Oliver Jensen’s editorial, “H and Non-H,” in the December issue of A MERICAN H ERITAGE requires, first of all, some factual correction and, secondly, consideration of his basic criticism of outdoor museums of history.
By oblique implication the author criticizes The Farmers’ Museum at Cooperstown for “pseudo cuteness and creeping costumization.” His observations derive from an article in the New York Times on September 30, 1956, which quoted John F. W. Rathbone, Secretary of the English National Trust, as having said, “For example, at Cooperstown, New York, I visited a beautifully preserved doctor’s house of the Eighteenth Century. But inside the house, I found a caretaker dressed in Eighteenth-Century costume pretending to dispense Eighteenth-Century medicine.” The facts of the case are these: we have at The Farmers’ Museum Village Crossroads a Nineteenth-Century doctor’s office; we have a guide in the building who wears his ordinary Twentieth-Century clothes and does not pretend to dispense medicine or anything else except information. Mr. Rathbone called us to say that the Times man had misquoted him in distilling an hour’s interview into a few short paragraphs.
In a staff of more than a hundred employees during the summer months only two wear anything that approaches a costume at The Farmers’ Museum. Women who demonstrate the household chores in our early Nineteenth-Century farmhouse requested a few years ago that they be permitted to wear simple dresses of the period. This we agreed to but we stopped the matter right there. My feeling about this whole question was summed up at our course on Historic-House Keeping last fall. I said at that time, “Should we or should we not put our people in costumes? I don’t think it really matters so long as men and women who are your guides are basically sympathetic with the place itself. I would rather have them clothed in the spirit of the house than in a tricorn hat or a hoop skirt.”
Our reason for not putting guides in costume is a very simple one: we have been lucky in finding older guides to interpret our village area who are native to our soil, whose ancestors lived the very life they are explaining. They are happier and more natural in their everyday clothing.
This happens to be our solution, but I think the point Mr. Jensen makes is not well taken. There may be just as much reason for putting those who are interpreting a historic area in correct historical costume as there is in having the historically correct color paint on the walls or the right kind of bed clothes on the bed.
The outdoor museums in this country are, it seems to me, attempting to take men, women and children out of the middle of the Twentieth Century for a few hours and place them in the very midst of an earlier period, to put them on the stage of history. Involved here are, first of all, the problems of scholarship which feed accurate historical details to the curatorial departments which, in turn, re-create the scene to the minutest detail. Then the scene must often be interpreted—interpreted not only accurately but interestingly.
At The Farmers’ Museum we stand in awe of no man in the matter of the scholarship behind our interpretation or the accuracy of our re-creation of the New York frontier. But we maintain the privilege of utilizing the findings of research to make the American past come alive for men and women, the majority of whom are not trained historians but everyday citizens seeking to understand something of the life of those who were in this place before them. The problem isn’t T or Non-T (Tricorn or Non-Tri corn). It is rather a question of whether the principles of scholarship and the principles of good teaching are combined to create a highly vital technique for popular education in history. I believe this is being done on a successful scale beyond anything we could have dreamed of twenty-five years ago.
Louis C. Jones
Director, New York State Historical Association Cooperstown, New York
We like your publication but cannot subscribe to it because it gives off vapors from the printer’s ink which cause allergic effects among the members of my family.
W. C. C. Little Silver, New Jersey