If people experience history best through personalizing it, then it is likely what we get out of a museum is something that connects directly to our personal experience.
That was the case during a visit this fall to Fort Ticonderoga on the New York side of Lake Champlain. The fort which occupies a strategic position on the southern tip of the lake played a role in both the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War in the 1700s. The strategic part was made clear in a map at one of the displays showing the water route taken down the lake from Canada, and then across a brief stretch of land over to the Hudson River, which leads all the way to New York City.
So, how did my wife and I experience this personally?
For one, we skipped the musket demonstration which drew off the small crowd early on Sunday morning, leaving the rebuilt fort and room displays to ourselves (we hate crowds and are not too keen on guns either.)
Second, we lucked into the only tour available during our time frame, of the King’s Gardens on the property. The fort has succeeded in planning gardens and pasture which period soldiers may have used (albeit surrounded by electric fence at night.) The gardens we focused on, though, pertained to the private property owned by the Pell family, ancestors of Senator Claiborne Pell from Rhode Island. At the time, we had been busy re-landscaping our newly renovated house (on a much smaller scale, admittedly), so these beautifully cared for gardens and trees captured our attention.
Third, we were instinctively drawn to any connection to our home town of Pittsfield in the display. We skipped right past the names of Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold and focused on a name neither of us had heard previously, a Pittsfield native, Colonel John Brown. We saw a plaque honoring him as we entered, and we spent more time in front of the displays explaining his leadership of a three-day assault on the fort in September 1777, which helped lead to the abandonment and subsequent destruction by British forces of the fort two months later. We learned John Brown was killed later in the war at the age of 36.
Finally, we zoomed in on the motivations behind the tour guide/reenactors who, both paid and volunteer, filled the environs, even with their children. We assumed they probably had spent the night there, at least some of them. Our tour guide, in period uniform, explained he bought his uniform from a store in the U.K., with special wool and buttons and sewing techniques, all at a fairly expensive cost. We later overheard several of the uniformed guides discussing amongst themselves where they had procured various pieces of their outfit. Here again, we personalized, admitting this was not anything we would ever find ourselves doing, but frankly pleased the fort was able to attract people who put such time, energy and expense into this hobby.
As we were heading out, we noticed that others were studying in detail the musket displays, which we had zoomed right by, but stopped for an equally intent examination of the maps which showed prominently western Massachusetts, Pittsfield and even our neighboring lake.