For the past couple months, I’ve had the opportunity to relocate temporarily from my home state of Maryland to the lovely state of Massachusetts while completing an internship at Old Sturbridge Village. As a museum lover, I was determined from Day One to spend as much time off as I could visiting the area’s wealth of fascinating museums. While there are still several left on my list that I didn’t make it to, I’ve enjoyed going to quite a number of them.
Slater’s Mill Historic Site, Pawtucket, Rhode Island
This small museum is located just outside of Providence, RI and just over the Massachusetts border. It’s a three-building site that gives an overview of the evolution of industry, particularly textile processing, in early America.
18th century home – A spinning wheel used for flax (linen) is in the background on the right, and a weasel, used to wind skeins of string, is the windmill-looking machine on the table. The song “Pop Goes the Weasel” was inspired by this!
Our guided tour started in a 1700s-era house, showing how textiles were originally produced in cottage industry-type setting within a home, usually for the family, though sometimes a person might hire other people and produce larger amounts of cloth to sell. This work was done using human power and simple machines like spinning wheels.
The two other buildings were water-powered mills, where huge wheels pushed by the energy of flowing water turned machinery and belts used to spin thread onto spools, do woodworking, clean cotton, etc.
These held large bobbins of thread that were mechanically wound. Young girls had the job of sticking their hands into the machine to remove filled bobbins. Our guide turned on the machine and demonstrated for about 30 seconds…her had stung and was visibly red. It’s hard to imagine doing that all day as an elementary school-age child.
It’s both amazing to think about innovation over the years and how drastically life and work has changed over the past two centuries because of these inventions, and humbling to consider how hard it must have been to work in such loud, impersonal, fast-paced, dangerous conditions. (It’s also a bit humbling to realize that our country benefitted so much from plans for a machine that were literally stolen from England.)
Bobbins in boats on top of a loom. Some looms were so large, there were ships on wheels that were water-powered to go through the warp threads.
There was also a collection of later machinery, displaying the further development of technology for creating cloth.
Later machines, probably for making knit fabrics.
Mark Twain House, Hartford, CT
The Mark Twain House is a must-see if you’re ever passing through Connecticut. Just outside of downtown Hartford, this sumptuous Victorian that Twain built for his family not only has delicious interior design, but also a fascinating story of an eccentric writer and his family and household staff.
I love writers’ homes because they have such interesting tours that focus more on the family and their life. Twain and one of his daughters appear to have had trouble concentrating, probably suffering from what we would diagnose today as ADHD. He had to change where he would spend time writing at least twice because he couldn’t be in a place with too many distractions. His daughter, educated at home by Twain’s wife, who had attended college, went to a formal academy in high school but was kicked out for behavior issues, probably because she was distractable too and unused to regimented schooling.
The carriage house
The house also has an accompanying museum with two fantastic, very readable exhibits as well as a cafe. The neighborhood nearby is also worth exploring if you love Victorian architecture!
Concord holds a special place in my heart because it was the home of two authors I dearly love, whose homes I visited in eighth grade and fell in love with this charming town. It really is what I imagine real-life Stars Hollow being like.
Downtown Concord, Mass.
The downtown is very sweet and historic and also have a cemetery for those who are interested in historic gravestones. It just oozes New England charm. There is a National Park dedicated to the Revolutionary War battlefield, which I still have not made my way too, and a town museum as well as a few house museums, namely belonging to local authors Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and – dearest to my heart – Louisa May & Amos Bronson Alcott.
Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House, where she wrote her most famous book, Little Women.
I visited Orchard House twice in middle school, inspiring me to do a research project on her family’s connection to the Massachusetts abolition movement for National History Day. I wrote a bit more about my visit in another post, but this remains one of my favorite museums to this day, though I’m sure it’s shabby to many museum snobs. I love the personality of the family that comes through even in the furnishings, which have a very lived-in appearance.
Amos Bronson Alcott’s (Louisa’s father) Concord School of Philosophy. Alcott was a man of ideas and conviction, but unfortunately not usually successful in making them last in application. His ideas on educating children have more recently become popularly accepted, but got him into trouble in his own lifetime.
The family let their artistic younger daughter, May, draw and paint on the walls and the house is furnished to reflect the Alcotts in their better middle class status after Little Women had started selling, but it still has the well-loved furniture and cramped quarters you might find in your own home, which I find endearingly relatable compared to the hoards of mansions that tend to get preserved. The Alcotts are also fascinating people, eccentric and lovably human, both outcasts of their own time and representatives of some of the growing movements in mid-19th-century New England: abolition, Transcendentalism, women’s rights, philosophical discussion and lecture circuits, etc.
A re-creation of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin he built for his experiment living alone in nature for a time, as recorded in his book Walden.
I also couldn’t pass up a re-visit to Walden Pond, now a state park. I went hoping for some kind of epiphany about what to do with my life but left wishing I had brought my bathing suit to enjoy the clear water. I guess life works itself out as you go along more than it hands out sudden clarity about where to go next. Sometimes you have to embrace the uncertainty. All the same, Walden is a beautiful place with such a peaceful atmosphere. I highly recommend a visit.
Sunset over Walden Pond.
Museum of Russian Icons, Clinton, Massachusetts
This place confirmed my assertion that there really is a museum for everything. When I saw the brochure for the Museum of Russian Icons, I was intrigued. I knew relatively little about the Russian Orthodox Church or about the art of icons, so it was interesting to learn about an art form that is an intersection of visual expression and religious devotion.
The icons – pictures of saints and Biblical figures – are painted in particular steps, each of which have symbolic religious significance. As the icons are painted, the artist is supposed to pray and meditate during the process. I found the concept quite powerful…I think the artistic process is great for taking time to consider life and examine one’s inner self. I probably sat for an hour watching a video of an adorable elderly Russian man demonstrating how icons are created. I’m not much good at visual art myself, but it’s fascinating to watch people who are practice their craft. The neighborhood around the museum also had some gorgeous Victorian houses, which always gets me jazzed.
Fruitlands Museum, Harvard, Massachusetts
I believe I can touch the sky…Fruitlands Museum, Harvard Mass.
Fruitlands definitely wins the prize for best location out of all the places I visited. The museum is spread out among several buildings in a campus layout, but it’s all nestled on a hill that looks out on some gorgeous hills, filled with foliage. I didn’t get a picture that did justice to the view.
The museum is mainly dedicated to the Utopian experiment that Louisa May Alcott’s father, writer and educator Amos Bronson Alcott, started with fellow Transcendentalist Charles Lane. Louisa May Alcott later wrote a short story about the disastrous experience. Her father and Lane were trying to live out Transcendentalist ideals, living off the land and farming without using animal labor, which, as you might imagine, is quite difficult to do. Add to that that Lane believed that ideally people should be single and celibate when Alcott had his wife and daughters living on the farm…Dramaaaaa.
Fruitlands Farmhouse, built 1843
In addition to the original farmhouse where the Alcotts and Lane lived, the museum campus has an art gallery featuring folk portraits and Hudson River School paintings, a Native American museum, and a building from a nearby Shaker community.
Shaker Museum, Fruitlands Museum, Harvard, Mass.
I spent the most time at the Shaker Museum, which was a small office building that had been part of the Shaker community in Harvard, Massachusetts, not far from the Fruitlands utopian experiment (in fact, Charles Lane went and tried to live with the Shakers for a short time after Fruitlands dissolved.)
It was interesting to learn about how Shakerism offered a safe haven for women who had been widowed to have a place to live and be provided for. It’s humbling to think about how women in past centuries would have been in a pretty difficult situation if their husband or other family members they were dependent on passed away. It’s also interesting to learn about how entrepreneuring the Shakers were, crafting furniture and creating the concept of packaged seeds.
I also enjoyed the gorgeous hiking paths through the fall foliage. There were great interpretive signs about the historical and natural landscape. It’s interesting to think about the remains of homes, daily lives, and natural phenomena that we walk on top of every day without thinking. One picture in the slideshow above is of a part of the trail that overlapped with a former wagon road. The signage pointed out that the ruts are still visible. I wonder how many lives in transition traveled that same path.
The Mount, Lenox, MA
The Stables, The Mount, Lenox, MA
When the stables of an estate are larger than your family’s house, you know you’ve happened upon a Gilded Age mansion. Edith Wharton was a prolific novelist who critiqued the constrained, exclusive society of the extremely wealthy Americans in early nineteenth century New York City. Many of these wealthy people built houses in the Berkshires, the part of the Appalachians in western Massachusetts and Wharton followed suit. She actually had a large part in designing the Mount because of her strong opinions in home design. In fact, her first published book was an advice book on interior design.
Wharton’s life is fascinating; she divorced her husband at a time when it was still socially unacceptable, so she left the Mount and moved to Paris after being shunned from society. But she wrote a novel a year for forty years and won a Pulitzer Prize. She had other love affairs, though none of them worked out particularly well (I feel you, girl), but she did write some steamy poetry about them.
The scullery where maids would have washed dishes. Sucky job but nice view.
The house museum is particularly interesting in that it has tried to experiment with new ways to use the space of a historic home. For example, rooms are, for the most part, not roped off and, in addition to getting a guided tour, you can walk through the house at your own pace. Some rooms are restored to their original appearance or something similar (designers were invited to decorate some of the rooms at their own expense to reduce the cost of restoring the home) while others are small gallery spaces. I loved the little reading nook they had too. Some effort is also made to interpret the spaces the servants used.
Wharton’s work and receiving room, which has been restored to its original appearance. (she wrote her novels in bed next door every morning so she wouldn’t have to wear her corset…Same.)
Well, I have a million more pictures, and a few other smaller places I visited, but this is already a monster of a post. But I’ll leave with some parting musings….
I feel bad sometimes that I haven’t done much international travel, but then I think about how many amazing places there are in my own country, or even my own country, that I’ve never been to, and I realize that maybe there’s something to be said for traveling locally.
I think it’s important to be connected to the places around you and to appreciate the stories they have to offer of the people who have called that location home in years past. Local history can so often go overlooked or even be looked down on by academics, but I think it gives us a sense of identity and groundedness in the landscape we inhabit, allowing us to appreciate and thus care for, preserve, and conserve both the built and the natural environment.
On a more personal note, I have to say that while I sometimes felt a little pathetic trudging up to the ticket offices to ask for admission for one adult (“No, an adult, not a student”) while several couples celebrating anniversaries or honeymoons or girl friends spending a day out gossiping while cursorily looking at art perused the gift shop around me. Let’s just say that while I fully intended to visit as many museums as possible while I was up here, I didn’t expect to be doing it alone. But I am continually reminded that life has a stubborn way of making sure that things do not go the way you expect.
Naumkeag Mansion, the Berkshires, Massachusetts
In spite of the occasional awkwardness and self-consciousness (and occasional anxiety) of traveling alone, I am a firm believer that it’s important to take time to get back in touch with your own thoughts and feelings, and I sometimes wonder if many museums can properly be absorbed and appreciated if you’re with other people. While parts of the past couple months of my life have had some moments of pain and frustration over the loneliness I felt and the disappointment – sometimes even anger – I was experiencing surrounding some of my relationships, I also found some extremely beautiful moments being alone in nature or alone looking at a building where an author who made a large impact on my life lived.
I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years frustrated with how people have treated me or relationships have panned out, but I think those hurts are a good reminder that it’s important to spend time with yourself, staying in touch with your own desires, dreams, and emotions. It’s good to dignify yourself by giving yourself the opportunity to experience things you want to, regardless of whether or not other people accompany you. It’s important to have friends and connections, but it’s also good to know yourself and not lose your individuality trying to be what you think other people want, which I felt like I was starting to do when I began this journey a couple months ago.
Mark Twain House
Museum of Russian Icons
Enjoying New England in fall 🙂