Conservation in Concord: Bringing Alive a Gathering Place of 19th-Century Literary Legends

Literary Spirits at Fruitlands Museum and the Old Manse
Literary Spirits at Fruitlands Museum and The Old Manse.

“The books are at the heart and soul of The Old Manse, and it’s wonderful to see them come alive.” — Christie Jackson, Senior Curator, Trustees of Reservations

A Revolutionary Meeting Place

Rooted in history and literature, The Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts, has a following of people who treat visiting the home almost like a pilgrimage. That’s because it served as a gathering place for notable writers and thinkers of the mid-19th century, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller, and retains a remarkable authenticity to this day.

However, the books and art inside the home that represent the intellectuals who stayed there generations ago had fallen into disrepair, preventing them from being experienced by researcher and visitor alike.

Bringing the Details Forward

Acquired by the Trustees of Reservations in 1939, the property is one of about 20 historical houses collectively containing 50,000 objects that the Trustees oversee across Massachusetts. It also happens to be Senior Curator Christie Jackson’s favorite.

“It’s one of the houses that I took under my wing—one I wanted to work very closely with,” she said.

Literary Spirits at Fruitlands Museum and the Old Manse
Downstairs parlor, The Old Manse.

Using Museums for America funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Jackson and her team painstakingly catalogued and conserved the book and art collection of The Old Manse from 2016 to 2017. The project included logging more than 2,100 books, conserving 25 to 30 books, creating storage boxes for 250 books, repairing three historic bookshelves, and conserving nine pieces of framed art from the collection.

The result is a permanent exhibition at The Old Manse that provides better public and scholarly access to the books and art that inspired Transcendentalism.

Jackson used a forward-thinking, interdisciplinary approach to work with these objects, keeping in mind how they were presented within the house, their narratives and how they might be used for public engagement going forward. By bringing conserved books back out onto bookshelves and recreating the desk and chair setup used by literary legends, guests were able to stand in the same place as the Transcendentalists once did, creating a one-of-a-kind and powerful moment of reflection for devoted visitors.

“I’m so proud that we had this great team that came together from IMLS to transform the space while still being very authentic and respectful of the historic fabric that was in the house before,” said Jackson.

The rubbings of the coins was found in a book of Greek Grammar
Coin rubbing found in a Greek Grammar book. The Old Manse.

Keeping History Alive

The project also sparked interesting programming toward the end of the grant in 2017. Curators and artists gave talks related to areas of literature, and one of the Trustees’ archivists gave a book tour that provided an up-close look at the books—even allowing people to handle them carefully and page through them—which served as a fun and creative approach to learning about the books’ history. Volunteers at The Old Manse also were able to participate in educational, hands-on activities that involved cleaning the books.

Jackson also gave a lecture that delved into the impact of writing environments that drew from what she and others had learned through this project.

“The IMLS project was a springboard for thinking more holistically and rediscovering these amazing stories,” Jackson said. “The grant gave my team the opportunity to think about those collections and how we can be creative moving forward.”

About the Project
Grant Project Name: 
Old Manse, Trustees of Reservations
Grant Log Number: MA-30-15-0457-15
Year Awarded: 2015
Recipient: Old Manse, Trustees of Reservations
Project Contact:
Christie Jackson
Project Director

Museums for America