Everyone knows the Museum of Fine Arts with its unique collections in their dazzling settings. The Science Museum, the Children’s Museum, the Peabody Essex are attractions that both locals and tourists enjoy.
But one of the best things about Boston’s museums is their great numbers. Most are small. Visits take only an hour or two. A fire museum stands near the Fort Point Channel. The North End has Paul Revere’s House. Back Bay has the Gibson House; Beacon Hill, the Nichols House. Charlestown has Old Ironsides and the Bunker Hill Museum. The West End has the new MGH Museum, the Harrison Gray Otis House and the West End Museum, which has unearthed fascinating untold stories of that old neighborhood. These museums serve as neighborhood gathering places and provide a way for tourists to understand our city better.
The West End also has the mysterious Innovations in Communications Museum, located in Verizon’s Cambridge Street equipment building. Curiously, a Verizon spokesman said he knows nothing about it. But that’s the way it is with small museums—they are quirky, tightly focused, and they make their own rules. They show Boston’s variety and its robust civic health.
One place that has upped the ante among small museums is the Museum of African American History on Beacon Hill.
This museum, which exists on a budget of only $1.5 million, has two buildings in that neighborhood. The 1835 brick building on Joy Street, the Abiel Smith School, served as America’s first public school for black children. It was renovated 12 years ago. The second building, the 1806 African Meeting House, is around the corner on Smith Court. This church was the center of a thriving free black community on Beacon Hill’s north slope. It hosted Frederick Douglass and other anti-slavery leaders. The museum has restored the African Meeting House to its vibrant 1855 appearance, with pale yellow walls and egg yolk-colored pews with red cherry wood trim. The original crumbling floorboards were replaced with wood saved from Old West Church’s original building, 275 years old. “This wood lasted from before the Revolution through abolition,” said Beverly Morgan-Welch, the museum’s director. “It’s powerful wood.”
So powerful, in fact, that Morgan-Welch had an other-worldly experience when she stood at the pulpit welcoming the audience at the building’s rededication last December. Morgan-Welch is a practical, matter-of-fact person, not given to New Age flights of fancy.
But she said she felt as if she had floated off her feet. She was afraid to look down, fearful she would lose her balance when she saw she was not touching the floor.
Former longtime Black Heritage Trail guide Horace Seldon was in the audience. Later he told her he perceived that loved ones whom coincidentally she had lost during the building’s long restoration, were reaching out to her. Morgan-Welch thinks she might have been emotional about all the yearnings for freedom and justice that had taken place in what she and Seldon believe is a sacred place. She said she has a reverence for the abolitionist leaders as well as the people who saved the buildings throughout all these years, and that feeling of connection may have contributed to her mystical state.
But maybe the experience came from certain uncanny coincidences that took place during the restoration, one of which was the discovery that the restoration’s architect, John G. Waite, was the descendant of another John Waite, a baker and a chocolatier who had served on the building committee for the original church. The present-day Jack Waite had had no knowledge of this ancestor.
Or maybe finishing the building took a great weight off her shoulders, making her feel she could soar. “Maybe everyone was walking on air,” she said.
In any case, Morgan Welch came back to earth to finish welcoming the audience to the newly restored meeting house and to take a visitor on a tour of the facilities a couple of weeks ago.
The restored meeting house is impressive but so are the exhibits. Right now Morgan-Welch is excited about “The Color of Baseball,” located in the school building and coinciding with the Fenway Park’s 100th anniversary. Of course, Jackie Robinson is featured, but so is Boston City Councilor Isadore Muchnik, who in the late 1940s threatened to revoke the Red Sox’s special permit to play games on Sundays if they didn’t allow black players to try out. Jackie Robinson tried out, but the Yawkeys refused to sign black players until 1959, when they hired Pumpsie Green. Thus the Red Sox and the subsequent problems surrounding busing turned Boston from a proud city known for its abolitionists into a city of shame.
Only a few people will have known about the efforts of Muchnik to address bigotry. And that’s what these small museums do best—tell the little stories of Boston that make us who we are.
That’s why, during the time the Boston Museum has been searching for a site along the Greenway on which to build, it has been surprising to hear people, including museum directors themselves, say, “We don’t need another museum.”
That’s silly and so typical of scores of negative Bostonians. The Museum of African American History is the best example of why multitudes of museums are important. If they didn’t tell their stories, who would?