Boston Is Neglecting Its Historic Attractions
Tourists spend millions visiting our centuries-old sites, helping to create thousands of jobs. Preserving our heritage, in other words, makes not just cultural but economic sense. So why aren’t we doing it better?
Three cheers for history, right? Actually, the owners of the museum, the Florida-based Historic Tours of America, go to great lengths to make clear that this is not just another sleepy Boston historical attraction. Who would want to visit (or fund) one of those? “We’re an entirely new kind of museum,” the museum announces on its website, “where you’ll not only view artifacts of historical importance, you’ll also have an all-encompassing, multi-sensory experience…. Live actors, high-tech, interactive exhibits, authentically restored tea ships and the stirring, multi-sensory documentary Let It Begin Here, are just a taste of what you’ll see, hear and feel.” Tickets cost $25.
It’s always December 16, 1773, at the museum. Located on the Congress Street Bridge, it’s just a stone’s throw from the actual site where, on that famous evening, rebellious colonists dumped 342 chests of British tea into the harbor. Visit and you’ll find ticket-takers dressed in costume and speaking in Colonial accents. In a small replica of an 18th-century meetinghouse, you’ll gather to hear grievances against the British, shout “Huzzah” on cue during a reenactment of the meeting that took place at the Old South Meeting House (less than a mile away), and then, as the website says, “you’ll be given your own ‘Mohawk’ disguise before the march to Griffin’s Wharf begins.”
During that march, you’ll board replicas of either the Eleanor or the Dartmouth, two of the three vessels from which the colonists dumped all of that tea. That’s an event you’ll get to reenact in your Mohawk disguise—which, when I visited, in August, consisted of a single feather. Other attractions abound. There’s that Let It Begin Here documentary, which does its high-volume best to make you feel like you’re standing on the battlefield during the American Revolution. There are also holograms, and portraits on the wall of Sam Adams and King George, who come to life and argue with each other, just as characters do during the Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios.
As it happens, the museum’s executive director, Shawn Ford, got the idea for his talking portraits from that Harry Potter exhibit. When I asked him whether he’s really presenting history at the museum, he was firm in his response. “We’re not an historic attraction, nor do we pretend to be,” he told me. “We tell the Tea Party event in a very fun, entertaining, educational way. Our museum is not a museum of artifacts, textbooks, or panels. We are a museum of experience.”
This is a common refrain today. “There’s a tension between education and entertainment,” says J. L. Bell, of the blog Boston 1775. Compared with the experience offered by the new Tea Party museum, Bell says, the real Old South Meeting House just isn’t “as exciting.”
There’s something to that point, even if purists don’t like to admit it. It’s easy, after all, to mock or dismiss an attraction like the Tea Party museum (the Herald waved it away as “cheesy,” and the New York Times pointedly questioned its devotion to historical authenticity). But the fact is, people appear to like it. “We’re doing very well,” Ford told me. Not only that, the museum seems to be driving traffic to many of the city’s authentic historical sites. Ford, for example, encourages visitors to his museum to follow up with a tour of the Freedom Trail, so that they can get a firsthand look at “the real places that still exist.”
That’s what I did. Fresh from my visit to the Tea Party museum’s replica of an 18th-century meetinghouse, I wandered over to the Old South Meeting House. Immediately, I was struck by how different the original is from the replica. Old South is an immense space, which explains why it was where as many as 5,000 of our early inhabitants met to protest British rule (at a time when the city’s population was only 15,000). Robin DeBlosi, the director of marketing and events for the original Old South, says the creators of the Tea Party museum designed their replica to differ significantly from Old South so that visitors to the former will feel an urge to go visit the latter—so that, as DeBlosi puts it, after being drawn in by the reproduction “they can experience what it’s like to be in the place where history happened, to stand in the same hall where Sam Adams gave his signal that led to the Boston Tea Party.”
The strategy seems to be working. “We had a really good July,” says Emily Curran, the executive director of Old South, “and we think that may have been one of the contributing factors.”
There’s always a balance to be struck between modernizing a city and preserving its past. And, to be fair, Boston hasn’t always managed that challenge well. The houses that Sam Adams and John Hancock lived in were both razed in the 1800s. Old South was on the verge of being torn down in 1876, until such local celebrities as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Julia Ward Howe, Wendell Phillips, and Louisa May Alcott banded together to save it. Around the same time, the Old State House looked like it might be sold and transported to Chicago, until the creation in 1881 of the Bostonian Society, which successfully dedicated itself to keeping the building here.
These were savvy moves. Today Old State and Old South, along with the Paul Revere House, the Old North Church, and a number of other Freedom Trail sites, have become some of the city’s most important attractions. And if you compare Boston with, say, New York, you’ll notice a stark contrast: In New York, almost no vestiges survive of the city’s 18th-century past. “In order for a city to remain economically viable,” says Benjamin Carp, the author of two books on the American Revolutionary era, and a professor of history at Tufts University, “it may not be possible for it to preserve all of its historic spaces. But at the same time, if they don’t do some of that work, the public loses out.”