Harriet Beecher Stowe is a complex historical figure, a white woman who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an 1852 novel that both galvanized anti-slavery forces and perpetuated racist stereotypes about Black people. She’s a surprisingly contemporary example of how social justice is advanced by flawed human beings operating in imperfect circumstances.
When the pandemic hit in March, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center found itself in terribly imperfect circumstances. We faced many hard decisions, but we never wavered on our commitment to support our staff’s right to unionize. Our senior staff and our board are pro-union people, and by March, we had already begun the constructive process of negotiations with the bargaining unit.
The decisions we faced were identical to those faced by museums large and small all over the country: if and how to remain open; how to keep executing our mission; how to keep our staffs and patrons safe; how to keep our collections accessible yet protected; and how to steward resources wisely.
Our situation was complicated by the fact that we are a “house museum,” which is exactly what it sounds like. Our venue is a historical house, a place built in 1871, defined by very small interior spaces. Though we serve as a research center for scholars and put on events and discussion programs, our principle method of education is giving house tours, prominently to school groups.
Not only was it impossible to continue tours, but the closure of the Harriet Beecher Stowe home was dictated by public health mandates. In March, we made the difficult decision to temporarily lay off our part-time Museum Associates who provide house tours and school programs —hoping as everyone did at the time— that the disruption would be short. At this point, we hope to re-open for limited tours in January and we have already invited the union to speak to us about our staff’s return.
In the meantime, like in so many cultural institutions, our professional museum staff continue to provide history education in creative new ways.
We are embracing this unusual moment to offer outdoor experiences, enhance our historic park-like setting, and encourage community use of our spaces while ensuring that guests maintain safe distances. We have built an outdoor art installation, offered virtual makers workshops, and developed and delivered digital content —in all cases using history and literature to illuminate present social challenges and the structural and systemic racism that persists.
At the same time, we are making investments in planning and infrastructure, paying special attention to ADA accessibility and ensuring that our historic campus remains a community asset for the long term. The Stowe Center has also received an important grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which has brought scholars of color to study our collections and push our thinking about how we present history at the Stowe Center.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, the Stowe Center remains laser-focused on our mission to educate the community about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s life and work, preserve her home and the Center’s collections, and inspire commitment to social justice and positive change. Supporting our staff’s right to unionize is exactly aligned with our mission. We are here and ready for conversation when the bargaining unit is ready. We hope to be working together soon to reimagine the future as we interpret the past.
Briann Greenfield is the Executive Director of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.