Editor’s Note: Beginning Saturday, May 23, PEM invites visitors on a lively and interactive journey through one of its most storied properties. PEM’s Ropes Mansion — located at 318 Essex St. — is a 10-minute walk from the museum.
Coinciding with the reopening of Ropes Mansion, PEM teams up with photographers, designers, museums and historic preservation organizations to increase social media engagement with historic homes. Unified under #HistoricHouseCrush, the public is encouraged to share favorite photos and thoughts about historic homes on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Below, Annie Lundsten, exhibition projects coordinator, shares her story of re-imagining PEM’s 18th-century historic house.
Exhibition projects have a very long life. Not as long as people or even dogs. But I’m often surprised by the shocked responses I receive when I tell people that, to do an exhibition project well, one needs two to three years (not counting additional front-end time for in-depth research and development). Can’t you just hang the stuff on the walls? No, we can’t. And this is one of many stories why. Imagine an exhibition is a house…
I arrived to work at the Peabody Essex Museum almost exactly 29 months ago. And within just a few weeks of my assuming the job, I was handed a very unusual project. The Ropes Mansion, one of PEM’s many historic house properties, had been forced to close its doors to the public in 2009 following an accidental fire. The entire contents of the house, parts of which had been on the premises since the 18th century, were evacuated. For the first time since 1912 when the house opened as a public museum, the mansion was locked and the building/collection restoration began. Fast forward to fall 2012 — 100 years later — when I arrived and was told the house needed to re-open by spring 2015.
Fire clean-up, structural repairs and object conservation were near complete but how did we want to interpret the house? What kind of experience did we want our future guests to have? What objects did we want to return to the house? And what interior finishes needed to be applied to accommodate those choices? With an empty shell of a house (a miraculous and rare clean slate), the only thing we knew was what we didn’t want — the same old historic house.
Thus began the lengthy and complex work of our team; a curator, a research curator, an interpreter, a designer, a collections manager and me. Following months of conversation about the critical features of the house, its occupants and associated objects, we realized we were dealing with far more stories than we could ever hope to tell. And what we wanted to do was to choose the most compelling. So, contrary to the typical approach for historic houses (which tend to interpret just one particular time period), we decided to open the house up to telling multiple stories in a diverse way.
With an eye toward a self-guided and intimate encounter, we imagined each room as a specific experience within a larger cohesive whole. Characters, household activities, specific objects and moments in time were carefully winnowed. And once the ideas came together — an approximately 18 month process — we turned our focus to the house itself.
The bare walls and floors of 10 rooms (not counting bathrooms, pantries and hallways) needed paint, wallpaper, carpets and fixtures of every kind. Room by room — based on the interpretive plan we had developed — careful selections were made, sought out (a process not always as simple as it sounds) and ordered…sometime with a lead time of up to 12 months. Samples exploded our design studio and the mammoth effort of restoring two period beds with custom, hand sewn textiles consumed months of conservation, curatorial and collections staff time.
The collection itself, over 3,000 objects hastily removed from the house after the fire, required extensive documentation. Object reviews, photography and data entry occupied hundreds of staff hours and, once complete, intensive object selection for return to the house began. What were the things that best told the stories we wanted to tell? Binderfuls of checklists were made, edited and made again until at last a final master list was complete. And then it was time to get down to brass tacks.
The empty shell received paint, wallpaper, carpets and fixtures throughout the fall of 2014 and well into the winter. Objects arrived at the house during the brutal snows of January and February 2015 and, at the same time, curators, interpreters and editors wrote and revised label text again and again. Graphic design grew from all three of these processes while our designer worked to imagine spaces and interpretive elements that would speak most beautifully to future guests.
We are now less than a month away from our public re-opening of the Ropes Mansion and, though there are still a number of loose ends that need tying, the Exhibition Projects Coordinator in me is pretty happy with the progress we have made. And if I’m completely honest, the person in me will be downright gratified to see that house open its beautiful doors again. But I’ll be sad too. Because the completion of the Ropes Mansion represents the conclusion of one of my oldest projects — one I’ve known a long time, despite our ups and downs.
And like proud parents, all of those who have called it ours, now have to release it and hope it does well on its own.