J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, August 09, 2019

Laying Out Roxbury’s History in the Dillaway-Thomas House

On the corporate blog of Content•Design Collaborative LLC, which is in the business of “effective visitor experiences for public and private institutions,” there’s an interesting discussion of how the firm helped to redesign the Dillaway-Thomas House in Roxbury Heritage State Park for the Roxbury Historical Society and the city of Boston.

The park is a single acre between the First Church and the Timilty Middle School, and the house contains 2,200 square feet of exhibit space or, as the organization says, “a mere 600 square-feet per century” of town history.

The solution was to use each room for a different historical era:
Visitors enter the House from the accessible annex, the first thing you encounter is a cavernous ten-foot wide cooking hearth, so we deemed this space the Parsons Kitchen, and it covered the pre-revolutionary war era. This gallery was followed by the Revolutionary War gallery, or the Thomas Gallery, for General [John] Thomas who took residence there during the Siege of Boston. Next comes the Dillaway Room, named after Charles K. Dillaway, a scholar and early headmaster of Boston Latin. The next exhibit area is the Historic Hallway and the 20th Century Roxbury Room. Upstairs the House featured a gallery loosely dedicated to 21st Century Roxbury accompanied the multi-purpose changeable art gallery and community meeting space.
In the eighteenth century Roxbury was the large rural town right outside of Boston by land. It was enmeshed in Boston’s politics and social issues. In 1768, for example, town minister Amos Adams and his wife Elizabeth hosted a spinning meeting. There’s no evidence about slavery at that site, but in 1771 Roxbury’s population included 21 “servants for life.” The museum therefore includes displays about slavery in the town.

As for the Revolutionary War:
With all hell breaking loose in the spring of 1775, the leaders of the colonial rebels appointed veteran John Thomas as a leader of the militia tasked with keeping the British troops in Boston. Roxbury stood on one side of the only ground route called Boston Neck. Our exhibit features a letter from the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society where General Benjamin Lincoln informs Amos Adams that “It would be quite agreeable for General Thomas to remove into your house…”. Other experiences are a recreation of General Thomas’s field desk where you can hear a dramatic reading of one of his many letters to his wife and an interactive map placing the House in context of the siege of 1775-76.
(Lincoln wasn’t yet a general when he wrote that letter to Thomas; he was clerk of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. As for Thomas’s letters home, they’re terrific.)

One interesting requirement from the Roxbury Historical Society was that the maps inside the house “show the 1868 borders when Roxbury was annexed to Boston.” That area is larger than the Boston neighborhood now designated as Roxbury—it includes the Fenway, the Longwood Medical District, and Mission Hill. But it’s much smaller than the Roxbury of the eighteenth century, which also included Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury, and the modern Arnold Arboretum and Franklin Park—part of the big town’s farmland.

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