Friday, November 27, 2009

Mythical Beasts

I have never forgotten the tour of an historic presidential mansion that I took as a college student (I won't divulge which, but it was not in New York). Awash in colorful Zuber wallpaper, historic furnishings, and curious family annecdotes, I had a lovely time. But it was the first time I was ever heard the infamously-false "Tale of the Fire Screen."

I had only just declared my history major, and so it seemed like such a fun little tidbit. You may know the one:

"Beside the fireplace, you can see an embroidered fire screen. There are many of these funny little pieces of furniture in fine houses of the period, as they were commonly used by ladies. Many people suffered small pox in their youth, leaving them terribly scarred. They filled in these scars with wax make-up, and the screens would keep that wax from melting off their faces when a fire was lit."

It seemed so juicy, so delectable--a lady's intimate secrets! It was like "Ripley's Believe it or Not" for history. Wasn't I dissapointed several years later to learn that this is a common Historic House Myth!

Historic House Myths happen at museums everywhere. They seem so believable and so amusing that they get retold and retold until they seem like they must be fact. Curators and interpreters do their best to stay ahead of these myths, but sometimes they slip by us and find their way out to the public's ear. They may even be born of a kernel of truth, simplified or elaborated upon to make a beter story. Sometimes they are left in the wake of changing research or improved scholarship.

When we find out that we've been telling a historic house myth, it can be hard to give it up; some of them are our best-loved stories and jokes! For instance, I was guilty of telling one at Clermont for a few years:

"Here is our historic telephone--first private telephone in this area. It was installed in 1906, and the telephone number was 3."

This story always got a laugh, but when I was paging through the New York Historical Register one day, I found that Clermont's telephone number was actually 102. It seems the number "3" was born of the fact that we were the third telephone (though still the first in a private home) put in by Germantown Phone Company. As it turns out, for some reason 102 is a much less funny number than 3. It never gets a laugh.

Clermont's interpreters have also been gently putting to rest the "Cannon Ball Tree" story for quite some time. According to this tale, which came from time immemorial, when Clermont was burned by the British General Vaughn in 1777, he fired cannon at the house first. During the cannonade, one ball was lodged in a tree on the southwest terrace and remains their still today, enveloped by the growth of the tree itself.

Sadly, although the English army kept diligent records of their oridinence usage, no record has yet been found of cannon balls being wasted on the empty mansion of Clermont.

Similarly, the painting "Heavenly Lovers," which hangs in the library at Clermont is the victim of its own myth. The painting's plain, unadorned frame is often commented on by curious visitors, and the story used to be that the painting was never given a fancier frame because Alice's mother disliked it, and Alice would take it down and hide it when she came to visit. The simplier frame was supposedly easier to move.

This story was elaborated out from one that Honoria Livingston gave in a 1984 interview. According to her, since her grandmother did not like the painting very much, it was given to Alice to hang at Clermont. As far as we know now, there was no need to hide it.

Still other myths are simply a confusing jumble of stories passed down through various sources. The Thomas Sully portrait of Andrew Jackson that hangs in the dining room is certainly a treasure, but we do not know for sure how it became part of the Livingston household. Jackson was not a Livingston descendant, did not marry a Livingston, and did not pass it down through any hereditary means to Alice Livingston. There are stories that it came from one of the residents of Arryl House next door, or was purchased at hasty auction when its owner liquidated his property and left the country in a hurry. So what is there to say about him? We simply don't know how such a well-known portrait of Jackson got into our dining room.

So what is museum to do when it is faced with these stories, and how can the visiting public trust a thing we say? As with most museums, Clermont's curators and interpreters are constantly researching new information from the best available sources and checking it against what they tell the public. All we can do is be constantly in search of the right answers and sometimes be willing to say "I don't know" when the right answers haven'tbeen brought to light yet.

Museum visitors can trust that we are avidly pursuing this goal, or they can challenge us by doing a little research of their own. Think something sounds too good to be true? Check it out! Many museums have selected history books that pertain to their subjects in their museum stores. These can be a good source for a little investigation. Somes guides may have suggestions about their favorite history books too. Or you can strike out on your own for a trip to the library--you may even have something to share with us!

Want to find out more about Historic House Myths? Colonial Williamsburg's article "Stuff and Nonsense" might be right up your alley. Many museums and historic houses are also holding talks and lectures about historic house myths. Keep an eye out for one near you!

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