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Buttonwoods Museum reimagines how to tell Haverhill’s history

The Buttonwoods Museum's Duncan House.Contributed photo

In 1904 members of the newly formed Haverhill Historical Society opened a museum in a Federal-style mansion near the Merrimack River as a place to help tell the story of Haverhill’s past.

Nearly 120 years later, the Buttonwoods Museum is embarking on a project aimed at re-energizing the Water Street institution and making it more representative of the diverse population that inhabits today’s Haverhill area.

Five years in the planning, “REVITALIZE BUTTONWOODS: Restore the Past. Shape the Future” will combine physical renovations with new interactive exhibits and education programs. Museum officials call the venture Buttonwoods’ most significant undertaking since its founding.


Currently 23 percent of Haverhill’s population is Hispanic, while students of color make up about 44 percent of those enrolled in the city’s public schools.

“Till now, we have not represented that population in our museum,” said Janice Williams, the Buttonwoods Museum’s director. “This project seeks to change that.”

The core of the project is a $300,000 overhaul of the museum’s main, lower gallery that in addition to a new welcoming desk will include the new interactive exhibit spaces and updated technology Buttonwoods needs to advance its goal of becoming more inclusive. Some renovations to the upper gallery are also planned.

Buttonwoods is in the midst of a fund drive to pay for the renovations, but has raised enough to begin the work this summer, said Williams, who is confident the museum will meet its goal of completing the upgrades by late 2023.

The project also includes adding educational programming on the history of under-represented populations, using a $100,000 grant Buttonwoods was recently awarded by the Cummings Foundation.

“It’s an opportunity to really tell the stories of people who have not been as well represented by the museum before now,” Jen Turner, Buttonwood’s museum educator, said of the new programs and exhibits. “It’s a great way to reimagine some of the history of Haverhill over the last 300 years.”


Turner said Haverhill has long had a diverse and changing population, from the original Native Americans to people of color who came as enslaved people, the immigrants who worked in tanneries, and today’s immigrants.

The Cummings grant will also fund a bus service the museum plans to expand access to Buttonwoods for schoolchildren in under-served areas.

Buttonwoods is also partnering with the Merrimack River Watershed Council to create interactive exhibits about how the river became polluted and longstanding efforts to clean it, reflecting a decision by officials to make Haverhill’s connection to the river an overriding focus for the museum.

The museum is named for the Buttonwoods trees that were planted on the property in the early 1740s by the Saltonstall family that then owned the land. The Duncan family, well-to-do merchants, built the mansion in 1814, and a descendant gave it to the historical society in 1903.

The Buttonwoods collection, displayed in temporary exhibits, includes items dating from Haverhill’s founding in 1641 — from furniture and ceramics to quilts and dolls — along with Native American artifacts. The museum is open to visitors and from May 1 to Oct. 31, but year-round for educational programs.

The Duncan House includes the original home — decorated with 1814 period furnishings — a 1918 addition, and a 1980s addition housing the two galleries and a visitor center for the museum and the Essex National Heritage Area.


The museum site also includes the 1710 John Ward House, constructed by Haverhill’s first minister and used today for educational programs; and a shoe shop built in 1859.

Calling the museum “one of the best-kept secrets in Haverhill,” Williams hopes the project helps change that, allowing it to attract more visitors — from across the city.

“We are really excited about this opportunity to represent all the communities of Haverhill,” she said.

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.