Our third site visit was to the Powell House in the Old City neighborhood of Philly. Powell House is a historic house museum, and a great example of 18th century architecture, and design. The history of Samuel and Elizabeth Powell, and the line about George Washington dancing in one of the rooms, quite frankly didn’t interest me much. To me, the most interesting part was the history of how it became a historical house and how it has been able to maintain as such. This interested me because it speaks to gender dynamics, class and racial dynamics, and the whole concept of period rooms being sold.
Firstly, gender dynamics played into the formation of it becoming a historical house. The house was saved from destruction through the funding of Francis Wister and the Colonial Dames. This history was similar to that of George Washington’s house that was constructed through the funding of a women’s organization. I find it interesting that women seem to have lead many efforts in historical preservation, yet the narrative that they perpetuate is still one that is male dominated and patriarchal. Another interesting aspect of how Powell House came to be was the class and race dynamics that became more evident the more we were told. Francis Wister, was a wealthy white women, and therefore she had the means and privilege to put thousands of dollars into restoring the Powell House. While you could argue that, that privilege was being put to good use by saving the house, she no doubt used it to create her own narrative. One that minimized, if not totally erased that of the servants and slaves that worked there and were apart of its history.
Finally, the one other aspect of the Powell House the captured my attention was how the majority of the house was not original, and that many of the rooms had been sold to other museums. The concept of period rooms being in other museums, was one that took me a while to wrap my head around. It seems odd to me that, one would put a whole room in a museum, as a way to tell and show the history of that room, instead of restoring the original room in its original building. When you remove a period room from its original structure and its historical context, you are automatically changing how it is perceived, and therefore the history it is telling.