as we had to think quickly and creatively to create each unique online experience. We had a very tight schedule and had to function like a fine-tuned symphony.
Can you elaborate a little on how the online experience for each historic site has been enhanced?
Each site now shares much more information than we were previously able to offer. From a computer or mobile device, visitors can stroll through the properties and see spaces like attics, basements, unrestored rooms and outbuildings that are not on our public tours. There are many archival images from our collection connected to the properties, there is new photography and new video. The tours provide opportunities to view details about room interiors, learn more about the people who lived and worked at the houses, and explore architectural styles, artwork, special furnishing and beautiful landscapes.Since each property is unique there are special components to each one.
Casey Farm in Saunderstown, R.I., is an active, working organic farm with a circa 1750 farmhouse at its core. The tour explores this working farm and the Indigenous peoples of the area. The farmhouse, barns, family cemetery, fields for crops, pastures for animals, stone walls and chicken coops are much the same as they were when the farm was first developed. The tour also provides a unique perspective on the area from Lorén M. Spears, the executive director of the Tomaquag Museum, who talks about the land as part of the homeland of the Narragansett people and sings a song taught to her by a late tribal historian.
Sarah Orne Jewett House in South Berwick, Maine, highlights how the author used her family home and community as inspiration for her storytelling. The tour includes audio recordings of works by Jewett. It is wonderful to hear excerpts from her stories, journals and letters read aloud. It also celebrates her life and work and discusses her relationship with Annie Fields and the literal and artistic freedom Jewett created for herself.
In Boston, Otis House tells the story of the constant changes in occupancy, use and appearance that followed the fortunes of the neighborhood due to economic, demographic, cultural and political forces. The tour leads the viewer through how the property changed from an elegant mansion to a medicinal bathhouse and then a boarding house. There is also information about the wonderful collection of Boston-made furniture in the house with a short video showing the conservation of a fabulous Isaac Vose & Son couch.
Roseland Cottage in Woodstock, Conn., is a Victorian gem and landmark example of the Gothic Revival architectural style that was lived in by a family with strong antislavery sentiments. The new online tour shows original architectural drawings, details on conservation and preservation projects, photographs of unusual outbuildings – including an icehouse, an aviary and a bowling alley – and a vast collection of family photographs. There is also information on cutting-edge technology in the 1840s and a glimpse into attic and cellar spaces.
MoreThanAMarket.org explores the role of immigrant food markets in two neighborhoods in Vermont. There are contemporary and archival photographs and audio clips that take viewers on a tour of these markets in Burlington and Winooski. Videos, oral histories, and family photos chronicle the lives of immigrant families past and present and contribute our understanding of what a corner market means to our culture and growing communities.
Regarding the Rundlet-May property and its archive of original documentation; is this documentation available online?
As Regional Site Administrator for our Northern New England properties, the sites I lead are in New Hampshire and Maine, and Rundlet-May House is one of my key properties. This online experience is my favorite part of the whole NEH Cares project. The new tour was to illuminate photographs, manuscripts, documents and the unique stories they tell. Many of these have not been shared with the public before, and by integrating them into one website with new vibrant photography of the house and landscape, as well as a 360-degree virtual tour, and an aerial tour, a visitor can go online and take in a gestalt experience. There were many archival photographs digitized just for this project. The new online experience is not meant to replace an in-person experience, but rather give a behind-the-scenes approach. The online experience provides vital and rich supporting context to a lot of these materials that are part of the Rundlet-May House story, including James and Jane Rundlet, whose home was built during the Portsmouth global trade era and the four generations of Rundlets and Mays who lived in the house since it was built in 1807. It’s a much more intimate take than on a collections portal of archival documents, really, it’s an exhibition of sorts – we’re taking apart the house and landscape for examination, and bringing it alive cohesively with stories of the family and how they lived.
How has the grant been used to embellish the Rundlet-May story?
I was able to delve deep into archival and historical records with a new dedication to find under-represented stories and at time it felt like diving for buried treasure. There is no doubt that we have a better understanding of how the house and landscape were used, how the house was built, the remarkable innovations of their central heating, a Rumford kitchen, a cistern, access to indoor privies (all these speak to early Nineteenth Century luxury.) Even the estate’s original gravel pathways are still found in the terraced garden in addition to a pet cemetery introduced later in the Nineteenth Century. Along with the functions of the barn and yard, the practical and the pleasurable elements of the garden and working estate are brought together, integrated as a whole as if these were all components of an elaborate clock with each element dependent on the other.
It’s an extraordinarily well-documented house, thanks to the fact that it represents four generations of one family who continuously occupied the house until it was donated to Historic New England in 1971. Featured on the website are collections of family photographs, family portraits, photo galleries of decorative arts purchased for the house during the trade era, original wallpaper invoices for French wallcoverings and invoices for Langley Boardman furniture as part of what is really the best collection of Portsmouth furniture. One of the most fascinating manuscripts we have in our archives featured as part of the online experience is the Rundlet family’s account ledgers with laborers and workmen, and for the building of the house. These account ledgers began in 1806 and continued for a number of years, all in exquisite detail. They chronicle everything down to the cost of the house materials, who was employed in building it – such as how much carver William Deering and joiner James Nutting were earning, who the laborers were, including two African American laborers, Caesar Whidden and Cuffee Whipple, and how they were paid. From the account ledgers we also can glean information on the early purchases for the landscape and orchard – roses, fruit trees, vital elements of a working estate. The documents and objects we have in the collection are integral to our understanding of architectural and landscape history in New England. What it was like to build a grand and technologically innovative estate in coastal New England with a vital bustling port nearby that carried goods to and from all reaches of the globe? And how does that story represent the legacy of its owners? These are the questions asked and explored; the Rundlet family built the house to last, no doubt – they wanted an estate to represent their place in New England’s story and global trade history.
The 360-degree tours are enjoying increased popularity; is there data to support how much they are being used by visitors?
We have received an overwhelmingly positive response from our members, and many visitors have engaged with our new online experiences, but we have not compiled any data on that yet. The 360-degree virtual tours offer visitors an in-depth look when they cannot visit onsite. We don’t see the online experiences as replacements for coming to see the properties, but rather as a way to welcome the public to Historic New England. These new tours offer a way for us to give our communities a deeper and different way of connecting with us and sharing the stories that make up Historic New England.
-Madelia Hickman Ring
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