A Tale of Two House Museum Tours

by Clark Geiling

Amidst the cobblestone streets and brownstones of Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood stands the Nichols House Museum, an impressive four-story brick estate designed by the architect Charles Bulfinch in 1804. Though the structure has existed since the early 1800s, its life as a historic house museum began with Rose Standish Nichols, a landscape architect, suffragette, and anti-war activist who resided in the home from 1885 until her death in 1960. To bring people into the space, the museum offers a general history tour Wednesday through Sunday all months of the year and a special “hidden spaces” tour once a month. The general tour is $16 for general admission, $8 for students, and free for museum members and EBT card holders, which serves to alleviate financial barriers for low-income community members who want to visit the home. This program focuses on the Nichols family, with particular attention given to the life and achievements of Rose Standish Nichols. In the later decades of her life, Nichols felt it important to curate a space where people in the greater Boston community could appreciate the beauty of both the home itself and the art and craftsmanship within. As a landscape architect, she was interested in bringing aesthetic beauty to anyone who wished to enjoy it. While walking through the home, the tour guides highlight many of the same things that Nichols herself wished to highlight–the extensive collection of Asian art, much of which was made for export, the furniture that Nichols hand carved at her artists’ colony in New Hampshire, and Flemish tapestries her mother painstakingly preserved. But between descriptions of these artistic objects, a story emerges about Nichols herself: That of a progressive and driven woman from a distinctly upper class background, who devoted her life to her career, and to the feminist and pacificst concerns of the time. Throughout the tour, I noted that most visitors were women between the ages of 17 and 60, and many inquiries were related to how Nichols, as a working woman who never married, was received by society in her lifetime. For those interested in a general overview of who Nichols was, what she built, and how she fits into the greater landscape of women’s history in Boston, this tour is a great place to get your feet wet. Delightfully, the tour concludes in the home’s kitchen and visitor’s center, where visitors are offered Rose Standish Nichols’ favorite blend of tea. As we walked down Mount Vernon street with our tea in hand, my friend who I brought on the tour with me remarked that it felt like “living a day in her life”. The audiences of both the general tour and the “hidden histories” tour had similar demographics in terms of gender and age, but the hidden histories tour had a much larger group of attendees. This program is unique in that it seeks to make visible the legacies of the women who were employed by the Nichols family as domestic servants. Interestingly, although the hidden histories tour was geared towards working class experiences, it had a flat fee of $17 and no option to present an EBT card in exchange for a free ticket. While I commend the Nichols House Museum for trying to bring in low-income visitors for their general tour, I felt that it was somewhat ironic that low-income visitors faced potential cost barriers when it came to attending the tour centered around working class history. While it feels important to acknowledge the cost of tickets as an area of growth for the museum, the tour itself provides a fascinating look into the conditions of labor for domestic workers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Unlike the general tour, this program takes visitors into the maids’ living quarters, the root cellar, and through the back staircases they would have used to move through the home. Importantly, it complicates some of the narratives presented in the general tour, creating a more textured picture of how women lived during the so-called Gilded Age. The difference in turnout between the general tour and the hidden histories tour provided a glimpse into the effectiveness of various kinds of outreach. The tours had many things in common–same museum, same day of the week, same time of day. What set them apart was their content. A general tour of a house museum on its own might be interesting to local history buffs, particularly those interested in women’s history, but a tour that allows visitors to access a secret, “hidden” history provides a level of intrigue that the former might not. Interestingly, the general tour is conducted by a museum professional, while the hidden histories tour is led by a volunteer from the neighborhood who self defines as a “hobby historian”.In this way, the hidden histories tour performs two types of outreach that the general tour does not. First, it contradicts and stretches the historical record presented in the general tour. This creates a more transparent view of how the archive documents history. In the hidden histories tour, the volunteer guide notes that the museum has far less documentation about the domestic staff than they wish to but feel it’s important to present the information they do have, however incomplete. Though the “evidence” that supports the hidden histories tour is less extensive that the “evidence” behind the general tour, the stories themselves are equivalent in value. The museum knows the limits of its knowledge and had no qualms about inviting visitors to share anything they might know. Second, the hidden histories tour guide shares his own story with visitors. He started as a casual volunteer, became passionate about the project, and eventually was able to give tours on subjects he was interested in. His relationship with the museum communicates to visitors that, in addition to going on tours, they can engage with the museum and its history through their volunteer program. While the general history tour is a worthy and engaging project in its own right, the hidden histories tour offers visitors new avenues for connecting with the Nichols House Museum. These avenues may just bridge the gap between passive participant and enthusiastic museum advocate.