The Real Story of Sleepy Hollow

HHV also made significant tactile changes. Like most museums, it is not keen to use reproductions, but saw the merits of doing so here, particularly in the rooms where the enslaved persons worked and in two rooms that are portrayed as bedrooms, though the 1750 inventory had suggested were empty. Kathleen Eagen Johnson, a lecturer and museum consultant who was the longtime curator and director of collections at HHV, says, "It's good for experiential learning." To convey the breadth of goods that the Philipses traded, they filled the two rooms with exact reproductions of items that were inventoried in the warehouse spaces of Adolph's New York City house, as well as things cited in business documents or found in archaeological digs at Philipsburg Manor. Consumer goods and bales also fill the rooms. "I have seen kids actually quiver when they see the hands-on reproductions arrayed on the table for them to touch," Johnson says.

Because the Philipse family sided with the British during the American Revolution, they lost their property after it. The furnish­ings in the house are not original to it, but they are very fine, of the period, and reflect the 1750 inven­tory, right down to the manacles on the window sill of Adolph Philipse's otherwise beautifully equipped bedroom. The harder thing, Johnson says, "was to find artifacts of high quality that would represent enslaved people's lives. It's easier to deal with the rich because things survived. Trying to re-create the slave world was a challenge." The items that represent the slave world are telling: a broad-brimmed straw hat, for instance, or a violin, since fiddle-playing was a common practice. "We wanted to have objects that let people know that there were mothers and fathers and babies here," she says. "If you have little shoes, people imagine a child wearing them." Other items are reminders of the roles various individuals would have had. "We made one woman a healer," so in a chest we have medicine vials, things wrapped in paper, to show her skills and knowledge."

The biggest commitment overall is clearly to edu­cation, which comes in many forms. On a typical day, Philipsburg Manor hosts about 120 schoolchil­dren. Before they take a tour, they have an orientation in a large room where wall displays vividly portray the history of slavery in the North. Of par­ticular interest are the New York newspaper adver­tisements about runaways. Though invariably shocking, they reveal a lot about both slaveholders and the escapees and they are also the basis for an imaginative HHV project. In an annual art contest, "Pretends to Be Free: Imagining Runaway Slaves," high-school students choose an advertisement as an inspiration for an artwork and write accompanying statements. For adolescents who often ask why someone who was enslaved just didn't take off, this can be a particularly good learning ex­perience. HHV keeps the best work for its permanent collec­tion, and the best is extraordi­narily powerful and imaginative (see Figs. 12, 12a).

A particularly important ongoing project is a series of dramatic vi­gnettes that Michael A. Lord, the site manager at Sunnyside, wrote. High-school students, after months of train­ing, present them regularly at Philipsburg Manor. "In the proper context, you understand a bit how complicated the situation was," Lord says. The African-American advisory board worked with him, and Jones admires the ways in which Lord's pieces subtly convey the intricacies of slavery. One, for instance, depicts the ways in which enslaved people negotiated for the rights to do something-visit a sick relative, for instance-by bargaining with the only things they had: skills and labor. At the end of every performance, students step out to take questions from the audience, which puts them in the role of educators.

"We are constantly looking for ways to engage with high school students," Thacker says. Until funding dried up, a youth conservation corps, working mostly at Philipsburg Manor and at Sun­nyside, cleared land. For seven summers, Rocking the Boat, a nonprofit organization, sent kids from the South Bronx to Philipsburg Manor where they built colonial-era boats. There are numerous hands-on programs that are tailored for various age groups, and ones aimed at students from the large numbers of immigrant families who have recently moved to the area. HHV also provides extensive materials to assist teachers both before and after their visits and is expanding tech­nologically to help educators and students who cannot get to Philipsburg Manor. "We are looking at being the go-to place for teachers about slav­ery in the North," Jones says. "We want to convey our mes­sage beyond our borders. It is the story of America, it is the story of the world."

History is fluid, and HHV continues to develop Philipsburg Manor and to work on address­ing highly charged issues. "We set out to reinterpret Philips­burg," Stillman says, "but the unintended result is that the reinterpretation changed our museum. The visitor experience is different because we're talking not only about social history but about individuals, whom we honor if we rep­resent them with fidelity. Visitors are asked whom they identify with or what they would have done in similar circumstances. This has given a new moral dimension to our work that energizes the museum and engages the visitor. We didn't antici­pate all this at the outset, but it has been a great gift to everyone." Few institutions get or take the chance to reinvent themselves. It is difficult, it is sensitive, it is full of pitfalls. And, at Philipsburg Manor, it works.

 

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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