Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America's House Museums

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America's House Museums

Article excerpt

Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America's House Museums. By Patricia West. (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, c. 1999. Pp. xiv, 241. Paper, $17.95, ISBN 1-56098-836-3; cloth, $40.00, ISBN 1-56098-811-8.)

Patricia West's Domesticating History describes four house museums founded between the mid-nineteenth and the mid-twentieth centuries--Mount Vernon, Orchard House, Monticello, and the Booker T. Washington National Monument--and treats each case study in a separate chapter that is "introduced by an overview describing the context for its establishment in relation to the larger movement" (p. xi). West's overviews provide a useful summary of the movement to found house museums. They are generally based on secondary sources while the actual case studies are drawn from primary sources. West argues that "house museums are and always have been about politics" (p. xii); therefore, the context she analyzes includes the types of actions founders took to establish their historic houses, the political motives of the founders, and the political message the founders hoped to communicate to the public through the preservation of the house.

The main political context for the establishment of Mount Vernon is the threatened disintegration of the Union. The political context West describes for Orchard House is the Progressive era's concern about the acculturation of immigrants. She also tells how women on both sides of the suffrage question put aside those particular concerns in order to work for their common goal of making Orchard House a memorial to Louisa May Alcott and her book Little Women. The role of women in the movement is a strong secondary theme of the book. West states that the campaign to save Monticello illustrates the transition within the historic house movement from management by women volunteers to management by professional male administrators. …

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