As an art historian it’s become innate in my habits to walk into any room and look at objects, and with looking at those objects come the questions of who made it, what was/is it used for, when was it made and why is it important (more on that concept later). We’re surrounded by objects in our life - some utilitarian, some precious treasures which hold memories, and others somewhere in between.
The reason I became an art historian, and then decided to work in the museum field, is partly because I was always intrigued by the questions surrounding objects. I remember walking into the Tate Britain my junior year of high school and stopping cold in front of a particular painting (Ophelia by John Everett Millais) and all of a sudden wanting to know everything about it. I’d come to learn later that my desire to know about that work of art was the study of art history. Added on to this thirst for knowledge about art and objects was an equally rich need to share my knowledge with others, if I know about these amazing artworks than everyone else should know too! Further to my education I would come to learn that this fell into the world of museum education, and my eternal gratitude goes to Dr. Tom Somma at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA for teaching and guiding me to the path I’m on today.
The path has been winding for sure, with curves I never thought I would take, and thankfully it has now led me to Lexington Historical Society as the new Executive Director. One of the major reasons I accepted the position was the depth of the history surrounding the four sites overseen by LHS. How can you not be in awe of houses that literally saw the birth of our country? And the fact that they are still standing, still here for us and future generations is thanks to all who came before us and lends gravitas to me and my staff being stewards of that history now. Tied into this is how do we make these sites speak to contemporary audiences and showcase our collection in new and interesting ways to get people just as excited about the stories behind objects as I am.
One of the first things I did, week one of my tenure, was walk through each site and take notes on the interpretations, and anything that came to mind for the future. What ended up happening though as well, and it came as no surprise to me, is I would stop every minute or two to take macro photos of various collections objects. On my off days you’ll find me stretching my photographer muscles, and macro photography is a love of mine. So as I walked through Buckman Tavern, Hancock-Clarke House, and Munroe Tavern I stopped, slowed down and really looked at the smaller objects in the collection. When you slow down it’s amazing what you’ll find and see, and whether it’s the light coming through the stopper of a decanter, the tulip decoration on a jar, or the decorations on a tea cup it begs the question what is the story behind this object?
Sometimes as museum professionals we get caught up in dates, famous names, preserving the collection at all costs, which is all important and valid. But at the heart of the mission, in my eyes, is to tell the stories of the objects and the people connected to them. Sometime, two hundred years ago, someone was using that decanter during dinner, just as people are doing today. These objects are witnesses to history and can connect us to that history through shared experiences, feelings and purpose.
Museums and historic sites are here to educate, to embrace the community we serve, and first and foremost to tell the stories of the people and objects which have come before us. It is also our job, and so important to me as the new Director of LHS, to continue those stories through weaving them with contemporary narratives and art to continue our mission for the next two hundred years.
-Carol S. Ward, Executive Director
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.