Hanging out at the Hermitage

I’ve always had a soft spot for Andrew Jackson.  Sure, he was about as politically incorrect as you can get: a slaveowner, a great foe of the Indians, and a guy with a notoriously bad temper.  But he also had an unwavering faith in and devotion to the common man and to democracy.  It’s fitting that an era is named for him, because he embodies all the qualities of early nineteenth-century America, good and bad.  In any case, I’m pretty certain that if he could read many of today’s negative assessments of him, he’d dismiss them with a burst of indignant contempt and a flurry of profanity.

I live just a few hours from the Hermitage, his longtime home, and I’ve been in the neighborhood countless times.  Yet, for various reasons, I’d never been able to see it for myself.  Going to Nashville and seeing the directional signs was, for me, like going to your favorite bookstore and seeing that particular title that you’ve always wanted to read but have just never found the time.  This past weekend I finally made a trip to Nashville specifically to tour the site.  It was well worth the wait.

The biggest surprise to me about the Hermitage was its size.  I’m not talking about the house itself, which was actually smaller than I’d expected.  I’m talking about the extent of the entire site.  This isn’t a historic house museum—it’s an entire plantation that’s been preserved and now interpreted.  It’s an incredibly expansive site that’s rich in content, and it takes a lot of time to fully appreciate it.

The place to begin is at the visitor center, where a theater offers a short film with an overview of key events in Jackson’s life.  The emphasis in the film is on Jackson as a public figure.  You’ll hear about his political and military offices, and some of the important issues he faced in the White House.  There’s a considerable amount of attention paid to his opinions about slavery and Indians, too, and the film doesn’t shy away from the negative aspects of this side of Jackson.  In fact, what really surprised me about the movie is the extent to which it emphasizes some of these negative aspects.  What’s missing from the film is a sense of Jackson the private man, but it does provide a good introduction to his role in American history for those who are unfamiliar with it.

The visitor center also contains exhibits on the history of the plantation and its inhabitants, featuring personal items owned by Jackson and members of his family as well as artifacts recovered from archaeological excavations.  In the exhibit galleries, as throughout the tour, the emphasis is on the plantation as a whole rather than specifically on Jackson and his family.  Some of the most interesting items on display are tiny pieces of jewelry recovered from the slave areas, which are carved in recognizably African motifs.

To interpret the grounds, the Hermitage employs a personal audio tour.  Visitors are issued devices with headphones and a keypad.  Numbered signs are in place throughout the grounds at various important points (the kitchen, the springhouse, the slave cabins, Jackson’s tomb, etc.).  When you arrive at one of these points, you can enter the number into the device using the keypad, and you get a brief narration about it along with comments from curators, archaeologists, gardeners, and other on-site experts.  Combined with a printed walking guide and the usual signage with text and images, the audio tour is wonderfully effective.  I particularly appreciated the brief excerpts from interviews with the staff, which was much more engaging than an impersonal exhibit label.  The audio, signage, and printed guides all combine to give you a layered interpretive experience, so that you can get as much or as little detail about particular areas as you like, in whatever manner suits you best.  There’s also a separate audio tour designed specifically for kids.

Of course, the main highlight on the tour is Jackson’s actual house.  The rooms are furnished with beautiful period pieces and artwork, many of them once owned by Jackson himself.  My only complaint about the house tour is its brevity.  Costumed guides usher groups through the mansion at quite a brisk pace, so if you want in-depth information about the rooms or furnishings, the thing to do is ask questions.  You’re in and back out before you know it.

The grounds are so extensive, though, that there’s quite a bit to see outside the house: Jackson’s tomb, slave cabins, the springhouse, the gardens, etc.  I was there for nearly four hours, and I still didn’t see everything before closing time.  Again, the interpretation here covers the entire scope of life at the plantation, so you’ll learn quite a bit about the slaves, farming techniques, and all the other things that went into managing the place.

In fact, amid all the information you’ll get about the site’s history, its workings, and its multitude of inhabitants, you don’t hear much at all about the inner life of the man responsible for it.  At most historic house sites of this kind, the spotlight is on the notable figure who lived there; the servants and other inhabitants usually remain faceless.  You hear about them, but they hover in the background.  At the Hermitage it’s Jackson who waits in the wings.

That surprised me, because Jackson’s personality and character are such fascinating subjects.  I kept wondering how much of the site had his personal stamp on it, and what role he had to play in the artifical community that he built.  Few men have left such a decisive mark on American history.  Indeed, he gave his name to an entire period.  Of course, for some time now, historians have been trying to correct the oversights of past scholars by focusing away from the great and powerful and more on the marginalized.  It seems to me that the interpretation at the Hermitage might be an over-correction.

Still, it’s an incredibly impressive historic site, managed and interpreted with the highest possible degree of professionalism.  It’s clear that exhaustive research has gone into the restoration and programming, and the communication between the site and visitors is handled with extraordinary deftness.  It’s a stellar example of historic house museum management.

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Filed under Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

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