The Archivist's Dream

R.Smith

Learn More

Michele Owens is a Saratoga Springs, NY-based writer whose work has appeared numerous magazines as well as online at www.gardenrant.com.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Special Places, The Trustees' member magazine. To subscribe, join The Trustees today.

 

Old houses tend to collect a lot of books – particularly old houses inhabited by esteemed writers and artists, and the Old Manse in Concord is no exception: Altogether, some 3,000 volumes were assembled in the house from the time it was built in 1770 until it was acquired by The Trustees in 1939.

by Michele Owens

“These books date back to the late 17th century, in English, French, and German,” explains Tom Beardsley, Historic Site Manager at the Old Manse. “But it’s not just the books themselves that are so significant. The drawings and notes made in the margins by their owners are extremely interesting.” Since those owners included literary giant Ralph Waldo Emerson, the books represent a priceless historic resource. Appraised and cataloged over the years by experts and knowledgeable volunteers, the collection remains a treasure for members and visitors.

Even with such attention to individual objects, The Trustees, the careful preserver of so many special places across Massachusetts, have spent most of their more than 100 years without a place to properly manage and care for their rich cache of historic materials. These include The Trustees’ own records dating back to 1891, as well as the accumulated fine and decorative arts and household goods of its 10 museum houses (five of which are National Historic Landmarks), which range from paintings by American masters and fragile rugs, to fine furniture and even household receipts. Frannie Colburn, chair of the The Trustees’ Historic Resources Committee and a guiding force at the organization for more than three decades, says, “We’ve been storing things in unused basements, barns, attics – and worried for years about it. It just became more and more obvious that we needed a facility to catalog and conserve valuable objects and documents.”

Over the last 10 years, Susan Edwards, Trustees Director of Historic Resources, along with Historic Resources staff and committee members, worked to develop such a facility. With the help of generous grants, they surveyed The Trustees’ collections across the state and developed long-range conservation plans for objects. A collections software program was purchased, pieces were photographed, and vulnerable objects received professional conservation care. Still, The Trustees lacked the right physical space – a facility with state-of-the-art climate control and work space for researchers.  

Then, a few years ago, The Trustees acquired a 15,000-square-foot former museum building in Sharon, allowing them to create the Archives and Research Center, or ARC. Built in 1915 as a tuberculosis sanitarium, the building had most recently housed the Kendall Whaling Museum, making it ideal for The Trustees’ purpose. Edwards explains, “It was almost turn-key. It had climate control, low light levels. It was fireproof and secure.” Funds provided by The Trustees’ 2006 capital campaign turned a decade of dreaming and planning into reality.

The first steps: providing building upgrades and finding the right staff. “What’s important with the advent of the ARC is not just the building,” emphasizes Bill Clendaniel, Historic Resources Committee Member, whose distinguished career in historic preservation includes 20 years as president of Mount Auburn Cemetery. “It’s the staff: trained people getting everybody excited about the history of our properties.”

The Trustees found a manager for the ARC in Mark Wilson, who worked as one of the organization’s first historic resources managers in the 1990s, then went on to serve as Registrar and Curator of Properties for the Nantucket Historical Association. “It’s great to be coming in on a project like the ARC from the start,” Wilson says. Archivist Miriam Spectre came to the ARC well prepared to shape a new archives operation after a career that has spanned the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, the University of Pennsylvania Archives Center, Bryn Mawr College, and the American Philosophical Society.

By the spring of 2008, with the staff in place and renovations complete, the first objects were being packed onto trucks and sent to the ARC for cataloging, conservation, and, in some cases, storage. “We’re selective in what we’re sending away,” says Will Garrison, Historic Resources Manager for the Berkshires and Pioneer Valley regions. It’s the household objects and furnishings that make The Trustees’ house museums feel so alive, as if their previous owners had just gone out for the afternoon. “We don’t want to take away from the experience of visitors,” stresses Garrison.

But it’s those many items that don’t get displayed to visitors, that had been tucked into attics and desk drawers – Fletcher Steele’s notebooks for the gardens at Naumkeag, Eastman Johnson’s portrait of agricultural innovator Daniel Fuller Appleton – that are now making their way to the ARC. They’re being managed so that Trustees staff and volunteers can consult them in preserving and interpreting the properties. Spectre explains, “Our objects have been well documented, but some of the archives and books haven’t.”

Now, those 3,000 books from the Old Manse as well as other items from across the state are gradually being examined by Spectre, as The Trustees determine how best to display and preserve them. “The activity of cataloging this wonderful stuff is a way of taking ownership of what we have,” notes Bill Clendaniel. He adds that the history revealed by these objects and records will do more than expand visitors’ appreciation of The Trustees’ properties: It may well help them appreciate the larger world they live in. “The richness of what is right here in Massachusetts is overwhelming. To a great extent, our history is the history of the nation.”

Among the treasures Spectre is uncovering are carefully preserved family papers from the 370-year history of Appleton Farms. “There are stacks of letters tied up with ribbons that hadn’t been touched since the turn of the 19th century,” she explains. “One of the Appletons was a Union soldier in the Civil War who sent letters home from the field. Other family letters offer a remarkable window into the social and cultural history of the 19th century.”

Documents like these are an essential part of The Trustees’ mission. “We can tell the story of the land because of the buildings and objects and records,” says ARC Manager Wilson. “We’re not just fields, but houses, gardens, letters, books, ribbons for prize-winning pigs. It all works together and becomes a more complete story of the history and
culture of Massachusetts.”

The experience of even a natural landscape like World’s End can be enriched by archival material. The Trustees own drawings by pioneering landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted that outline plans for a residential development at World’s End; they offer ample food for thought for anyone who strolls that extraordinary landscape today.

Wilson points out another huge advantage of cataloging all the many papers and photos long stored in boxes and drawers: “When we share with people what we have, often those people will in turn shed light on its significance. For example, a researcher recently brought to our attention a scrapbook put together by Trustees founder Charles Eliot.” The scrapbook, which was started in 1889 – two years before Eliot founded The Trustees – was full of newspaper clippings about the wider movement to protect open land, properties that might need protection, and, later, the new organization itself. “Eliot was making contact with different groups, and they were contacting him,” says Wilson. “He was excited and committed to making this work. From the scrapbook, you get a real sense that it wasn’t about him but about the land and working together.” Eliot even saved the first mailing he ever sent out about The Trustees – and the membership form he included with it. “And this scrapbook had been sitting tucked away without our knowing it,” Wilson marvels.

But, he emphasizes, preservation and storage are not the ultimate goals of the ARC – sharing this rich historical material is. “We don’t want the ARC to be a mausoleum. We want things to be used.” As the ARC gets under full sail – a process of gradual acceleration over the next 12 years – it will provide an extraordinary resource for scholars and educators with an interest in everything from Colonial dairy practices to the China Trade to the origins of the land trust movement. Eventually, there will be a searchable database of the collections, and, ultimately, a website that will make documents available to the public online.

The ARC represents a new level of stewardship for the organization and the opportunity to advance scholarship of Massachusetts history and culture. It also embodies The Trustees’ determination to preserve its historic resources with the same care as its natural ones. Thus a human dimension will enhance every meadow, field, forest, and wetland the organization protects, as the decisions made by generations of past owners are illuminated by the records they left behind. “What we’re doing at the ARC helps to connect the past, present, and future,” says Spectre. “We have to know what came before us to shape tomorrow well.”

Michele Owens is a Saratoga Springs, NY-based writer whose work has appeared in numerous magazines, including the winter 2008 issue of Special Places. She is also a regular contributer to www.gardenrant.com.