For decades, schoolchildren from Concord and surrounding towns as well as tourists from around the world have trooped through the Concord Museum, learning about the shot heard ‘round the world and the other events leading up to the Revolutionary War, taking in a glimpse of the artifacts that defined Colonial life in Concord, and maybe picking up a few facts about Henry David Thoreau along the way.
Some, no doubt, were intrigued, but many surely wondered what bearing these long-ago people and their peculiar relics had on life today.
But after 10 years and an investment of $16 million, the final phase of the Concord Museum’s renovation is set to open on Labor Day. And even though the focus is still on Concord’s history, nearly everything about its presentation has changed – in the content and format alike.
Visitors to the museum will now learn about the African-American families who populated Colonial-era Concord and the Abolitionists fighting for their freedom.
Thoreau is transformed from a familiar name into a living, breathing person when you stand in a new immersive gallery, surrounded by a multimedia array of nature photos and birdsong as quotations from his journal appear on a screen.
Maps illustrating the path the Minutemen took from Boston to Concord now take on the form of a modern-day infographic, with an illuminated line showing the troops’ progression while columns at the bottom of the map track the growing number of patriots joining the march along the way.
With 10 new permanent galleries, the museum now reflects nearly every sector of Colonial Concord’s population in a way that its previous iterations could not accommodate.
Enslaved people, Indigenous tribes, and Colonial women all receive new attention. A collection of artifacts illustrate the work of the Concord Female Anti-Slavery Society, established by Mary Merrick Brooks in 1830 to raise awareness and rally funds in support of the abolition of slavery and immediate emancipation for enslaved people.
A re-creation of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s study has long been a highlight of the museum, but with a new interactive component, visitors can touch a screen to learn about specific objects within the study as well as some of the illustrious thinkers and writers who visited Emerson there.
But the museum doesn’t celebrate only well-known names like Paul Revere and Louisa May Alcott. Exhibits also depict a silversmith plying his craft in a workshop on the Milldam, a Black yeoman farmer at work in his fields, and a family secretly preparing for the rebellion on the eve of April 19, 1775.
“It’s important that we honor ordinary citizens and craftspeople and farmers,” said executive director Tom Putnam. “Men and women, African-American and white, free and enslaved: They worked and toiled and built not only this town but this nation to what it is today.”
Curator David Wood is well-versed in the challenge of using objects to narrate history. He described choosing two pieces of 17th-century furniture to reflect what he called “a fairly complicated story about the fact that the English colonists who came to Concord were culturally English, not American. They were here in part because of their religious dissonance. But they still wanted to be English.”
Other objects that have been instilled with new prominence in the museum’s renovation are Thoreau’s flute, whose music neighbors often heard resonating over Walden Pond; a 17th-century sword that may have been used in either King Philip’s War or the ongoing conflict with the native Wampanoags; and a walking stick gifted to formerly enslaved person Jack Garrison when he turned 92.
The experience of visiting a museum has to be about more than viewing artifacts, said curatorial associate Erica Lome.
“We are trusting our visitors that they can handle complicated and complex debates about slavery,” she said. “We are presenting you with proof that people were bought and sold in Concord. Beyond just stating that reality, we’re reckoning with that history and showing you the various ways residents in Concord, both black and white, confronted it.”
The grand opening of the new galleries, which expands the museum’s space to 20,000 square feet, is the third transformational moment in the museum’s history, according to Putnam.
There was the original opening in 1930, the 1990 addition, and now, the culmination of the 10-year project which includes the earlier openings of the Rasmussen Education Center in 2018; the “People of Musketaquid” exhibit paying tribute to the Indigenous people of Massachusetts; and the interactive exhibit “April 19, 1775,” which opened last year. Museum leadership worked closely with Amaze Design and Richard Lewis Media Group on all aspects of the new exhibit spaces.
“This really is the Concord Museum of the 21st century,” said Putnam. “And as such, it includes a more inclusive story than the one we’ve told previously, as it attempts to connect with current sensibilities. We explore Thoreau’s connection to today’s environmental movement and the presence of the Underground Railroad as a precursor to Black Lives Matter. Native people were living on these lands when the first Colonial settlers arrived, and although both groups were living true to their ideals and trying to create communities for themselves, still there was conflict. We don’t have space to tell everything about these stories, but hopefully we can inspire people to want to learn more.”
And in these much more in-depth explorations of Concord’s history, Putnam hopes that visitors draw some conclusions about the present.
“We want to welcome as many types and ages of people as possible: families, high school students, international visitors, groups from schools in Lowell and other communities where many children are first-generation,” he said. “The hope is that through the history we depict, people will take some solace in recognizing that our country has faced challenging circumstances, conflicts, and injustices before and made it through. Our country has always gotten through difficult times. And that should give us confidence that we’ll do so again.”
The Concord Museum invites the public to celebrate this major milestone with a week of special activities, including gallery talks, forums, and dedications, beginning on Monday, Sept. 6, and ending with a weekend of free outdoor community activities including an encampment on the museum’s lawn. For a schedule of events and more information, go to www.concordmuseum.org.
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at email@example.com.