Childhood learning · Historic House Museums · Merchant's House · Museums

Here’s Where I First Encountered the Past

The William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art, 1939, Kansas City, Missouri

When I was eight years old and still an only child, my parents and I spent many Sunday afternoons at the William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art (now called the Nelson Atkins Museum) in Kansas City strolling through the cool marble halls, looking this way and that at the paintings. 

Not that my parents had any particular interest in art, but it was a pleasant place to be and it was (and still is) free—an important consideration in those days.

I don’t remember a single painting, But what I do remember with the utmost clarity are the period rooms. They were arranged in chronological order in a recessed area off a main hall, beginning with a colonial keeping room, followed by a bedroom, which I now know was from an antebellum Southern mansion.

I knew these were supposed to be rooms where real people once lived and I was absolutely enthralled. I tried to imagine the child who slept in the bed with the ruffled roof—a bed so high off the floor that you needed little steps to get into it. But I just couldn’t do it. It was like a magic trick I began well but kept fumbling. I wanted to climb under the ropes and get into that bed to see what it was like. But of course I didn’t dare. 


* * * * * * * * *

Fast forward over half a century. Recently retired, Herb and I had moved to New York City where like all newcomers we set out to visit all the tourist attractions. One day we happened on the Merchant’s House Museum, an urban row house constructed in 1832 which miraculously still existed complete with the family’s original furniture and many personal possessions.

And this time the magic worked!

Eliza Tredwell’s bedroom, Merchants House Museum, New York City

I stepped through the front door—not into a room but into an entire house where real people lived over 100 years ago! And this time the magic worked. I could easily imagine the Tredwell family in those rooms because by that time I had become acquainted with the Victorian era through my study of history and literature. I asked if there was a book I could buy that would tell me more. I was disappointed to learn there was not.

But my childhood passion had suddenly been rekindled, and I knew this was where I was meant to spend my newly acquired free time. So I volunteered and for the next 20 years I moved among those rooms,  conducting tours, training the guides, and eventually writing the book I had wanted to buy on that first visit. (See sidebar.)

And  yes, from time to time I was tempted to lie down in that big bed, but I never did for fear it might collapse. I confess, however, to once sitting on the sofa, just to see what it was like.

4 thoughts on “Here’s Where I First Encountered the Past

  1. Herb & Mary, I greatly enjoy your posts! I’m always inspired to write! Thank you for sharing your talents; they are a generous gift!! Love Lindi ❤️

    Sent from my iPhone

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  2. I completely understand this magic. You took me to see those rooms in Kansas City and I found some at the Frick Museum and the Met has some too. I wanted to BE those people that lived in those rooms. As an actor, I have gotten to be people from the past and walk in their shoes and sit on their furniture. Every time I go out of town to do a show, I look for historical houses in the city I’m in and go for a visit. You passed this obsession down to me!

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  3. Of course this was my first museum too, but the only time I remember being there with the family was to see an exhibit from the Kansas City Camera Club in which was one of Daddy’s pictures. However, by the time I was nine, the public schools organized yearly trips for us. Like you, I loved the rooms, but I do remember many of the pictures. What I love about a house museum (like the Merchants House) is the idea that real people actually carried out their lives right here, and touched this stuff and looked out of that window. Sort of like window peeping.

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