Submitted by Penni Martorell, Wistariahurst Museum Curator and Holyoke City Historian.
In recent years, I have proudly brandished the title of “history nerd.” It was only recently that I realized that I was not like most of my peers. I have always been the one who wanted to know more about an item or artifact–who made it, where did it come from, how was it used and why don’t we still use them. As I reflect, I realize this character trait comes from spending many days after school at my aunt and uncle’s antique store. Many hours were spent in “The Shop” under the guise of dusting for a few cents spending money. But mostly I was imagining, playing with, and handling the many wooden, ceramic, glass, decorative and furniture items. I can still conjure up the smells, textures, and colors of many of the standard items—ceramic jugs, wooden bowls, candle holders and molds, tin boxes and all sorts of chairs.
What a gift my aunt and uncle gave to me, allowing me to experience these material items, with a quick lesson in colonial American history as my Uncle walked by posing questions–what it was used for, where did I think it was made, and why it might be valuable. The wash basins, the cooking utensils, the medical instruments, the tables and chairs—they all had a story. I learned to distinguish the claw and ball feet of certain chairs; how a flintlock rifle mechanism worked, and how dovetailed drawers are put together. Documents, newspapers, books, and photographs backing up the history I was learning at school. But nothing was more exciting than helping out at the local historical society on occasion. Here there was a colonial schoolhouse set up with desks, slates, and primers for children like me. And oh what fun it was when my Aunt donning colonial period clothing as the school marm and teaching school for visiting patrons.
For me History has always involved material culture—the physical objects of the past left for us to examine and explore, and providing all the fodder necessary to drive an historians’ research and inquiry.
So it is no surprise that museum work was a natural fit. For me there is nothing more satisfying than seeing a child engage their imagination with what it might have been like in the past; to hear their questions; to see their faces light up with curiosity; to hear the who, what, when, why and how questions uttered with hands raised and the “Oo, Oo, Oos!”.
Thankfully there are many folks who have never grown tired of pondering history. The pioneer valley is full of small historical museums, societies and associations staffed by tireless volunteers who also enjoy sharing material culture with anyone who is interested. Perhaps they too had a historically engaged childhood.
I encourage you, reader, to take advantage of these local historical sites to challenge your children to ponder and question the materials that fill the rooms. And if you don’t know where to start — it is here — exploring the Pioneer Valley History Network website.