Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Touching History

I credit my father with sowing the seeds of my career choice. He was a history teacher, and traveling across America with him in the '60s was like traveling with my own personal tour guide. It was an era when most children from rural Maine, where we lived, went on very few school field trips, but as we drove through long stretches with no exterior entertainment but the scenery and scratchy AM radio music, he would tell me about what had happened in those places. I still have vague memories of General Mad Anthony Wayne in the Revolution in New York, and there are pictures of me standing in the rain at Little Big Horn and in the sun in the ruts of the Oregon Trail where it crossed into Kansas. I was fascinated, and I kept imagining what it would have been like to be part of the events that these places had hosted. I desperately wanted a time machine.

Probably the day that sealed my decision to work in museums, rather than in formal academia, came during the summer that I was eight. Not that I knew it then, but here's what happened.

We were in North Dakota, and it had been a hard day. On our way between Grand Forks and Mount Rushmore, we either got lost, or there were no good roads. The gravel washboard that we'd spent the morning driving over had done a number on my little girl's stomach, and car sickness won. My mother got out and walked with me until I could deal with the car again, but I was pretty bedraggled. Late in the day, we arrived in a town called Medora. There was a house museum in town, and we were all eager for an interesting reason to get out of the car. So we stopped at the Chateau de Mores. They were about to close, but it had been a quiet day, and we had four people willing to pay for a tour, so the guides on duty gave us a very personal one. Medora de Mores had been a wealthy woman, and she had fine things even in her summer house in the Badlands in the 1880s. When she stopped summering there, she left almost everything behind. What I actually remember from that day in 1965 are her square piano (they let me play some of my careful beginning piano student music on it), her many travel trunks (I always like to pack plenty of wardrobe, and they could have packed me and my clothes and dolls and books in any of several of those behemoths!), and her side saddle (which they let me sit on). As a museum professional who is dedicated to preserving the artifacts and documents that show us the past, I am horrified by how much contact they let me have with the original artifacts. But the truth is, it is the things I could touch that I experienced most fully that day. The lesson I learned that revealed itself over time was that nothing replaces being in the real setting, with the real things, that defined the parameters of the happenings of the past.

So how does this apply to here and now in the Issaquah History Museums? We preserve and share real buildings where key parts of Issaquah's history happened. The Gilman Town Hall was here before the town became "Issaquah," and it housed not only early town decision making, but also early elementary scholars. It continues in that tradition, holding exhibits that share and explain the development of this community from the days of the Native American inhabitants to the present. It has many "hands on" features that let visitors have the opportunity to connect physically with the ways in which people carried out the tasks of their lives before they had today's tools. The 1920s jail still stands in the back yard, and visitors can go inside. The Depot is located a couple of blocks away, between the train tracks, where it facilitated the relatively easy connection between local daily life and the rest of the world. You could ride the train north a stop or two to Monohon to work in the mill, or you could take it to connect to Seattle and boats across the Pacific. You could ship coal out or milk in on the trains, and the mail came more than once a day. Today's visitors can experience the spaces that housed the commercial and transit hub of the community. They can try the telegraph, too, using the fastest communication method of its day. They can climb aboard the caboose, and they can visit the diorama in the Army Car to see how the train connected a variety of places in this part of the world. Next year they will be able to board the Trolley for a ride through the center of town.

One of the ways in which we share these physical legacies is through providing tours to school groups. Our school tours are tailored for the ages involved, and we can do them for any group from pre-school to senior high. The tours provide an enjoyable personal connection to the history of this place where we now live our twenty-first century lives. There are groups who come every year, but we would like to share this experience with more students. We know that teachers at all levels must fulfill specific curriculum needs, and we work to ensure that our offerings will help that effort and be a good and effective use of their class time. The cost of bussing students to visit on location can also be an issue, but there may be funds available to underwrite this kind of personal local learning experience.

Please contact us if you want to discuss scheduling a tour or any of the logistics of doing so. We want to make Issaquah's history available and engaging to all ages. When you touch history, sometimes history touches you.

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