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Boston’s Council Chamber Transforms Into a Unique Interactive Exhibit

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The Bostonian Society

The renovated Council Chamber at the Old State House is regarded as the most important room of Colonial Boston.

After celebrating its 300th anniversary last year, surely The Old State House was ready for a facelift. The Bostonian Society thought so, too. Founded in 1881 to protect the iconic building from being torn down, the society began in 2007 to formulate the earliest renovation plans for the Old Council Chamber, which was destroyed by fire in 1747 along with most of the interior of the building.

“We knew we had an important story to tell about the founding of the American Revolution, it unfolded in the halls of this building,” says Nathaniel (Nat) Sheidley, historian and director of public history at the Bostonian Society. “We couldn’t do that with boring boxes filled with artifacts,” he says, noting the goal was to get people “out from behind the velvet rope” and create an interactive space and inviting visitor experience.

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When Sheidley came to the project three years ago, there was little about the existing exhibit that indicated what the room looked or felt like in Colonial Boston. “It was impossible to imagine what happened here in the 18th century,” he says.

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The Bostonian Society

The Council Chamber in 2005, before its renovation.

Furniture was key to the reinterpretation of the Council Chamber, the symbolic center of the original colonies. The society enlisted the expertise of the furniture artisans at Boston’s North Bennet Street School to help. But what did the furniture look like? The original furnishings had been completely destroyed by fire and few other records survived.

After meticulous research, Sheidley and his team were able to piece together clues from old receipts and the work of known artisans of the period to develop an inventory and design that was close to what may have been. “The best anyone can do in a case like this is an approximate re-creation,” wrote Dan Faia, an NBSS alumni and one of the lead craftsmen on the project, on his blog.

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The Bostonian Society

One of four pieces that make up the long Council Chamber table, this table is modeled after an original by Benjamin Frothingham Jr. of Charlestown, Massachusetts, which is now in the collections of the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

Construction began at the end of 2012 and the exhibit opened in early 2014. Faia dealt with 11 craftsmen, from furniture builders to upholstery specialists, to create the final pieces, which mostly were built by hand using 18th-century techniques.

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The Bostonian Society

Daniel Faia (left), head of the Cabinet and Furniture Making Program at NBSS, and Matthew Wajda (right), an instructor at NBSS, made the bulk of the furniture. Here they collaborate to construct a chair.

“Students and faculty often collaborate on projects at NBSS, but this was one of the most interesting to date,” says Miguel Gómez-Ibáńez, president of NBSS. It was the first time that the Bostonian Society has collaborated with the school. “We could not have done it without the true partnership between the two institutions,” says Sheidley.

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Dan Faia constructed this chair using only hand tools. The piece is modeled after the “Moses Gill” chair by James Graham of Boston, which is in the collection at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

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As with the rest of the furniture in the chamber, visitors can sit in the oversize governor’s chair.

The resulting exhibit is a magical return to pre-Revolutionary Boston. The majestic council table leads to the disproportionately large governor’s chair, which sits powerfully at the far end of the room. “We can’t conjure the past back to life, but thanks to the furniture in this exhibition, our visitors can now step back in time,” says Sheidley. “Quite literally, they can take a seat at the table where the decisions were made that shaped the future of the British Empire in North America, and the creation of a new nation.” And while interactivity is at the heart of the new exhibit, Sheidley says it’s hard to convince people they can touch.

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The Bostonian Society

Props like footstools and side tables (left) were made by the NBSS team to add a sense of realism to the exhibit. Informational pullout slabs (right) were discreetly built into several pieces of furniture.

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