Friday, June 25, 2010

Update from the Preservation Department

Hello, all! It's time again for an update from your friendly Preservation Department. With the Southwest Outbuilding and Northwest Stairs opened to the public, we're moving on to our summer projects. The big project of the summer is the restoration of the two slave quarters that will be reinterpreted and used for educational space. We also have some preventative maintenance projects that we need to address in the coming monthes. The good news is that my two summer interns have arrived and are at work now. It will be nice to have some help for the next couple of months! As work really gets going this summer, I will be back with a detailed update on the Slave Quarters Restoration and the work of the interns.

In the meantime, I did want to share a recent trip I took to Vermont for a Timber Framing workshop held at Shelburne Farms, a few miles south of Burlington. The workshop was held by the Preservation Trades Network and the Timber Framers Guild at the Shelburne Farm's Breeding Barn. The workshop focused on restoration and in-situ repairs of timber framed structures.
The participants of the workshop were able to learn various techniques by repairing the 1891 Victorian Breeding Barn. Most participants split into groups and worked on repairing large support posts. This was accomplished by using lap joints to install new timbers at the bottom of the posts. I was part of a group that replaced a section of rotten gert between the first floor and the hay loft and six rotten floor joists of the hay loft. Of course this was the messiest job of the week, but I enjoyed it. All in all, the workshop was a great experience--I was able to learn some techniques that I will be able to use here at Stratford Hall, I met some great people, and I helped out another historic site. All the instructors for the workshop were incredibly helpful and passed along a lot of great information to us.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Re-discovering Stratford Hall

It is no secret that visitation at historic sites like Stratford Hall has been declining. This is not a new development, but part of a long-term trend that began over 30 years ago. Careful observers have lots of opinions on why this is happening, but it is clear these trends reflect a significant cultural shift in the way Americans understand the past. In short, being led around an old house and being lectured about the dead (and usually white) occupants is not the attraction it was for our grandparents.

So what to do about it? This is the big question. For those sites that are no longer viable economically, they may be better off as private homes than public institutions. This way, the buildings would be preserved and perhaps occasionally opened to the public. This solution was adopted by Colonial Williamsburg when they sold Carter's Grove. In contemporary Wall Street parlance, however, there are some sites that are "too big to fail." Or putting it another way, their stories have such national significance that they must be preserved as public institutions. Stratford Hall is one of those places.

For this reason, we are embarking on an ambitious effort to remake the Stratford experience in a way that is designed to appeal to a new generation of museum visitor. Many of the comments posted on this blog are pieces of this bigger plan. One of the most important components of this plan is re-thinking how our visitors experience Stratford Hall. Or more specifically, how do we convey educational content to our visitors?

In October, we hosted a conference entitled "Re-Discovering the Historic House." This conference brought together people from a variety of disciplines, like game designers, story tellers and cultural critics, that could help us think differently about how this experience can be re-fashioned for a new audience. If you want to hear about these ideas, you can listen to the podcast on our website.

As the next phase of this process we are planning to implement a new tour experience here and at two other sites, probably in Boston and Philadelphia. The new tour experience would be developed at all three sites simultaneously, accompanied by extensive visitor evaluation. The hope is that this will lead to a replicable model that can be adopted by other sites across the country. It will be a multi-year project.

What will this new experience be like? Right now we don't know the specifics. That's the principal question we need to answer. However, it is fair to say that the new experience will be much more visitor directed and will allow the exploration of history from multiple perspectives. We will still offer the guided tour for those who want them. But for most visitors, we will provide another way for them to explore Stratford at their own pace so they can learn about and discover the things about this place that are important to them. As this process unfolds, we will provide updates here. Stay tuned!

Posted by Paul Reber, Executive Director

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Archaeology Field School at Stratford Hall

For five weeks in May and June, Stratford Hall is once again hosting a Field School in Archaeology in cooperation with the University of Mary Washington's Department of Historic Preservation. Under the direction of Dr. Douglas W. Sanford, students learn to survey, excavate, document, and interpret the archaeological record of Stratford's 18th century landscapes. Students are housed on the plantation, and in addition to field work they also participate in weekly class discussions of archaeological readings and take field trips to nearby historic properties and other archaeological sites in Virginia and Maryland.
The focus of this year's dig is the Oval Site (ST92), a farming complex which dates from approximately 1740 to 1780, and is located about 800 feet south of the Great House on the western side of the Oval drive. The site was originally discovered in the 197os during a plantation-wide survey directed by Dr. Fraser Neiman. Beginning in 2001, the site has been investigated by 8 UMW field schools. At present, the site consists of what we suspect to be an overseer's house featuring a full-height brick-lined basement, a large 20' x 40' post-in-ground barn, and a third structure, also post-in-ground, that was discovered last year in the western portion of the site. This structure is believed to have been either a kitchen or slave quarter.

The 2010 Field School is continuing to investigate and uncover portions of this possible kitchen or slave quarter. We are currently in our third week, and have already found a portion of what we hope is another posthole for the building, several other features, and numerous artifacts. The artifacts include both architectural debris and domestic refuse ranging from countless brick fragments, hand-wrought iron nails, and pieces of window glass to a wide variety of ceramics including coarse utilitarian earthenwares to fine porcelain tablewares. Brass tacks, white-clay pipe stems, table glass, gun flints, brass buckles, iron bridle bits, and even a prehistoric projectile point have been found as well.
By carefully digging 5' x 5' squares of dirt, layer by layer with shovels and trowels, in the area of the suspected third building, the students and crew continue to learn more about the size of this structure, what it was used for, and what was around it. The artifacts screened from those layers of dirt tell us when the site was occupied, what kinds of materials were used in the building's construction, and what kind of activities were carried out by the occupants of the site. Learning more about this building and the enslaved African Americans and free white employees who likely worked and/or lived in this structure contributes to the understanding of Stratford's complex 18th century communities and landscapes.

The Field School is onsite Monday through Friday from 8am to 4pm and runs until June 18th. We hope you'll come and visit while we're working and learn more about this site!