If I have learned anything during this program, it is that objects and buildings have a wonderful ability to tell stories. Naturally, I knew that objects were a helpful way of looking at the past before this summer. I can point to specific times in my life when museum objects spoke to me, like when I saw Judy Garland’s ruby slippers at the Smithsonian in 5th grade and Henry Clay’s portrait in the National Gallery in high school. During this program, I have experienced the power of objects full force like when I saw Clementi’s harpsichord at PVMA, the Mayflower II at Plymouth, the kitchen at The Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, and John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence painting at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. Everyone connects to different objects. These just happen to be some of the ones that have resonated most with me.
This may sound obvious, but there is something wonderfully tangible about objects. They make the past seem so much closer and more alive, yet emphasize its otherness at the same time. For instance, after walking around the Mayflower II, I have a much better sense of what that trip across the ocean must have been like, but I still cannot truly fathom weeks of living in that tiny space.
While I have always had a healthy appreciation for objects and buildings, this past week I learned about the power that landscapes hold and their ability tell historical stories. It is somehow too easy to focus on objects and buildings and forget that they were part of a larger context. We spent a morning last week talking with John Forti, Curator of Historic Landscapes at Strawbery Banke museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. His living object collection contains heritage plants, the genetic strains of plants that people throughout history used. Forti designs gardens to show how these plants would have been grown. He actively works to place the wonderful buildings of Strawbery Banke within their historical landscapes, be that within a small haphazard garden outside of a colonial riverfront home, or a Victory Garden behind a 1940s store. It is amazing how much more powerful the stories of the buildings and their objects were when placed within the larger landscape.
Armed with this new awareness of historical landscapes, I decided to take a trip to Stowe, Vermont this weekend. Unless you know me well, this may sound a little bit out the blue, but I promise that it is not! My favorite movie is The Sound of Music and Maria Augusta von Trapp’s The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, the autobiography that inspired the musical, is one of the books that I reread annually. After fleeing Austria, the Trapp family purchased a farm in Stowe and turned it into a music camp, which today has become a resort. I have always wanted to visit, and since I finished my research paper early, I had time to make the trip!
Once we finally found the lodge (a surprisingly difficult task), I was initially disappointed. Although the buildings are lovely, they are nothing like the original, simple buildings described in the autobiography. However, because the original family structures have been replaced with a luxury hotel, I was forced to think about the landscape more than historical structures. Walking around the mountain and looking at the family graveyard gave me chills. Knowing how much the family treasured the place, and seeing it for myself, gave me a greater connection to them and to their story. Standing atop the mountain, it is easy to see why the family settled there. It was indescribably beautiful and remote. Now that I have a better sense of their land, I cannot wait to go home and reread Maria’s story because I am sure that it will hold a deeper meaning for me.
I hope that my awareness for landscape continues, especially as I prepare to go on our week-long trip next week. I must remind myself to look, not just at the buildings and objects, but at where they are situated, and to think about how that space relates to the past.
This week’s picture was taken at the Trapp Lodge in Stowe, VT.