Interview with Diane Richardson, executive director of Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion

We reflect on Victoriana Reimagined, our 2018 exhibition at the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion, by speaking with the site’s director, and find out what they are up to next.


Why is it important that the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion is preserved as a historic site, and what do you hope the public gets out of engaging with the mansion?

Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion is Philadelphia’s only authentically restored Victorian house museum, so it’s the only place in the city of Philadelphia where visitors can walk up the historic sidewalks, to the front door, and finally inside to discover day-to-day life in 19th century Philadelphia. There are other important Victorian institutions— the Athenaeum, the Wagner Museum, City Hall— but the Mansion is the only place that represents life of the the rising middle class life in 19th century Philadelphia. We seek to entertain while educating.

What do you feel is the most powerful and effective way of communicating history through historic spaces? 

We highlight all aspects of 19 th -century life – literature, theatre, crafts, day-to-day life, architecture and decorative arts. We bring history to life with site-specific theatre productions, hands-on workshops, tours of the Mansion’s magnificent interior spaces, and seasonal special events.t. In 2018, we introduced a very popular Victorian book club a.k.a. “Literary Parlor.” We seek to bring history to life!

In what ways did the Past Present Projects exhibition Victoriana Reimagined activate certain features of the mansion to tell its history?

Talia Greene, Untangling the Fox and the Grapes, 2018 [Photo: Jaime Alvarez]

Jacintha Clark, Parlour Porcelain (detail), 2018 [Photo: Jaime Alvarez]

Each of the three artists chose one item in the collection as the inspiration for their 21st century artwork, thus highlighting each of those collection items. For example, Talia Greene chose as her inspiration the gasolier, the gas lighting chandelier in the dining room. The Cornelius Company manufactured the circa 1860s chandelier in Philadelphia with motifs depicting Aesop’s Fable “The Fox and the Grapes.” Talia achieved a modern theme by creating cascading paper art display that looked like gold metal, where the foxes are climbing over each other to get to the grapes, as we do— always fighting to get to the top in modern society. Her installation highlighted the Cornelius chandelier thus drawing attention to this important collection item.

 Jacinta Clark chose our c.1860 Stieff square grand piano, manufactured in Baltimore, as her inspiration. She did a lot of studying and she created sheet music out of porcelain that represented songs that they would have played on that piano in 1860 in the Maxwell household. To cap off the year, we had a special musical event where we had a pianist, a flutist, and a soloist who sang 19th century music. As the pianist introduced each song, he was able to tell the audience about the composer and the importance of the song. It was quite wonderful and it really brought a new dimension to the museum.

What events do you have coming up at the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion?

In the end of March, the Mansion is presenting the first in a series of three plays by Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray staring Josh Hitchens followed by The Importance of Being Earnest opening in May. Capping off our year of Oscar Wilde is Salome in September.

We are also developing a new interpretive tour to educate guests about the lives of African Americans in the 19th century in Philadelphia. Initially we entitled the tour Emancipation and Industrialization, but research revealed that 19th century factory owners discriminated against African Americans in favor of the Irish, German, and Swedish immigrants who wanted those jobs. However, we found that many 19th century Phialdelphia African Americans were prominent caterers, artists, musicians, and doctors. W.E.B. Dubois’s book, The Philadelphia Negro, proved invaluable. The University of Pennsylvania hired DuBois, an African American man educated at Harvard, to do a sociological survey of African Americans in Philadelphia called The Philadelphia Negro. The history of 19th century African Americans in Germantown, and in Philadelphia as a whole, is important. The Mansion is premiering this new interpretive tour in February 2020 for Black History Month.

-Interview by Zoë Browne