When I was a student, in the Stone Age, historic interpretation was black and white. We won because we were good. They lost because they were evil. Imagine my surprise when I learned, as an adult, that other people had other views.
The curators of the Atlanta History Center clearly are among those who have a different take on history than the one I learned in high school in Arizona. I’ll call them “Not Mrs. Pisaneski’s History.” More about those later.
The Atlanta History Center is a 33 acre complex on the edge of downtown Atlanta, that contains a museum, two historic houses (it also owns a third house, the Margaret Mitchell House, but that’s off campus), gardens and a research center. I was pressed for time so I toured the two houses, ran through the museum, and skipped the gardens. It took me three hours. I can image that, if you wanted to do it right, it could easily take most of the day.
I started at the Swan House, built in 1928 for Edward Inman, whose family made their fortune in cotton brokerage. Mr. Inman died in 1931 but Mrs. Inman lived there until 1965. In accordance with Mrs. Inman’s wishes, after her death, the property was sold to the Atlanta Historical Society, predecessor to the Center. The house, with its original furnishings, is presented as it was in the 1930s. It also contains an exhibit of 20th century decorative arts. The exhibit is not included in the regular tour but all you have to do to see it is ask at the end of the tour. The Swan House coach house now is a restaurant that is, according to a local friend, “the kind of place ladies lunch.”
The second house was on the other end of the economic spectrum. The Tullie Smith Farm House and Kitchen, originally located on the outskirts of Atlanta, was built in 1826 for Robert Smith. It’s now part of an 1860s farm display that includes other dependencies original to the period, but not to the Smith Farm. “Are those original electrical outlets?” cracked a teenager on the Smith house tour. The guide smoothly took the opportunity to provide a conservation lesson. The Smiths, who lived in the house until the 1960s, fitted it with electricity, which now helps the conserve the objects in the house.
Part of the Smith Farm exhibit was a slave cabin. A Not Mrs. Pisaneski’s History appeared in the cabin: “While shoes were often provided to slaves, they were generally uncomfortable and were frequently not worn.”
Both house tours are 30 minutes and focused on the family, rather than the objects: “This was the grandchildren’s bedroom. Any questions?” I asked about the furniture in the Smith house. Not original, it turns out, but of the period. The guides were very knowledgeable and could answer all the questions asked, but we had to ask.
You must take the guided tour in order to see the houses. If you don’t have the time, I suggest touring the Swan House (a beautiful example of what money could buy in the 1920s) and skipping the Smith house tour. You can see the farm and the dependences on your own. The house is your basic, four room farmhouse and I didn’t find the tour worth the 30 minutes it took.
The museum houses permanent exhibits (on the history of Atlanta, the Civil War, the 1996 Olympics, southern folk art, and Bobby Jones, the golfer who created the Masters Tournament at Augusta) as well as several temporary exhibits. A Not Mrs. Pisaneski’s History moment from the museum: “Why did the North Fight? Most Northern volunteers did not want to end slavery, but rather to end rebellion by slave owners.”