Visit to the Arlington Historical Museum

-Greta Kuriger Suiter

The Arlington Historical Museum is located at the Hume School building at 1805 S. Arlington Ridge Road. The location is owned by the Arlington Historical Society (AHS), a society that also owns the historic Ball-Sellers House. Entry to both places is free. The Museum is open to the public Saturdays and Sundays 1-4, and the House is open to the public Saturdays 1-4 (April to October only). The AHS by-laws available on their website include their objectives to be:

(a) to discover, collect, preserve, and disseminate knowledge relating to, and to otherwise promote an interest in, the history, antiquities, art and literature of the County of Arlington and the Commonwealth of Virginia; (b) to establish and maintain for the benefit of the general public a museum and/or a library to promote historic knowledge, research, education, and the preservation of records.

Hume school exterior

Hume school exterior

The museum consists of exhibits on the history of Arlington from the 1600s to present day which fill the first floor of the old school house. The second floor has a work space, assembly hall, and a small room outfitted with desks, books, and a flag to demonstrate how the classrooms would have looked. A rope is seen in this room which connects to the old school bell and visitors are given a chance to ring it if they wish.

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Outfitted classroom on the second floor of the Hume school with desks, books, and rope for the school bell.

The actual classrooms were originally in the first floor of the building. According to a very helpful pamphlet about the Hume School written by docent Jennifer Sale in 2004, the Hume school was designed by B. Stanley Simmons in 1891 and built circa 1893 in a county of about 4,000 inhabitants. Sale states that the Hume school was one of many such buildings.

“In the 1890s, the county had outgrown its first school buildings. Classes had been held in makeshift wooden buildings, rented community halls, or even private homes. Architects were hired to design several larger brick schoolhouses. These were built with two classrooms on the first floor, for grades 1-4 and 5-8. The second floor was one large room used for community meetings, school plays or storage.”

The school served 40 to 50 students from the 1890s until it was closed in 1956 due to fire safety code violations. The pamphlet draws on oral histories to provide first hand accounts of what the school was like for students. Mostly it was a pain in the neck to get to since it was at the top of large hill. Indeed the area of Arlington Ridge and Addison Heights was an important strategic location in Arlington County during the Civil War due to its great views of Washington D.C.

View of D.C. from Prospect Park along Arlington Ridge.

View of D.C. from Prospect Park along Arlington Ridge.

The purpose for my visit to the museum was to see the exhibits and write up an exhibit review for the class Gender and Material Culture at George Mason University. The assignment was to visit a historic site or museum and then write up an exhibition review focusing on the interpretation of women’s experiences included in the exhibit.

The essay “Putting Women in Their Place: Methods and Sources for Including Women’s History in Museums and Historic Sites” by Edith Mayo from the book Restoring Women’s History Through Historic Preservation published in 2003, on page 119, includes four criteria that exhibits must demonstrate to be considered women’s history. The exhibit must:

(1) place women’s point of view as the central frame of reference about experiences in the past; (2) define which group of women’s experiences one is presenting in terms of race, class, or geographic locale; (3) emphasize female-defined historical experiences such as housework, childbirth, women-defined work/labor/economic experiences, or women’s impact on male-defined arenas and ask what further historical questions are raised by such an approach; and (4) recognize that questions about what is meaningful in the past are often quite different for women than for men.

Even though the main exhibit of the museum is not an exhibit of women’s history explicitly, any history of an entire county that spans hundreds of years has an opportunity, and even an obligation, to include aspects, concerns, and representation for half of the population.

When walking through the exhibit I was on the look out for instances of women’s experiences. The biggest challenge for the main exhibit at the Hume school is that its subject is huge in scope, in that it covers hundreds of years of one county’s history, and is small on space. The original two rooms on the main floor were converted into a single room after the school closed. Inside this space today there is a large exhibit with multiple exhibit cases, artifacts between cases, against walls, or suspended from the ceiling, paintings hanging on the walls, a small welcome desk with a gift shop consisting mostly of Arlington related books and publications at the front entrance, and a small makeshift office space behind the welcome desk. An oval table with chairs is also found in the exhibit space and used for informal meetings or a rest stop. With such a small space for so much material it is imperative that they plan out the actual exhibit as strategically as possible.

Hume School historic marker.

Hume School historic marker.

There is a clear divide between the school setting and the history of Arlington exhibit. The historic importance of the site is emphasized as it is designated a Virginia State Historical Landmark and is also on the National Register of Historic Sites. It seems well preserved and cared for. The pamphlet by Sale covers the basics of the history of the building and is available at the front desk with other pamphlets and small publications. Above this literature is a painted portrait of Frank Hume, the man who donated property for the school to be built upon. Above the exit of the main room on the first floor there is also a design plan for a future school that would have been built if the Hume school had been demolished. The AHS includes sort of the basic amount of information about the building and the state of education in the early 1900s through the school room on the second floor and the pamphlet. I think an in-depth look at education of the period through further incorporation of the oral histories, and more explanatory and interpretative text in the school room itself could greatly add to the discussion of the importance of the school in Arlington, the state of public education regionally or nationally at the turn of the 20th century, and women’s role in that development. It is an exhibit topic that is appropriate to the site and is not fully explored.

The targeted audience for the museum is a general cross section of the local population and is appropriate for children and adults.  The material on display was non confrontational and family friendly in nature. Smaller children may not find it of much interest, but there is an interactive quality in that children can ring the bell, sit in the school desks, and experience artifacts that are not in cases at eye level, as many are placed directly on the floor. Some of the text was hard to read due to awkward placement or small font size and would be impossible for children or those in wheelchairs. The main floor seems handicapped accessible, but without an elevator the upstairs section is not.

On the Saturday I visited there were three individuals associated with the museum there, and about six visitors including myself and my husband came and left within an hour. One of the docents mentioned that this was a record attendance for her.  I felt as if I had the room to myself but if I needed to ask a question or was interested in learning more, there was an educated docent nearby that would be happy to talk to me. The people associated with the museum were very personable, informative, and professional.

Some of the main questions I had in mind while looking at the exhibit was: Is this a balanced historical perspective in terms of gender representation? Are women integrated within the larger narrative? and Are women’s experiences legitimized as valid or presented as exceptional or deviant?

The exhibit was arranged chronologically and focused on events such as the Civil War and 9/11, or places such as “The Little Tea House” and historic buildings that housed prominent land owners. The first section’s theme was “English Settlers, Pre-1800” and featured information on pre-colonization land arrangements by Native Americans and some of the first prominent settlers including the Custis family. Text about the Custis family mentioned Eleanor Parke “Nelly” Custis and how she was the granddaughter of Martha Washington and grew up at Mount Vernon. In the text it was also noted that she and her husband built Woodlawn, but didn’t go into specifics. Much of the exhibit focused on land use and ownership. Due to the gendered and racialized nature of the legal history of land ownership, the exhibit has an inherent historical bias toward men who owned land in the past. This leads to an exclusion of women, slaves, and minority populations in historic representations.

Artifacts for this time period included two spinning wheels and another unidentified artifact that might have been related to spinning. They were identified with a short explanation that a spinning wheel was used to make yarn from cotton or wool and that they were operated with a foot pedal that would allow the spinner’s hands to be free to manipulate the wool. Who would be using the tool was not explicitly stated, either with regard to gender, class, or race. The role that making wool played in the household work was not investigated. This was not unique to these objects. Most of the objects were not put into a gendered or racialized historical context, rather they were just simply described in a gender and race neutral way.

Spinning wheel hanging from the ceiling.

Spinning wheel hanging from the ceiling.

The next section of materials included more artifacts found in a household that would be handled, maintained, or used by women. This next section was titled “The Age of Custis, 1801-60” and included objects such as a dress for a young child, a doll, a soup tureen, a washing basin and pitcher, a chamber pot decorated with flowers, and a courting candle. This case featured signage for the theme “Home & Community”, a theme that was repeated in future time periods as well. The child’s dress was labeled: “Worn by 2 year old Arlingtonian Harriet Hamlin Russell, similar to dress worn by the Lee family children at the Arlington House.” As this case is “The Age of Custis” it focuses on a prominent wealthy family and their experience. There is mention of slaves in the main text for this case and Freedman’s Village but it does not go into much detail.

Exhibit case for "The Age of Custis, 1801-60."

Exhibit case for “The Age of Custis, 1801-60.”

Trying to read the signage in this case was difficult due to glare from the window. There are windows along every wall and all were uncovered letting in vast amounts of light. It is a preservation concern and light levels should be monitored and controlled.

From here the exhibit moves to a case devoted to the Civil War. There is also a “Home & Community” section but this time there are much fewer artifacts relating to women’s experiences. The only reference to women in this case were two reproductions of a photograph. One was the whole image and above it was a cropped view clearly showing women standing next to soldiers. The image is titled “Photograph of Officer’s Quarters 2nd New York heavy artillery Fort C. F. Smith, August 1865.” I was very curious to know what the women were doing there and what was their role in the Civil War.

Artifacts including photograph of women from the Civil War exhibit case.

Artifacts, including photograph of women, from the Civil War exhibit case.

Portraits and piano.

Portraits and piano.

Similarly frustrating was looking at a painting and a piano opposite the Civil War exhibit case. The painting was one of a couple, a man and his wife. The man’s portrait had text explaining his importance to Arlington but she had only a name for a description. The piano beneath the portraits had a longer text label that included an ad for the instrument. The ad showed women playing the piano with family surrounding them. The signage only mentioned that it was popular family entertainment but did not talk about who would actually play the instrument, or how it worked in a family environment. Both of these missed opportunities could be turned around by adding a few more lines of text that explain who the women in the portrait was, and why a piano was an important instrument for women in a familial setting.

On the other hand, around a corner from this set portrait and piano arrangement there was an excellent example of an artifact and text relating to women’s experience. The artifact was a table with a glass top. Beneath the glass one could see fabric. The text for this parlor table explicitly mentioned that during the Victorian era women would create decorations for such tables. This was a very short label but I was excited to see such an explicit mention of women’s work matched to an interesting object.

There were three cases separated from the historical narrative that were vaguely concerned with specific instances of women’s history. The first was a case featuring artifacts from a kindergarten class who sent a get-well letter to President Reagan after he got shot in the early 1980s. The second was a case organized around “The Little Tea House” restaurant where many prominent politicians wives would socialize and dine. The third was a case located at the front door that is filled with dolls, furniture for a doll house, and children’s books. Unfortunately this case is covered by pamphlets and local history literature on top of the case, and I did not notice it until it was pointed out to me. These cases are meant to include women into the historical narrative, but by their awkward placement, it is read that these are more side notes to the main text.

Exhibit case with Reagan letter from kindergarten materials.

Exhibit case with Reagan letter from kindergarten materials.

Overall there were a number of failings when it came to including women’s history into the historical narrative of the chronological exhibit and the recreated school room. But the artifacts and the opportunities are there. A quick fix could be to simply add more text incorporating women’s perspective and activities. With more textual information about women’s experiences the narrative would seem fuller and more inclusive. As it is now there is a very clear demographic that is being represented and I would hope that as the Arlington area diversifies both in terms of gender and ethnic representation, that the museum will strive to present historical narratives that are of interest to a broader, more inclusive audience.

Exhibit case with dolls, doll house furniture, and children's books.

Exhibit case with dolls, doll house furniture, and children’s books.