Five Questions With: C. Morgan Grefe

"Rhode Island is still the least written about of the original colonies, so there are many neglected and understudied topics."

C. Morgan Grefe is the executive director of the Rhode Island Historical Society. She has been at the society for 7½ years. Much of this time she served as the director of the Goff Center for Education and Public Programs, but in the summer of 2011 she took the helm at the society. Her work as a historian focuses on U.S. social, cultural and architectural history, with a special focus on public history and Rhode Island. Though not originally from Rhode Island, she has made this her home for 14 years. She earned a Ph.D. in American Civilization from Brown University in 2005 and bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Pennsylvania in American Civilization and Material Culture in 1998. She also earned a master’s degree in American Civilization, with a specialization in material culture and museum studies, from Brown in 2000.

PBN: Rhode Island is not your birthplace, yet you are intimately involved in promoting the history of this state. How did the fascination with Rhode Island come about?
When I look back on it, my relationship with Rhode Island I first began in when I was in the 10th grade in southern New Jersey. Like many other teenagers, my brother always wore a baseball cap outside. One day, he came home with this great black and gold cap that just read, “Providence.” I was knee deep in reading about Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening, so I thought it was a perfect for me. So, like a good kid sister, I took it. And I wore it for the next two years. I also knew quite a bit about Brown University. (My step-father played football at Brown in the 1960s).
Then, when I was a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, my aunt and uncle moved to Cape Cod. I took the train up to see them. My aunt picked me up in Providence and showed me Brown, Benefit Street, and downtown – well before there was a mall, but after the rivers were exposed. That was it for me: I was hooked. I knew Providence and Rhode Island were where I wanted to be.
As a graduate student at Brown, I traveled extensively for my research, but I kept coming back to Rhode Island. In graduate school, I worked at the Slater Mill historic site and then on some projects for the historical society. These opportunities sealed the deal for me: Rhode Island was the place for me. Truly, this is an amazing place to study and share history. I can’t think of anywhere better.

PBN: What important piece of Rhode Island history is the most neglected or underrated and how might awareness be raised about it?
Over the last decade, Rhode Island’s role in the slave trade and slavery has garnered much needed attention. This is not to say that no one was aware of this before, but we all needed to address the real centrality that the so-called “peculiar institution” played in our local, national, and global development, not just economically, but socially, culturally, and politically. While professors and students at local colleges had been studying these topics, when Brown created its Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice and received national attention, the conversation gained tremendous momentum.
That being said, Rhode Island is still the least written about of the original colonies, so there are many neglected and understudied topics. Or, perhaps, to put it another way, there are many subjects that we “know about,” but that we do not assert or compel to the level of national importance that I believe they deserve. To name a few: the African diaspora of southern New England; the centrality of Rhode Island’s earliest political philosophy as the foundation of much of our national ideology; the richness Rhode Island receives from its diverse population and history of immigration. These are huge topics, and truly just the tip of the iceberg.

PBN: Your annual meeting was held Nov. 13. What was the most important news to come out of this yearly gathering?
This is our 192nd Annual Meeting and I believe it finds us a strong and vital institution, and a better one for working with and learning from the other amazing organizations throughout our state. Perhaps the most important topic we addressed at the annual meeting is the increasing centrality of collaboration in the success and sustainability of our history and heritage sector. Over the last year, we have been running a project called the Rhode Island History Online Directory Initiative. Funded by the Mellon Foundation, the initiative includes three staff members conducting in-person surveys with a quarter of all of history organizations in the state. In this small state, there are more than 500 history and heritage organizations. The initiative’s website launched on Oct. 29, and right now we’re wading through data and working on a white paper about the sector. What we know already is that these sites are protecting our past, and we need to help each other in this time when resources are scarce.
Besides this initiative, we’re been fortunate enough to work on some wonderful collaborative projects this year. At the State House you can now see the new Charter Museum, which holds some of our state’s most significant treasures. These items came from the state archives, the society, the Newport Historical Society, the Providence city archives, and the Redwood Library – and they are remarkable – are assembled under the auspices of the Governor’s Charter Commission. It’s a beautiful testament to the history of the state and richness of our repositories.

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PBN: What makes the John Brown House Museum the “premier” 18th-century house and museum in the state and have you added anything important and new recently to its features or tours?
Architecturally, the John Brown House Museum has stood the test of time. It is as grand and elegant as it was when it was finished in 1788. American presidents and European dignitaries alike marveled at its grace and innovation. Its design has been copied throughout the region. In terms of content, the John Brown House Museum is one of the few places you can visit in our region to not only see the beautiful decorative arts of 18th century, but also to learn about the men and women who made them, bought them, and used them.
The history of a house like this is not simple, and it’s not always nice. Certainly, it is a gorgeous house and one can come here to appreciate the beauty and the craftsmanship it showcases. But one can also grapple with the slave trade and its legacy. Students of history can think about what it meant to be limited in your future choices because of your gender. And another visitor might be taken with the history of science and medicine addressed in the house. Yet another might be fascinated by the rebels of the Revolutionary period and the role the state took in our fight for independence.
Over the years, we’ve been fortunate enough to have a truly impressive crew of volunteer docents at the museum. We couldn’t exist without them. Today, these docent-led tours are supplemented with an audio tour. This allows people to choose what type of tour they want and how long they want it to take. It’s all about flexibility and options. And, I’m proud to say that in 2013 we were awarded a “Leadership in History” award by the American Association for State and Local History for this audio tour.

PBN: What is the museum’s most popular collection? And which one do you favor and why?
At our library, genealogists are frequent and dedicated users, painstakingly tracking down their family histories. Lately, much of the research at the John Brown House Museum has focused on our samplers, a demonstration of needlework skills generally completed by girls and women. In fact, the most nationally recognized exhibit ever mounted by the society, decades ago, was on samplers. This year we are delighted to have participated in a national sampler inventory project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Thanks to this project, we have documented our entire collection and it’s now accessible on our website.
And, I would be remiss in not mentioning the ever-famous Roger Williams root, a.k.a. the root that ate Roger Williams. This is one of my favorite local legends, and for those of you not familiar with it, the short version is that in the 19th century, the city was putting in a park near North Main Street and locals went in search of Williams’ grave. While digging, they found a section of apple tree root that people claim had clearly taken the shape of our founder’s torso, legs, and feet as it grew through his decomposing body. This, of course, isn’t what actually happened, but nonetheless, they dug up the root and now it’s at the John Brown House Museum. People have traveled from as far away as Texas to see it and dowsers have come to communicate with it!
As for me, my favorites change every day. I am always partial to John Brown’s exquisite corner chair made by the Newport firm of Townsend and Goddard. But I have also always loved the soup tureen in the shape of a water buffalo’s head from China. The steam from the soup comes out of its porcelain nostrils. It’s elegant and elaborate, yet it also shows a beautiful touch of whimsy that reminds me that these were people who loved to be amused and tickled, just like us. Well, maybe almost like us.

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