Financing Memory: Museum Founders and Missions
Students at Winterthur quickly become familiar with the story of Henry Francis du Pont and his passion for collecting—it is, after all, the story of the Winterthur Museum’s founding. While traveling through New England, the Class of 2017 was excited to learn about other museums’ founders and the lasting impacts of these early twentieth century antiques aficionados on their museums’ missions and cultures.
Our visit to Historic Deerfield introduced us to Helen and Henry Flynt, who founded the museum in 1953. Helen was passionate about historic textiles while Henry was primarily interested in pre-Revolution houses and their furnishings. The Flynts—wealthy from Henry’s career as an attorney—proved to be a dynamic pair in their mission to preserve the historic buildings around Deerfield, where their son was enrolled at the local academy. In addition to their goal of preservation, the Flynts also came to envision the historic buildings around Deerfield as representing traditional American values threatened by communism. The Flynts imagined that Historic Deerfield, in preserving early American objects, might also preserve liberty, family, and Christianity in an increasingly unstable world.
Helen Geier Flynt, co-founder of Historic Deerfield. Photo courtesy of historic-deerfield.org.
While Deerfield has retained its mission to preserve the Connecticut River Valley’s structures and objects, its goal of imparting traditional values has shifted to a more general focus on teaching visitors about the lives of the many peoples who have called the Valley their home. We certainly enjoyed visiting buildings that interpreted wide swathes of Connecticut Valley History such as the Wells-Thorn House, which includes period rooms from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Students listen to Anne Lanning, Historic Deerfield’s Vice President of Museum Affairs, describing the Wells-Thorn House.
Just as the Flynts used their fortune to maintain an interpretation of colonial American culture at Historic Deerfield, the Wells family of Southbridge, MA used theirs to exhibit early American tools and utilitarian objects at Old Sturbridge Village. Founders of the prosperous American Optical Company, the Wells admired early American craft and ingenuity and, in the 1930s, used their fortune to acquire both a formidable collection of ‘everyday’ American objects and the 150 acres needed to sustain their vision for a historic New England village. Like the Flynts, the Wells family’s creation was ultimately a hybrid between historical accuracy and the family’s vision of New England’s old countryside.
The historic saw- and grist mills are favorites at Old Sturbridge Village. Guests can enter the buildings and see the water-powered machinery at work.
We were able to explore the Wells’s appreciation for the ‘ordinary’ during our time in Old Sturbridge on the second day of our trip. While the Wells family no longer directs Old Sturbridge, much of their original mission still remains today. The Wells’s focus on hands-on learning remains strong as guests interact with costumed interpreters and learn about 19th century rural life. Just as the Wells intended, guests are still invited to find pleasure and meaning through experiential interaction with New England’s history.
Hands-on learning with the oxen at Old Sturbridge Village. Photo courtesy of https://www.osv.org/gallery/fall-foliage.
Henry Francis du Pont, the Flynts, and the Wells all valued different aspects of America’s history and objects. Whether for ingenuity, aesthetics, rarity, or a sense of cultural stability, these 20th century patrons collected a variety of materials and certainly left their marks on the museums that we have inherited. While a museum’s specific goals and methodologies change to better address the unique issues of the time, many portions of these museums’ missions have remained stable into the 21st century.
By Trevor Brandt, WPAMC Class of 2017.