Private and Public Spaces: Digital History, the Anderson House, and Exclusivity
Updated: Dec 11, 2019
One of the key issues with this website review is the disparity between the public and private aspects of the Anderson House, The Society of the Cincinnati, and The American Revolution Institute of The Society of the Cincinnati.
This review focuses on the Anderson House website offerings since that was the object of the recent tour experience I enjoyed with my class. I will be mentioning other aspects of the organization and it's online offerings after a brief explanation of what this organization is and why the house is so important.
The first question you might be asking is: What is the Anderson House and The Society of the Cincinnati?
According to Kelsey Atwood, Tour and Public Program Manager at the Anderson House, the society was founded by officers of the American Revolution after the war to ensure veterans received their pay.
Following the model of Cincinnatus, a renowned Roman dictator who returned to his farm after successfully defending Rome, the Founding Fathers found great value in limiting power. George Washington has even been called the American Cincinnatus since he himself chose to return to his home instead of remaining president for more than two terms (though he was the first society president, and they serve for life).
So, why does Cincinnati sound so familiar? That’s because much of the land the society paid to veterans of the American Revolution was located in Ohio, where many settled, hence the capital city, Cincinnati.
The society is still very active with thousands of members worldwide, but their focus is centered on education about the American Revolution and its legacy today. Some distinguishing aspects of the organization are their unique membership rules. Members must be direct descendants of the original members, all Revolutionary War officers, and female descendants are excluded from membership (but a son who is descended through his mother may still join).
So what exactly is the Anderson House and how does it fit into this discussion? The Anderson House is the national headquarters for the society and has served as such since 1939 when it was donated by Isabel Anderson, widow of prominent member and ambassador Larz Anderson. The historical significance of the mansion is its place in an affluent neighborhood. This house now stands alone as a window into the past while the rest of the neighborhood has been transformed or repurposed. Read more about the house itself here.
How does The American Revolution Institute figure into this? Well, it is sponsored by the society as its public-facing component for non-members who wish to engage with the American Revolution and it’s history. The society itself has many aspects that are members-only. By engaging with the institute, you can join into the mission of education and scholarship on the American Revolution without necessarily qualifying for membership in the exclusive society.
The institute has a wonderful online presence including blogs, events, and digital collections of images with accompanying histories. But, it is strangely absent from the digital presence of the house itself.
The Anderson House website is rich and has many galleries and digital collections pertaining to its library and special exhibits, but there is little information linking it to The American Revolution Institute. This presents a problem because many of the collections on The American Revolution Institute webpage pertain directly to the house and the society. In fact, without looking for the institute itself, you may never find it or its association to the house and society.
The Anderson House webpage does host some very interesting aspects that educate the user on the house, neighborhood, and scholarship of the American Revolution. I find this webpage to be more difficult to use than the online collections of the institute, though the collections themselves are better organized on the Anderson House website.
The feature that catches my eye the most in this house is the “Virtual Tour” which is sadly limited in scope and information. Plus, if you didn't toggle to the "Anderson House" portion of the menu and notice a secondary option to click "Virtual Tour" you would miss it entirely.
While it is useful as a refresher for students who may be doing a project on the house after a field trip, or perhaps for someone wishing to jog their memory on what they saw, it isn’t detailed enough to mention more than a few brief highlights. It even skips over some of the significant features of the most beautiful rooms! Many of these can be found in their collections, advertised in spots around the website, but not featured alongside some of the more innovative aspects of the website.
The online presence of the house is completely inward facing to the thematic elements of the house’s history, the society’s history, and the neighborhood (Dupont Circle). This includes the era in which the house was most active and the neighborhood was in its prime. It also includes local history from within the neighborhood and DC area.
In other contexts, the inward-facing aspect of events and exhibits could be problematic, however, I think this is the best way to utilize the interesting intersections of the house and local DC history. The house itself is a shrine to the Society of the Cincinnati and their values, but it’s also a portrait of the lives of the Andersons who donated the house and many of their treasures. In addition to these things, it hosts beautiful works of art acquired by the Andersons on their travels and demonstrates the opulence of Gilded Age architecture. So, all in one house, we have the cohabitation of the American Revolution, Asian and European artworks, and Gilded Age values presented in museum displays that maintain the function of the house as a home and venue for events. That’s a lot!
The house hosts many interesting events ranging from interactive history experiences targeting younger audiences (elementary school aged children) to lectures by prominent historians. Anderson House also presents many social events including concerts and banquets which engage with the community and visitors. Again, these events reflect the different eras of history that cohabitate in this mansion. Events range from community engagement to scholarly events and members-only functions.
The house is not replete without the tour – you wouldn’t get the same richness of the history nor the detail necessary to fully appreciate the house if you only use the online aspects of the house and society to learn about it. While the house is worth seeing, this is a downfall for the website itself.
It feels more personal in the tour than many other house tours because, not only do you have a knowledgeable tour guide (sometimes an employee, sometimes a volunteer), but you also get to see the house without any barriers like plexiglass or red ropes that hold you at arms’ length from the most beautiful features. You might not be able to sit on the original furniture, but you can get close and see it in a more natural, home-like way.
Interestingly, the digital features and the public-facing elements of the society are not necessarily connected closely to the house itself or to the typical exhibits featured within the house, such as the wonderful Japanese collector’s pieces or the European religious artworks, many of which originally came from churches.
Instead, the digital collections are largely educational and based on the history of the American Revolution or the house itself, including Larz and Isabel Anderson. The best aspect of these resources is the focus on teacher resources, which allows for more variety in the classroom if you’re trying to give a fresh perspective and new dimensions in lessons on the American Revolution.
So what is the most useful thing on this website? In my opinion, it’s the rich supplemental information for anyone looking to learn more following a visit. While it could be very useful to people who might wish to prepare for a visit to the house, I think the resources and the target audience is more likely to be people whose interest in more about the house was inspired by a previous visit. Perhaps your historic-house-loving grandmother dragged you into another house, which is pleasantly different than other old, moldy mansions you’ve schlepped through. My class visited this one and I enjoyed the many unique aspects of the house and the tour, but I had a few questions come up after the tour that I was able to answer on the website. One such question was my curiosity about their collections of material in the library about the “Art of War,” which is the theme of their collection. (It’s much broader than the Sun Tzu book by the same name.)
The library's collection is extensive and holds many digital images that are an excellent resource for scholars or novice researchers. This gem is hidden on the website and links to an external catalogue. This is hard to navigate and it is difficult to discover things you may not be looking for in particular.
The ongoing curation of the house and discussions surrounding its challenges is incredibly interesting. There are many sections of the house that face challenges of preservation and they are presented as-is on the tour. It's an interesting feature of the house and it is displayed prominently on their website among the museum exhibits. Many historic houses would seek to hide their problems and complications, but this house addresses them directly.
So, what are some of the problems with the online presence? While it is targeted at an audience of potential visitors, it could be doing more to serve the missions of The Society of the Cincinnati.
Many societies that maintain an inherited membership passed from father to son, excluding women and potentially alienating many whose families were not original to the colonial period in North America, have a difficult time reconciling their heritage and traditions with the modern world. Time will tell what this organization will do in the future, but for now they utilize the scholarly aspects of their organization in research and curation to engage with non-members and those who don’t qualify for membership. This is important because, in public and digital history, the key is access to a wider audience and engagement with as many people as possible. In this way, subjects must be made relevant to those potential consumers in order to attract them. The American Revolution Institute is supposed to do this for the house and the society, but it is severely disconnected from the web presence of the house.
How could this site be better utilized for digital history?
It should feature exhibits about unique items that can be viewed in the house, or items related to the house that cannot be displayed. The tapestries presented in the house has an interesting piece on conservation and there is a gallery of photos you can see, but none of these are linked to the featured collections on the main page of the museum's "Anderson House Collections" menu.
Historic houses are often simply a portal back in time or a shrine to the person who lived there, so this house has a unique opportunity to have ongoing online discussions about preservation and the multipurpose functions of the house that allow it to remain relevant to visitors and society members, even now.
By closely connecting the institute’s web presence and collections with the house itself, it would potentially give a better context of how the house is (figuratively and literally) opening its doors to more people, not just members, in some ways. The history of the American Revolution and its legacy belongs to all Americans and this is embraced clearly by the institute. But, I wouldn’t have even known about the institute had I not physically visited and toured the house.
I also find it highly problematic that the three aspects of the society and its work in history and preservation have no social media presence, let alone a way to connect your social media networks to their mission and statements. Being able to quickly and conveniently share pieces of the website and especially images of the house or its art could spark many meaningful conversations about the house and its exhibits.
The best features of the website don’t emphasize any particular aspects of the house, but instead communicate with the visitor about the experiences available to them. What to expect during the visit, how to travel to the house, and what is expected of each visitor is clearly communicated which makes for a much easier visitor experience. I have been to more than one museum that had a strict-yet-unadvertised “no bags” policy which left us at a loss for what to do with our valuables since the coat check area was no secure. I can’t even number the museums I’ve visited only to miss the best lectures or demonstrations because their websites poorly indicated the events schedule! So, in this respect, the Anderson House is utilizing their website to its best potential.
One of my favorite aspects of the website is actually the online shop, which features histories and publications from the society as well as resources about past exhibits and relevant scholarship. The offerings are thematically cohesive and endorsed by the organization selling them, which indicates to me that there is a very strong theme and message that carries throughout everything they do at Anderson House. I would suggest people looking to learn more about their events and collections consider the online shop.
While I think the Anderson House is beautiful and the American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati is interesting, their downfall is the failure to connect a meaningful online network for a more cohesive user understanding of the house, the society, and their ties to the American Revolution and its legacy. Perhaps linking the websites in meaningful and clear ways would be helpful, and an effective social media presence would also potentially increase peoples’ engagement with both of these elements of The Society of the Cincinnati.