Visual History: Field Trips & Sentimental New England Museums

Visual History: Field Trips & Sentimental New England Museums

“Living is like tearing through a museum. Not until later do you really start absorbing what you saw, thinking about it, looking it up in a book, and remembering – because you can’t take it in all at once.”

– Aubrey Hepburn

I continue to reflect on those things that brought me joy, whether toys or food. One thing I have not discussed is museums. There is no need to worry; I will not put on my historian hat today, but instead recall those places filled with artifacts, history, and have inspired, moved, and awoken me to the larger, more complex world. As an adult, I have both different and similar viewpoints about those museums or historical sites I traveled to and observed as a child and adolescent. It is interesting to remember those places I went at a young age with the lived experience and the years of museum visits I have since stockpiled.

Today, I seek to engage in nostalgia once again, but with “field trips” as my focus, as well as those museums that I cannot forget, like Battleship Cove in Fall River, Massachusetts. One foot in the past, the other in the present, I hope to respect the educational pursuits that inspired me and the various museum visits that moved me. Sure, I won’t discuss every trip or visit a historical site or museum but rather build a narrative of the moments I think of most often. As the pandemic continues, diving into my nostalgic past has brought great comfort. Like my post on food and toys, and to an extent, music, and movies, here I take on public history.

A Little Background

In my older years, I have had the opportunity to work in public history. I did historical interpretive tours for the National Park Service at Salem Maritime National Historic Site. There, employed as a Seasonal Park Ranger, I introduced visitors to Salem’s other history, based on the early-American maritime trade, rather than witches, Halloween, or spooky events. I loved it and enjoyed meeting people and provided information to tourists eager to understand American history. I worked in the visitor center, and as a docent, at the JFK Presidential Library & Museum. While employed at the museum, I was deeply devoted to educating visitors about the legacy of President John F. Kennedy, in much the same way I had been inspired since my early years living, slightly outside of Cape Cod.

In my last post, I discussed my being from New England and my ultimate need to remain living near, or close to, the ocean. Growing up in the New Bedford area, living in Hawaii and then Salem, and trips to Cape Cod and Nantucket – all illustrate that cellular connection. One place that I always found to be a place of solitude was near the ocean and an important historical site. Throughout my younger years, I often walked to and visited Fort Phoenix in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Located “at the entrance to the Fairhaven-New Bedford harbor,” the fort was built in 1775 but added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. Situated off Buzzards Bay, the first naval skirmish of the American Revolution took place, the Battle of Fairhaven, on May 14, 1775. The replica cannons, the large boulders with engravings or plagues, and the American flag waving atop the fort always inspired me and motivated me to see similar places.

All too often, I spent school days taking in historical sites, summers at beaches with monuments, and winters sledding on hills once the site of heroic historical events. I have fond memories of exploring, learning, and, in the end, breathing in the history that surrounded me as I grew up. I remember on one occasion taking a school trip to the Fairhaven/New Bedford Hurricane Barrier, which is a significant barrier that serves to protect New Bedford Harbor, one of the most economically essential harbors in the country. Lying across both Fairhaven and New Bedford Harbor, the barrier, which “began in October 1962 and was completed in January 1966, costing $18.6 million,” was an impressive feat of engineering and has saved the community millions, if not billions of dollars in what could have been flooding damage.

Per the US Army Corps of Engineers website, “The project protects about 1,400 acres in New Bedford, Fairhaven, and Acushnet from tidal flooding associated with hurricanes and coastal storms. This acreage is thickly settled with industrial and commercial properties, particularly along the waterfront and the shores of the Acushnet River. The area represents about 80 percent of land flooded in the September 1938 and August 1954 hurricanes, the latter storm causing $8.3 million in flood damages.” When I was younger, I lived close to the protective barrier, so I would often walk along. I watched as New Bedford fishing vessels departed on voyages to nearby fishing grounds. I always found the barrier a marvelous site and was excited when, as a kid, our school took a field trip to observe all the small details that help the barrier do its job. There we walked the barrier, explored the maintenance tower, watched as they initiated the sirens, closed the barrier at the harbor’s mouth, and surveyed the underwater tunnel that connects Fairhaven and New Bedford. It was an excellent school trip and made for an educational experience I recall fondly.

School Trips = Present Day Smiles

Sure, trips to the Boston Aquarium, the local Zeiterion Theatre, and even the Roger Williams Park Zoo were often local staples during school trips. Still, I remember more from that trip to Fort Phoenix to explore a Hurricane Barrier than those other school ventures. But it made me think. I love museums, monuments, and historical sites that blend, yet often bend, history, environment, and politics. I loved those school trips as a kid, like exploring an ingenious Hurricane Barrier that must have been an economically polarizing decision decades ago. But with forward-thinking, and an investment in protecting the local harbor and community, the decision proved correct. As an adult, I often think back to or about these types of trips and what I learned comes back to me at random times, for unexpected reasons. I remember, vividly, trips to Plimoth Patuxet Museums, formally known as Plimoth Plantation, in Plymouth, MA home of the first New England settlement in 1620.

Growing up on the South Coast of Massachusetts made a trip to Plymouth a rite of passage. Seeing the Mayflower II, Plymouth Rock, and of course exploring the museum, Grist Mill, and settlement was exciting. Even today, some smells will instantly transport me back to those moments, as if I was, at that second, witnessing the living history performance in the 17th Century village and walking the grounds to learn about the settlers and the Wampanoag Homesite of Historic Patuxet. As a kid, I learned so much about both indigenous Americans and immigrants alike. Today, I appreciate the early historical education that attempted to show a non-exceptional story of early American settlement. Understanding the story of the Pilgrims and the agency of the local Wampanoag was vital for a young kid from Massachusetts, and it represented a fuller picture of early New England.

Plymouth, the city and the site of the first settlement in New England, holds a special place in my heart. As I said, it was one of the first history museums I went to, one of the first experiences I had with “living history,” and the first time I learned history written is not always the same as history as it happened. I love New England, and I love the history of the region. This fact is evident in another historical site I visited on a school trip. In Sandwich, Massachusetts, the Heritage Museums & Gardens lies across the Cape Cod Canal on Cape Cod. It is beautiful and filled with unique historical objects and stories. The website description stated that founded in 1969, the Heritage Museum has a “public garden, with its nationally significant collection of rhododendrons hybridized by Charles Dexter, over 1,000 varieties of daylilies and extensive hosta collection, is complemented by three gallery buildings containing a world-class collection of American automobiles, American folk art and a working 1919 carousel and rare carousel figures.”

I remember my school trip to this site very well. My mom, as per usual, chaperoned, and we explored the incredible gardens that I thought were the best in the world until, later in life, I visited the Palace of Versailles. But that’s like comparing apples to high-tech machinery. One should not do it! But the cars, art, and overall feel of the space made me feel calm, at ease and left me feeling surrounded by history and culture. That was an entire day school trip, similar to those trips to Plymouth, but unlike the half-day trip to explore the Hurricane Barrier. Full-day trips were the best, as I am sure everyone can agree. School trips meant no school, packed lunch, and the opportunity to see something new. As a kid, I always loved the lunch part of these field trips, and my mom, who I asked to chaperone every single time, always packed me unique lunches in my hip lunchbox. Trips to places like the Heritage Museum have always stayed with me and often provide me with a story to share with family, friends, or students.

The same is true for one of the more popular museums in Massachusetts and a location I visited during no less than three school trips, The Museum of Science, Boston. While I have been to the museum multiple times, it was the school trip I remember most. I am not a science person, by any means, but I find it fascinating. The museum is stellar with making complex concepts seem understandable and easy to grasp. It was always wonderful when a trip away from a school brought us 50 minutes to Boston and allowed us to explore the interactive exhibits, as well as sit, relax, and marvel at the Omni Theater or, my favorite, the planetarium. I recently watched Bob’s Burgers’ 18th episode, “Laser-inth,” from the 7th season. In it, “Bob and Gene go to the last-ever rock-and-roll laser show at the planetarium,” and while it doesn’t have anything to do with the Museum of Science, it reminded me of those trips. It ignited a recall of my utter excitement to sit and be dazzled by the light display and educational experience in the planetarium when music and the stars collided for a moving experience. Currently, the Museum of Science’s planetarium has a show that features the music of David Bowie and Beyoncé—not going to lie, that’s amazing. 

But sometimes, there were school trips to museums that no longer exist that, even so, continue to garner attention in conversations because the museum maintains a status of being a perfect product of the time. One establishment that I remember within this unique “zone” was the Computer Museum of Boston. This place was incredible, and I visited in the early 1990s as part of a school trip to learn and understand more about, well, computers. Opened in 1979, and “operated in three locations until 1999. It was once referred to as TCM and is sometimes called the Boston Computer Museum.” Located initially in Marlborough, Massachusetts, and moved to Boston, this museum was instantly interesting as a child. With a look at “smart machines” and peering into the unique world of personal computers, remarkable for the day, the Computer Museum explored every aspect of this technology. Still, as it was the early 1990s, that would be seen as limited today, of course. Floppy disks, terrible graphics, and large, clunky devices with tons of moveable parts – ah yes, the computer of the early ‘90s.

One of the things I remember most from the visit was the “Walk-Through Computer,” a two-story model of a personal computer-simulated to work interactively. The exhibit showed “the anatomy of a computer” and explained “how the various parts work and communicate with each other.” I remember walking into the museum and observing the immensity of the exhibit, and before “entering the computer’s chassis,” I was able to roll a giant trackball and watch “World Traveller” on the big computer screen. Large graphics on the massive walls of the exhibit space and “interactive exhibits explained how all kinds of information, from text, graphics, video, music, as well as computer programs, can be represented as 1’s and 0’s. Inside the giant chassis, visitors walked between a wall-sized graphics card and memory card to the microprocessor, upon which a projected electron microscope imagery of a CPU’s circuits in operation appeared.”

While I might not know much about computers or how they truly work, I became smitten with technology on that visit, and I have often thought about trekking through that massive computer as if I was a “current” helping to power it up. Telling people about the Computer Museum is often met with laughs and a little nostalgic back and forth of a time before the Internet, cellphones, or all the technology that makes it far more accessible, yet more complicated today. It’s a weird reminder that I straddle two unique worlds, one where computer technology was new and profound, and the other where it is essential and everywhere. I took typewriting in high school, yet I had a computer class too. I grew up calling friends on a rotary landline phone, yet I had a personal cellphone in college. I used the card catalog at the library and micro-film like it was quickly going out of style, but by the time I was in my undergraduate studies, I was using Google to assist in my research. The Computer Museum trip in Boston constantly reminds me of being lucky to have experienced both worlds.

I ❤️ Museums & Historical Sites

Over the last twenty years, I have visited incredible museums all over the world. Sure, not all are created equal, and many didn’t live up to the reputation, but some did, and many more entered legend status. I want to focus on those museums or historical sites that offered me a jump start on my path to a profession in history. No, none of these places are Zoos or Aquariums since I will discuss those in a later post, one to coincide with a long outstanding visit to the Bronx Zoo. These are museums about culture, people, struggles, the human experience, and all pushed me to see beyond myself, and maybe for a second, to see the world with slightly different eyes.

I chatted about several museums on other posts, like the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum in Springfield, IL, the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, and a visit to Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage just outside of Nashville, TN. These historical sites and museums hold essential meaning. Not all of those reasons equal, looking at you, Jackson Hermitage! Yet, no matter what, they offered me more profound insights into various parts of the American experience, and for that, I am grateful. It is crucial to visit historical places that inspire you, like the WWII museum in New Orleans, or amaze you as the Lincoln Presidential Museum did. Yet, even so, there are those places that anger you and make you reflect on the mistakes of a nation’s past, like Jackson’s Hermitage.

While I will explore my visit to Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center in a future post, there is another National Park I want to discuss, one that offers a meaningful narrative and vital truths. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum is a stunning site of the National Archives branch and home to the Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site. Located in Hyde Park, NY, this is a beautiful property covering FDR’s life, political career, and four presidential terms. This museum does not mess around. It is full of incredible artifacts, high-tech interactive exhibits, beautiful films and imagery, and honest historical storytelling. I appreciate that the museum explores both FDR’s most outstanding achievements, of which there are many, yet goes into depth about those moments of national tragedy that show FDR’s legacy is not perfect. In the end, it provides an honest look at history as it were, rather than history as we wish it were. That is vital but not always guaranteed. It’s not Disney World, so don’t give that version of history.

Moments frozen in time often make a museum powerful, and visitors connect to the historical topic. It was like this at the FDR Historical site and many other museums, from childhood and adulthood, but it is especially true for those sites and museums located in my backyard. When I lived in Hawaii, I visited the Pearl Harbor National Memorial and USS Arizona Memorial, operated by the National Park Service. It was deeply emotional. While the exhibits, films, and artifacts were incredible, it was my visit to the USS Arizona that left me speechless. As I stood on the platform, the USS Arizona frozen beneath me, I felt deeply indebted to the sacrifice of those who died on December 7, 1941, and those who perished in the war afterward. Again, when I visit a historical site or museum, I seemingly seek to feel as I did when I was a kid and took those school trips to unique locations. As an adult, the feeling is similar, more educated, more pointed, and more reflective. This feeling is true for my visit to Pearl Harbor, and it is valid for those places close to home that I can’t help but continue to visit, each time connected to the moments seemingly frozen in time.

Nostalgic Massachusetts Museums

What can I say? There are tons of museums and historical sites in my home state of Massachusetts. I have been to more than I can count. I already discussed Plymouth earlier, but it is undoubtedly one of those local museums/historical sites that I constantly think of and credit with inspiring me to become a historian. But the thing about this historical site is that it’s not solely the early settlement. Still, the replica Mayflower II resides in Plymouth Harbor, and “Plymouth Rock” historical landmark, located on the traditional site of disembarking of William Bradford and the Mayflower Pilgrims. It is the mixing of all three pieces that make Plymouth, as a whole, an excellent historical site. The monuments and graveyards, the museum/historical site of settlement, the Wampanoag history, and the connection to the sea – all make this one of my favorite museums and preferred historical towns.

There are so many towns and cities in Massachusetts with sweeping historical stories and legacies. I have had the luxury of living in several, like Salem, which I spent discussing in an earlier post. One city I resided in and is one of the most historically relevant places in America, or the world is Boston. With locations/attractions like the Freedom Trail, Boston African American National Historic Site, Paul Revere House, USS Constitution, Boston Massacre Site, Edgar Allen Poe Sculpture, Boston Common and the Robert G. Shaw & 54th Massachusetts Memorial, and the Old South Meeting House and Old State House, Boston is a city with a history tied to the founding of American democracy. Those places I listed, which I have visited, are merely a few of the fascinating and beautiful places to see and explore, but one that I will never be able to shake is the JFK Presidential Library & Museum.

Yes, I spoke of the JFK Library earlier, so this is not surprising, primarily since I was a student intern and volunteer docent. Even so, the JFK library is both beautiful, filled with an unfilled promise, and located mere steps from the Atlantic Ocean with sweeping views of the islands in Boston Harbor. I mentioned in an earlier post on Election Day in November about how I visited the JFK Library several times, well before I ever even considered gaining employment in public history. Those trips, with family and friends, were incredible, and I have always found the tragic yet uplifting story of Kennedy’s Presidency captivating. I remember my dad owning several VHS videos about the Kennedy Presidency produced by the History Channel and PBS. Often, I would put those on in the living room and watch.

These documentaries moved me to smile and thoughts of what could have been, even about events occurring decades before I was born. I knew I wanted to be a historian when I watched those videos, and after I visited the JFK Library/Museum for the first time, I was mesmerized. To be able to see artifacts, explore recreated halls of “his” White House, and explore JFK’s legacy, both full-filled and unfinished, was incredible. When I finally got the opportunity to work for the National Archives at the JFK Library, it was splendid. It was as if my childhood was all around me, as I discussed the history and elaborated on the life of a person who inspired me, and now I sought to educate others. While the JFK Presidential Library & Museum is fabulous, its draw is ultimately sentimental and helped spark my lifelong pursuit of historical storytelling.

In my last post, I explored and detailed my visit to the Nantucket Whaling Museum, an establishment rich in history and well-designed, presenting a beautiful narrative for guests. While it is easily one of my favorite museums, I will pivot to the museum that has always held my number one spot. The New Bedford Whaling Museum is located in Historic Downtown New Bedford and is beautiful as it sits atop Johnny Cake Hill along incredible cobblestone streets. The museum lies right on the waterfront, in the heart of the historic district, across the street from Seamen’s Bethel, and close to exquisite historic homes once owned by influential Americans. New Bedford is an important historic city, whether it’s about his vital position in the fight to end slavery, or the economic behemoth, American whaling.

I used to live in the shadow of this impressive history. I grew up with monuments, museums, and even literary American masterpieces like Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, constantly reminding me of the importance of my home city. My dad worked in downtown New Bedford, so I would continuously be enthralled by the beautiful museum, waterfront area, and historic landscape when visiting him at work. When I saw the museum for the first time, I was probably in middle school, and I remember being amazed by the design, the artifacts, and permanent and roaming exhibits. As the museum website says, “As a compelling destination that anchors a national park and vibrant urban seaport, the New Bedford Whaling Museum encourages exploration of our region’s cultural, artistic, historical, and scientific contributions. A keeper of the region’s collective memory, the museum preserves a communal story of the many who settled in the “city that lit the world” and of those who keep the light shining brightly today.”

I have visited countless historical sites. On a trip to China, I walked the Great Wall of China, in Ireland I explored The Cliffs of Moher, and in Paris, drank wine under the Eiffel Tower and observed the splendor of Napoleon’s tomb. Yet, I also solemnly and emotionally walked the grounds of American War cemeteries in France and Belgium. I have touched history, observed the artifacts that help us understand history, and left a fuller, a more educated individual with each experience. Sometimes I go to places with a historical narrative I am well educated in, but I seek out those places that help fill in the gaps, help to distinguish reality and truth from what I have seen on television or cinema screens. As I said earlier, I identify with those museums that present a more thorough picture of a historical topic, and I feel, within the last ten years, more places have done that, even places I loved but felt needed improvement. When it comes to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, my sentimental feelings swayed me to see it one way. As an adult, I have continued to see it exceptionally well in illustrating a historical story truthfully.

What This All Means

One of my favorite things to do on any trip is to visit and explore a historical site. I love interactive museums like In Flanders Fields, in Ypres, Belgium, where I followed the biography of a World War One soldier who perished and in so doing learned a story of one, of many who gave their lives, far too young. I loved standing near a location in Nantucket where Frederick Douglass once spoke about freedom and the horror of slavery. I felt inspired when I stood in the glass seemingly unfinished pavilion of the JFK Library, indicating an unfinished presidency and life cut short. Yet, as I walked around Dealey Plaza in Dallas, TX, and stood near the site where the Zapruder Film was captured, I felt slightly voyeuristic, to be at the site of a historically relevant and highly emotional tragic moment. Still, I am reminded of home when I think about my visits to the Whaling Museum of New Bedford. The cobblestone streets surrounding it, the fishing vessels I observe from the roof deck, and the plaques of remembrance in Seamen’s Behel, where Farther Maple gave his fiery speech in Moby-Dick, to those sailors who suffered an invisible death.

I think fondly of those school trips as a child. I still enjoy the feeling of learning something new when I set foot on historical grounds, in a topical museum, or observe a monument or memorial to a significant moment of American history, or world history for that matter. It is tough to compare museums I have visited so, in the end, I don’t try. I observed those I recently visited with different, aging eyes. Those I saw when I was younger were seen with eyes ripe for learning and fascinated by the heroism, the tragedy, and the historical narrative. Today, that fascination remains, but nearly four decades of life have forced me to see history differently, not better or worse, just different. So, when I go back to those nostalgic museums, I see them with older eyes, yet a sentimentality keeping it fresh. When I visit new museums, I see them with eager eyes. What I get from that, well, that depends on the museum and how it handled the topic, my prior knowledge, and how they implement their exhibit halls. So, as they say, the journey continues…

4 thoughts on “Visual History: Field Trips & Sentimental New England Museums

    1. Hi Ang! I completely agree with all of your sentiments. When my wife and I select a destination, we always map out the museums we want to visit. This post will not be the last time I cover this topic! Thanks so much for sharing your excellent comment, and of course, taking the time to read my post.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Thank you for sharing this history with us. So many places to see and marvel at. You are lucky to have been a docent. I am always impressed with our local docents. While our local museum may not be quite as popular as the ones you mentioned, it is certainly historical due to its importance in land grants and the establishment of the Northwest Territory. I have put many of the ones you mentioned on my list, except maybe for Jackson’s Hermitage. What a sad history.

    Liked by 1 person

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