Furnishing an illusion

Like most people, when I visited Appomattox Court House I was mainly interested in seeing the McLean House.  The tiny parlor looked much as it did on that day in April 1865, or at least the way it looked in the painting I recall from my fourth-grade textbook.

But the appearance is a little deceptive.  That photo doesn’t show the actual table where Lee sat, and its oval counterpart on the other side of the room isn’t the table used by Grant.  In fact, the entire room is something of a replica.  The McLean House had quite an eventful career after the two generals left.  Purchased by speculators intent on turning it into a museum, it was dismantled in 1893 and then rebuilt after World War II.  What you see is basically a reconstruction using original materials.

I knew this when I walked inside, and presumably most other visitors do too, since NPS signage explains the structure’s complicated history.  But I still wanted to go inside and be in that room, and once I was in there I forgot all about the fact that it’s sort of like an illusion.  All historic house museums collaborate with their visitors in this game of make-believe.  The museums use furnishings and paint to mask the building’s post-historical afterlife, and visitors suspend their disbelief and take the restoration for the way it actually was.

Or at least we hope they’re suspending their disbelief.  Some visitors, no doubt, assume when they visit historic buildings that the people who lived or worked there just walked off and left it intact, right down to the candlesticks, and there it sat like a hermetically sealed time capsule down through the decades until the tour guides came in and laid down carpet runners and velvet ropes.  Interpreters must walk a fine line between two opposing responsibilities, maintaining the illusion while explaining its boundaries at the same time.

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6 Comments

Filed under History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites

6 responses to “Furnishing an illusion

  1. Thanks for this! This is so often one of the issues with public history. We want everything to be authentic and as it was, but it’s often not. How do we share these stories and sense of place without putting so much stress on artifacts that it destroys them?

  2. I’d just be happy if docents stopped explaining that there are no closets because houses were taxed on the number of rooms.

    #HouseMuseumFAIL

  3. I never knew that about the McLean house. Haven’t been there, but it’s almost a bit sad to hear that it was dismantled. You really hit the nail on the head with the problem of interpreting a house or place. And, oh, the debates I’ve heard, even participated in, over removing “non-period” elements of a house. Where I work, we are lucky enough to have one house where the owners did in fact leave it just as it was in the 19th century…candlesticks and all. The other two houses not so much. I’ve tried to refrain from any extreme changes. Fact is, what one generation feels is an appropriate change will doubtlessly be bemoaned by the next generation. I’ve seen some historical societies literally gut their own houses just so they could rebuild a period-correct illusion. This makes me cringe.

  4. How much of the rest of our view of history is illusion, now? Isn’t that rather the point of Zinn’s book, that we honor illusions over reality, sometimes illusions made possible only by telling just part of the story? Great reporting.

    What’s the real story about why there are no closets? What’s the true story about taxing (that one sounds whole cloth error to me)?

    • Michael Lynch

      That’s a good point–sometimes the very act of shaping historical narratives can create illusions, because we inevitably leave things out.

      There was a piece in the Colonial Williamsburg journal a few years ago about historic house myths, which stated that most people of the colonial era kept their clothes in chests rather than closets, since many of them had small wardrobes. There are some early homes that have closets, but they didn’t exclusively store clothes in them. The historic house museum where I used to work did have a small closet in the bedroom, but it was very narrow, almost like a cabinet.

      –ML

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