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Historian brings New England house museums to life

By Cindy Atoji Keene

Museum historian Jennifer Pustz calls herself a “history omnivore” because she is keenly interested in and devours anything to do with history. Such a broad knowledge base is important for her job at Historic New England, which preserves 36 historic sites in New England, from Marrett House in Standish Maine to Watson Farm in Jamestown, R.I. Although she needs to interpret 400 years of architecture, reaching back to the 18th century, her “sweet spot” is the history of domestic life from 1965 to 1925. “Most historic house museums tell the stories of well-to-do families. But there are many untold stories at these homes, from tenant farmers to servants. I like to discover what life was really like for the people who made the houses run,” said Pustz.

When did this retaining wall get built? What was this room used for? Who lived in this house? These are the many sorts of contextual questions that Pustz seeks to answer, in conjunction with the curators of the museum, who tend to be more object-orientated, said Pustz. She always starts her research by looking in the archives. “I am a very visual thinker; first I map out a timeline to understand the different events that were going on with family, servants and house, since they all impact each other.” She also studies photo files, correspondence, account books, invoices, and other evidence. Time previously spent in the library is now often spent online with map collections or sites like ancestry.com or Google books, which has digitized many early domestic manuscripts.

Q: What’s an example of a historical question that you recently solved?
A: I studied the history of a hedge at Castle Tucker in Maine. This project was based on a landscaping decision we needed to make and whether the hedge should be restored, replaced or removed. The overgrown hedge had been there for quite a while and clearly was planted later, but once it’s taken out, you can’t go back, so we don’t like to do anything without careful research and understanding. I never found the specific smoking gun for the hedge but there was a lot of evidence about the family through early 20th century letters. In this particular case, after determining some trees and hedges were planted later than our period restoration, we ended up removing many of them.

Q: You’re originally from the Midwest – what did you think about New England’s rich history when you first came here six years ago?
A: I respond strongly to the power of place, so it was incredible to move to New England and be able to stand where they fired the shot at Lexington or near the footprint of Thoreau’s cabin. There’s no substitute for being in these places and see people right where they lived.

Q: If someone says, ‘History is boring,’ how do you respond?
A: History gets a bad rap. Sure, it’s about the details and dates, but at the baseline, it’s about storytelling, and most people like hearing stories. In school you hear a lot of dates when this-and-this happened without engaging in the difficult stories and conflicts. History is complicated and messy; not just black and white but shades of gray. We learn a lot about ourselves today by looking to the past.

Q: What good historical books have you read lately?
A: I’ve read a couple of novels such as The Widow’s War and Bound by Sally Gunning, which take readers into the heart of Revolutionary-War era Boston. I usually have mixed feelings about historical fiction, but these books are incredible stories and I’m unable to tear myself away from them. After I finish I always want to know more. Sometimes I wish historical fiction had footnotes.

Q: Is there a period of history that has particularly defined you?
A: Probably the 1930s, because that was the era that really energized me to move forward in studying history. I did a high school project about the W.P.A., the government funded arts project, and the artists like Jackson Pollock that it inspired. I find it very compelling that here was a time when a lot of people were struggling and yet creating all of this incredible stuff. It was just an amazing period of history and one I find myself going back to all the time.

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