Photos by Megan Hutchins and Kathy F. Atkinson July 31, 2018
Museum Studies projects enhance New Castle mansion
Tours of historic New Castle, Delaware—the first capital of the First State—often include the Amstel House, an early Georgian residence built in 1730 and considered Delaware’s first grand mansion.
The house, with its well-preserved architecture and furnishings and with a parlor where George Washington once attended a wedding, is a popular stop during field trips for fourth-graders studying Delaware history.
And now, beginning this summer, projects planned and implemented by a museum studies class from the University of Delaware last semester are providing some new exhibits to enhance the experience of visitors to the Amstel House.
One group of UD students turned a small storeroom into much-needed display space and used it to house an exhibit they designed of selected items from the house’s collection. The second group created a replica of a small bed from the house, complete with activities designed to make the tour more interactive for children.
“I was already familiar with the University’s Museum Studies program, and we agreed to try out this project with a combined group of graduate and undergraduate students,” said Daniel Citron, executive director of the New Castle Historical Society. “It’s been very successful. The Historical Society was happy with the results, my board was very happy, and the students have told me that they learned a lot.”
The project had its start with a graduate class last year taught by Jennifer Van Horn, assistant professor of art history, and Catharine Dann Roeber, assistant professor affiliated with the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture, that focused on historic properties. Those students visited New Castle and suggested possible enhancements to some of the sites. Two of the ideas, both proposed by student Sara McNamara, were selected for implementation by a new class during spring semester, said Katherine C. Grier, professor of history and director of the Museum Studies program.
That class consisted of six undergraduates and was led by McNamara and fellow graduate student Tess Frydman, who worked together to create the syllabus and guide the projects. The class split into two teams, each taking one of the suggested ideas and putting the plan into action.
McNamara said her proposals came from taking a tour of the Amstel House in the way that any typical visitor would. In a bedroom, she saw the corner of an old wooden frame poking out from under the tall, four-poster bed. When she asked about it, she was told that it was the frame of a trundle bed—a separate small, low bed, some 200 years old, that could have been pulled out at night to accommodate a child or a servant and then stored out of sight under the larger bed during the day.
McNamara asked something else: Did many people touring the house wonder what the trundle bed was? The answer: Yes, it was a common question posed to tour guides.
“We decided to make a reproduction bed and mattress, and we came up with some activities that would be fun and educational for kids, especially around the age of fourth-graders,” McNamara said. “We learned how the mattress and pillows would have been made, and we learned different sewing techniques, and we made everything by hand.”
The result is a trundle bed that, unlike the original bed frame still on display, is sturdy enough for youngsters to try out. They can experience a mattress stuffed with straw and see how the trundle would have fit under the larger bed. The frame itself, made of pine and painted with two coats of milk paint, was built by volunteer Stephen Hess, who says the reconstruction is as close to the original in materials and design as possible.
The UD students also sewed three small pillows, stuffing each with a different material (straw, feathers and modern-day polyester filling) so that children touring the house can feel what each is like.
Meanwhile, Frydman and a second team of undergraduates spent the semester adding another new attraction for Amstel House visitors. During her tour, McNamara had spotted a tiny room at the top of a staircase in the house and noticed that it was being used as a kind of storage closet.
“I thought it could be cleaned out and used for display space,” McNamara said. “Tess and her team took that idea and ran with it.”
The result is a newly installed exhibit in the room. Students researched items in the Amstel House’s collections, many of which are in storage because of a lack of space, and came up with a theme for their new exhibit.
“Tools of Many Trades” showcases a variety of tools that would have been used by those living in the house and by workers in the surrounding town.
The exhibit includes a shoemaker’s tools, a wooden shovel, a cherry pitter, hackles used to comb through flax in producing linen, a fireman’s ax and a dental key, which was used in pulling teeth. There’s even a mystery object for visitors to speculate about; research didn’t immediately turn up anything definitive about its use.
For the UD students, the opportunity to create museum displays was both valuable and unusual for an undergraduate-level class.
“It’s pretty awesome to get this experience before I even get to grad school,” said Carolanne Deal, who will start UD’s master’s degree program in art history for museum professionals this fall. “This isn’t something that many students get to do.”
Both Citron and Grier hope that the Amstel House project will serve as a model for similar efforts at other historic properties, especially those with relatively small staffs that can benefit from additional help. Grier also wants to continue the structure of the class, with graduate students supervising undergraduates.
“It’s good for everyone,” she said. “The graduate students get the opportunity to lead a project, and the undergraduates get to work on a real project, make contacts in the community and see how grad students work.”
Meanwhile, UD’s involvement at the Amstel House is continuing this summer, with three Museum Studies interns helping out. One of them, graduate student Katherine Riley, is working to create a workbook for visiting students and families.