May is Preservation Month! Even in these times of physical distancing, our preservation team often visits the Old State House and Old South Meeting House to ensure proper care of our historic sites. Along the way, they always stick to physical distancing guidelines, working more than 6’ away from others, and wearing masks anytime they go downtown.
While the rest of us are busy working from home, we caught up with our preservation team to learn more about them and hear about why saving and sharing our cultural heritage for future generations of visitors, researchers and scholars matters.
Nicole McAllister, Special Collections Librarian
David Rodrigues, Facilities & Preservation Manager
Jill Conley, Registrar & Collections Manager
What led you to a career in preservation or collections?
David: It was in my face all the time; I grew up in New Hampshire, in a region of the country where folks would travel to as a vacation destination before it was more urbanized. During my long school bus rides, I was exposed from an early age to these relics of the past, both well kept and not-so-much. They got me curious, not just about the fabric of the buildings, but the purposes they served, and the people and thriving communities that enjoyed them. These places (and I’m sure many others like them) have outlived their glamorous past use, and must adapt to serve their communities NOW.
Nicole: For me it started with my love for books and history. I volunteered in the children’s department in my town library in high school and thought that might be something I want to pursue when I got to college. I always had an interest in history, specifically the Civil War. I started collecting and reading books on that subject and I knew I wanted to do something in the history field. I also love “old stuff” and I knew that I wanted to work with older things and take care of them. When I graduated college I went and got my masters in library science and got my first job in a university archives and it took off from there.
Jill: I have always loved collecting things, even as a kid. I loved (and still love) collecting pieces of glass and pottery that wash up on the beaches of Maine. And I have always loved books and reading. My senior year of undergrad I curated my own exhibition of archaeological artifacts that one of my classes had excavated the previous semester, and I decided that a career in collections was the one for me. And, like Nicole, I went on to get my masters in library science.
What is your favorite fun fact about our buildings or collections?
David: The Old State House is an absolute mutt and we love it for that. It has evolved and changed in monumental ways over the years to serve its community’s ever-changing need, which speaks to the adaptability of the building. There’s a misconception that preservation is about halting change. Preservationists and the like don’t want to cast things in amber or keep them under glass. In fact, quite the opposite is true — we want to respectfully help adapt irreplaceable artifacts of our past to help inform the present.
Nicole:We have a very diverse collection of materials from the 18th century through today including a few from the 17th century. We have a large Narwhal tusk in our collection!
Jill: I think most people don’t realize that the central staircase is not an original part of the building…it’s from 1830.
What is your favorite object in our collection?
David: THE SANBORN MAPS! I used them all the time in college. They are massively detailed figure-ground maps. Produced in the same style and scale over a period of decades, centuries even, they accurately traced and tracked the changing geography of the land and geometry of the built environment. I love that we protect something that helped me in my training as a future preservationist, and that generations of people before me have also relied on those as a teaching tool.
Nicole: A favorite object of mine in the collection is The Bloody Massacre perpetrated in King Street, Boston, March 5, 1770, by a party of the 29th Regiment by Paul Revere. If it could talk, what would it tell us? The fact that we have it in our collection today is a wonderful addition to the Revolutionary Spaces story.
Jill: It’s hard to choose, but one of my favorites is a painting by James Buttersworth called Sovereign of the Seas. Buttersworth was an English maritime artist and his paintings of ships are gorgeous in their meticulous detail and dramatic settings. The Sovereign of the Seas is no exception.
What excites you about historic preservation?
David:Respectfully and responsibly making these treasures accessible to tourists and future revolutionaries alike, and stewarding them so that they are left behind better than we found them.
Nicole:Being able to preserve and protect our cultural heritage for future generations, and share what we have in our collections with researchers, visitors and scholars.
Jill: Preserving buildings and artifacts that tell our collective history that can be shared with future generations.
What’s been your favorite project to work on in your time with us?
David: I’m waiting with bated breath for our upcoming HVAC system renovation at the Old State House! It’s the building-equivalent of a heart-transplant, and this building is overdue. The superstructure of the Old State House is largely made from organic materials, but the mechanical systems that run throughout are not, so both systems are always at odds.
Nicole: I enjoy working with the collections and seeing what I can discover. I learn something new every week. Currently I am working with our institutional photographs and learning a lot about the history of the (former) Bostonian Society through photographs of events, exhibits, programs and past staff who worked at the institution.
Jill: I really enjoyed working on many different aspects of the Reflecting Attucks exhibit. I’m looking forward to working on future exhibits, as well as getting to better know the collection at Old South Meeting House.