When I first decided I wanted to be a historian—when I was about 13—my idea of a historian’s job was something between National Treasure and Nancy Drew. I wanted to uncover a trove of documents in somebody’s 300 year old attic and solve a long forgotten mystery. In the ten years that have elapsed since then, my idea of a historian has become much more about books, archives, and curation. Fortunately for me, the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks has hired me to dig through an attic (among other jobs) this summer.
I get to spend my summer interning at Grumblethorpe, one of the 4 homes that make up PhilaLandmarks. Beyond being known for its cool fairytale-like name and a friendly coop of chickens, Grumblethrope is the former home of the prominent Wister family which included artists, writers, and influential Philadelphians dating back to the 1740s. Much is known about the Wister’s, but there is very little information about the people who made life at Grumblethorpe possible.
Nobody is really sure if there were enslaved people on the property. There are tales about Justinia, who cared for the Wisters for years, but who has never been identified as either a paid laborer or an enslaved person. There were certainly servants, but very little is known about the lives they led. The current site manager residence once housed tenant farmers. The lives of the tenant farmers are also largely a mystery. This summer, I will be searching for insights into the lives of the forgotten residents and employees of Grumblethorpe. By hunting through forgotten scrapbooks in a 300 year old attic, as well as searching through the Philadelphia Census and Sanborn Maps, I hope to uncover more about the lives of those who lived on the Wister property while leaving trace records.
I will use what I have gleaned from The Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums (Vagnone & Ryan, 2015) and Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites (Gallas & Perry, 2014) to design an exhibit that interprets the lives of the uncelebrated people who made places like Grumblethorpe thrive. Rather than shy away from this sometimes uncomfortable history, through interpretation Grumblethorpe can further its commitment to social justice that has inspired the Grumblethorpe Youth Volunteer Program and the Grumblethorpe Elementary Education Program.
By hiring me, and doing other important work at the Powel House and the Physick House, PhilaLandmarks is taking steps to counter "founder’s chic" mythology and elite-centric narratives in their historic house museums.
Holly is working on her Ph.D in history at Temple University, studying 20th-C African American history, the War on Drugs, and the Urban South as well as public history. Stay tuned for further updates from Holly...we can’t wait to see what she uncovers!