For eight years, I lived and worked at the Gibson House Museum as a caretaker and docent. This experience formed an unlikely backdrop while obtaining my architecture degree, beginning work in the profession, and teaching design studios. The Mining the Museum project attempted to draw those seemingly disparate experiences together, creating a teaching opportunity that utilized the museum’s educational potential in a new way – one that leant an abstract and critical eye to historical setting. The museum is, on the surface of things, difficult to place within the education of the contemporary designer. The Gibson House, designed by Edward Clark Cabot in 1858, was not unusually grand in its day and the museum’s collection is significant because it is typical, but for a time that has long-since passed. It is also unusually complete. Seventy-five percent of the collection belonged to the family that occupied the house until 1954. This time capsule effect lures a small stream of visitors from around the world, but the museum has been largely overlooked as a resource to the local design community.
My goals as a teacher/researcher were to pinpoint the museum’s educational value for students of architecture and interior design and in doing this, I hoped to stimulate interest in, and ultimately the restoration of this small, private non-profit museum. I also wanted to understand more about the act of designing in a historic context. In addition to exploring contemporary ideas about building preservation and rehabilitation, I wanted to consider how modern-day designers might extract from history without necessarily becoming a slave to it. While the Back Bay neighborhood has been a national historic landmark since 1966, this designation applies to building exteriors only. The insides are largely altered beyond recognition. The neighborhood’s grand architectural character ensures its continuing popularity, however modern-day residents very often reject historically authentic “design ideas” in the museum, in favor of a range of design approaches that sometimes consider history, and sometimes involve a design professional. Late Twentieth Century construction in the Back Bay resulted in several heavily legislated yet disappointing “landmark” buildings. Could it be that the zoning codes were written with an incomplete notion of historic sensitivity? The modernism of Mies, and Le Corbusier developed in violent reaction to the fringe, soot and social mores of the Victorian era which are all preserved within the Gibson House. I sense that subsequent generations of designers have developed a kind cultural amnesia, leaving us unable to consider for ourselves what might be learned from this forgotten and now rare realm of design.
In the late fall of 1997, The LEF Foundation awarded me a grant to make an exhibit about Gibson House in November 1998. The exhibit was called Gibson House: Excavations. and it was intended to show the museum from the fresh perspective that emerged through the work of the course. Student work: measured floor plans of the museum, and prints of my lecture slides attempted to portray the house with the vitality that my students and I found there. My purpose with the exhibit was not to give the standard “tour” or exposition of the house, but to encourage visitors to think about this resource with “new eyes”.