Since Governor Charlie Baker gave the green light for museums to reopen last month — albeit under strict limits to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — some institutions with spacious, airy buildings have thrown open their doors to visitors.
It isn’t so easy for the smaller and more eclectic house museums dotting communities around Greater Boston, however.
Historical homes, like the birthplace of President John Adams, are made up of “chambers and hallways and nooks and crannies and staircases,” said Marianne Peak, superintendent of Adams National Historical Park in Quincy.
The issue goes beyond the fact that house museums by definition tend to have small rooms, limited ventilation, and narrow passageways, pointed out Michael Busack, property director for the Old Manse in Concord and Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, which are both under the oversight of Trustees of Reservations. Scrubbing down historical homes, their antique furnishings, and artifacts with industrial strength disinfectants is clearly problematic from a preservation standpoint.
But that doesn’t mean visitors will have to skip these beloved sites altogether this year. Instead, many such institutions are redirecting their emphasis to their gardens, grounds, and surrounding outdoor spaces.
“The general consensus is that most people feel more comfortable in an outdoor rather than indoor setting,” said Julie Arrison-Bishop, director of community engagement at The House of the Seven Gables in Salem. “This house was built in 1668. The rooms are not expansive. But we are located on a 2-acre historic campus, and visitors can take a 30-minute audio tour about our background and our ongoing work as they stroll the grounds.”
As part of an update that began prior to the pandemic, the site, which is best known as the setting of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel of the same name, recently upgraded all its signage explaining the significance of various buildings and features, which visitors can enjoy and learn from without entering any interiors. The fee is $7 per person.
Peak thinks that shifting attention to the grounds outside the historic homes at the Adams National Historical Park, which includes the birthplaces of both John Adams and John Quincy Adams, doesn’t mean paying less attention to the historical details.
“When we talk about historical sites, we’re telling a story not only about the houses but about how the occupants used the outside environment,” she said. “In the 1700s and 1800s, these grounds were a means of survival. They worked the land in order to survive.”
Peak conceded that programming this summer would have been far different had the pandemic not hit.
“We were expecting to be focusing on the 19th Amendment,” she said, referring to the constitutional change ratified on Aug. 18, 1920, that granted women the right to vote. “When everything stopped, we had to look at what other options were available. What came to mind right away was the beauty of our gardens and the tranquility of our outdoor space.”
Visitors to Adams National Historical Park can take a free self-guided walking tour that might be just as educational as a typical interior tour, Peak said.
“In the flower garden, people can stop and smell the roses, but also understand the way it reflects the Adams’ love of flowers and appreciation of nature. Abigail Adams planted these roses when she arrived from England,” Peak said. “Notice the contrast between the flower gardens and the fruit orchard, which provided nourishment for the family. Listen to the birds and remember that Abigail wrote about the sound of birdsong in her letters.”
Fruitlands Museum in Harvard has introduced a new option this summer called sunset picnic hours. Offered on occasional weeknights, “It’s a whole new experience for our visitors,” said Busack.
Instead of touring the interior to view the museum’s renowned Native American artifacts and Hudson River School landscape paintings, “families are coming here to picnic and take in gorgeous views of three different mountains as the sun sets.” Entry is $10 per car; participants can bring their own picnic or preorder food from the museum’s café.
At the Old Manse in Concord, visitors can download a free audio tour that describes the gardens and grounds surrounding the historic structure that was the home at different times to both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
“We’re thinking of it as an inside-out tour,” remarked Busack. “Normally, visitors take a tour of the house and then supplement that information with an audio tour while they walk the grounds.”
With all plans to open the house on hold, Busack hopes the information about the grounds will spark visitors’ curiosity about the Old Manse’s Colonial-era inhabitants.
Arrison-Bishop and her colleagues at The House of the Seven Gables are noticing how much use is being made of the grounds already. “We’re seeing a lot of people who bring a picnic or a book and just want to relax and enjoy the gardens. We definitely encourage that,” she said. “There are so many great ways to enjoy the experience of a historic house, other than touring the house itself.”
IF YOU GO
― Old Manse, 269 Monument St., Concord thetrustees.org/places-to-visit/metro-west/old-manse.html
― The House of the Seven Gables, 115 Derby St., Salem 7gables.org
― Fruitlands Museum, 102 Prospect Hill Road, Harvard fruitlands.thetrustees.org
― Adams National Historical Park, 135 Adams St., Quincy nps.gov/adam/index.htm
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.