Thursday, March 18, 2010

Save the Program That Saves Our Treasures: National Trust Highlights Emily Dickinson Museum

The blog of the National Trust for Historic Preservation has a brief piece on one of our local landmarks.

Jason Clement's "This Treasure Matters: Inside the Home Where Emily Dickinson Pushed the Poetic Envelope" makes two essential points:

• The first is that, in order to interpret the lives of the writers to the public, we need to understand their environments. This is not the biographical fallacy against which literary theorists so assiduously warn us. Rather, it is a simple recognition that the life is part of the story, and that the story is a better one if we can show as well as tell it. Johann Wolfgang Goethe famously said, "Wer den Dichter will verstehn, muss in Dichters Lande geh'n": whosoever wishes to understand the poet must go to the poet's land. Today, we understand that to mean the environment not only in the sense of topography and regional cultural influences, but also material culture on the level of the individual author: the buildings, the indoor and outdoor spaces, the objects—the physical horizons that shape and reflect the mental ones.

• The second is that the preservation of these sites and their public accessibility does not happen by accident or come for free. The Dickinson Museum benefited from a grant from the federal Save America's Treasures program, which is now under threat from the budget-cutting axe.

The article also underscores a point made with increasing frequency here in Amherst, in the context of our own regional and master-planning process and the current struggle over budget deficits and overrides: cultural tourism is clean and smart economic development (1, 2, 3, 4).

Dickinson was born in 1830 at a home in Amherst, Massachusetts known as the Homestead. Introverted and reclusive even in her early years, it is here where she would spend the majority of her life – and where her creativity would flourish. Many of those who study her believe that her quarantine gave her an opportunity to step back and understand the human experience like none before her had. She passed away in 1886, leaving behind 1,800 poems that continue to push the poetic envelope today.

Quite simply, Emily’s story could not be told without her home. Save America’s Treasures realized this, granting $200,000 in 2004 towards the creation of a master plan that would link and preserve the Homestead and the Evergreens (a neighboring home where members of the Dickson family also lived). The federal grant was matched by more than $500,000 in private funds, which ultimately addressed critical exterior restorations and mechanical systems upgrades.

In 2009, some 13,000 tourists and Dickinson enthusiasts visited the homes, known collectively as the Emily Dickinson Museum. According to the site’s executive director, the rising visitation numbers have had a multiplying effect on the local economy of Amherst, drawing thousands of curious visitors into the town where Emily was once known only as an eccentric woman of mystery (read the rest)

The article is this part of a series dedicated to raising public awareness and mobilizing public support on behalf of a program, now at risk, that has benefited 1,100 historic sites and created over 16,000 jobs.

Take action here.

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