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 you can walk up the historic sidewalks, through the front door and find out what it was like to live in 19th century Philadelphia. There are other Victorian buildings— the Athenaeum, the Wagner Museum, City Hall— but this is the only place that represents the rising middle class life in that time. Of course what we want when our visitors come is to learn about history in the 19th century but also to have a good time.
What do you feel is the most powerful and effective way of communicating history through historic spaces?
All our programming focuses either on literature or art. We do live theater and workshops, and right now we’ve got a really popular program-- we call it a literary parlor, but it’s a Victorian book club-- and we’re reading 19th century books. Our goal is to make history come alive and have it be fun and educational.
In what ways did the Past Present Projects exhibition Victoriana Reimagined activate certain features of the mansion to tell its history?
Each of the three artists chose one item in the collection as the inspiration for their 21st century artwork, and each of those collection items was highlighted and got individual attention. For example, Talia Greene chose as her inspiration the gasolier, the gas lighting chandelier in the dining room. That chandelier was manufactured in Philadelphia in 1860 or so by the Cornelius Company, but the motifs on it are after Aesop’s Fable “The Fox and the Grapes.” Talia took a modern theme on that, and she created this cascading paper art display that looked like gold metal, where the foxes are climbing over each other to get to the grape, like we do—we’re always kind of fighting to get to the top in modern society. Because [her installation] was there, that particular collection item was highlighted and people learned more about it.
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, we’re doing our first in a series of three plays by Oscar Wilde. We’re calling it the year of Oscar Wilde.
We are also developing a new interpretive tour that is going to talk about the lives of African Americans in the 19th century in Philadelphia. Initially we were going to call it Emancipation and Industrialization, but as we’ve been studying this we realized that African Americans were discriminated against in the 19th century for factory jobs in favor of the Irish, German, and Swedish immigrants who wanted those jobs. We found that many African Americans were caterers and did domestic work and some were doctors, so we’re going to change the title of the tour to something else because Industrialization isn’t valid. We found this out by reading a book by W.E.B. Dubois, who was an African American man educated at Harvard who was hired by the University of Pennsylvania in the late 19th century to do a sociological survey of African Americans in Philadelphia called The Philadelphia Negro. We’ve hired a researcher and writer to write the tour, and we’re researching on our own. We think it’s important because 76% of the people who live in this neighborhood are African American. More needs to be told about the history of 19th century African Americans in Germantown, and in Philadelphia as a whole. So that’s our big thing that’s coming up, soon.
-Interview by Zoë Browne