The Beauty and the Grit

Reynolda House interior

What impulses drive some of us to try snatching glimpses of the past by visiting historic houses? For some the past seems purer, less corrupted by the regrettable influences of our contemporary lives (however the beholder may define those). For others, beautiful buildings and objects created in the past are more accessible when they are held in the public trust. Those of us who spend time in grand historic houses can be dazzled by decorative arts and architectural details that most of our ancestors never dreamed of. We may not be able to afford lavish displays in our own living spaces, but we can enjoy them, if only for awhile, by visiting—or working in—these majestic interiors.

Those who seek the beauty may especially enjoy candlelight tours and special events with receptions. Some may even appreciate volunteer opportunities to clean and handle the collections and to absorb the space’s ambiance during quieter times.

outhouse at Aycock Birthplace

For others, the gritty truth of the past has value and visiting historic sites can make its reality more present. Disease, vermin, and outhouses are a few of the daily conditions that modern technologies have nearly eradicated or sanitized. Learning about and imagining the ways people lived in the past (before air conditioning, for instance) broadens our perspective on the human condition.

Those who seek the grit may revel in the stories that an historic house setting can evoke and that interpretative materials can relay. Groups of reenactors flock to North Carolina’s many battlefields and try to imagine and to present the brutality of war, as well as the lack of provisions,  injuries, diseases, and other hardships of camp life. Similarly, stories of Thomas Wolfe’s father’s drunken violence and accounts of his own sexual escapades enliven visits to his Memorial State Historic Site in Asheville.

What attracts you to the cultural heritage institution where you work? What attracts various audiences to your site? Is it the beauty, the grit, or the synergy of those elements?


About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on October 11, 2012, in collections access, Exhibitions, historic houses, historic sites, public programs and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I work at Mount Stewart House Co Down. It it such a privilege The family are still in residence which adds hugely to the atmospheric drama of this magical place. The tangible social history of the house pervades every room, every nook and cranny. The delicate chiming of ancient long cases charm the hours with whispers and vignettes of happy family rythem, of charged political debate and splendid decadence. The Lady Rose is the embodiment of all the grace and charm this house gifts to its staff and visitors.

    • It sounds like a beautiful place, Nuala. Thanks for giving us a glimpse of an historic house from “across the pond.” Does the site’s interpretation deal with the great famine of the 1840s–the same period of the manor’s expansion?

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