The Neighborhood as Collection: A Walking Tour of Mt. Vernon, Baltimore
By Jena Gilbert Merrill, ’22
On June 17, 2021, the WPAMC fellows visited the Mt. Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore for a walking tour. After three full days of shuffling through historic houses, meandering around the sprawling estates in which these houses are situated, and investigating the various ways that people inhabited and related to these spaces in the past, we began the walking tour standing on the corner of a city block in Baltimore. While Mt. Vernon is a neighborhood with a rich history, it is also a place where people still live, work, eat, and play– and it is alive in a way that most traditional museums are not.
Our tour was a wonderful walk through time that was grounded in the neighborhood and the way that history has organically unfolded there. Our guide (who, appropriately, was himself named Johns Hopkins) touched upon histories of class and race, of activism and philanthropy, of LGBTQ+ life, and of urban development, among other topics that have been relevant to this area. This guided introduction to an environment only a few blocks in radius– the houses and buildings, the green spaces, the Washington monument and the sculpture of George Peabody, the shops abutted by surface parking lots where storefronts and apartments used to stand– activated the experiences of life in this neighborhood over time. I was left with an acute awareness of the layered nature of history and city life, and I have since been thinking about what made this open air walking tour feel so different from the experience of a traditional house museum.
Both a city block and a house museum are made up of a collection of objects that relate to life in a given place: asphalt, sidewalks, and brownstones, or furniture, wallpaper, and silver. Through materials and artifacts, each offers opportunities to tell stories about who has lived in these spaces, and who continues to live there. However, objects and structures end up in these places for different reasons. Where a neighborhood evolves and is built up or torn down organically over time, a house museum is a curated space, crafted to recreate a moment from the past. A city street is active and unfolding, whereas a parlor or a bedroom in a museum is a snapshot, more or less frozen, with its component parts drawn from a handful of places. I think that, as a result of the distinct ways that these “collections” come together or accumulate, each environment possesses unique opportunities for narratives to emerge, and these affect visitors in different ways.
I think that this walking tour felt so compelling to me in part because it felt familiar (I have lived in a city for most of my life), and also because it felt different (the pedagogy of the experience differed from the other sites we visited). These environments and “collections” (cities or neighborhoods, historic houses, and other types of museums) can complement each other by speaking to a diversity of histories and experiences, and by delivering information in ways that speak to different people. They each offer different perspectives on the work that public history can do, and together can expand the ways that the public engages with material culture.