Thank you to Newport This Week and Betsy Sherman Walker for this great article!
A Historical Leap of Faith
By Betsy Sherman Walker
Ruth Taylor takes in the arc of Newport history through the practiced eye of an anthropologist. “Anthropology is the history of today,” she says, “and history is the anthropology of the past.”
What this means for Taylor, as executive director of the Newport Historical Society, is that history is active, not passive; historical events are interconnected, and that the voices, faces, and experiences of Newport’s past residents have a tangible presence in the history of Newport going forward. She is also quick to point out that she is a “public historian, and not an academic historian,” which lands her squarely under the banner of the NHS mission, to “act as a resource center for the education of the public about the history of Newport County, so that the knowledge of the past may contribute to a fuller understanding of the present.” Whether by design or default, the dramatic facelift of the Historical Society’s 100-year-old building on Touro Street has succeeded in making this as clear as the nose on its face.
Or the elevator on its façade.
One imagines it must have been a tremendous leap of faith, two years ago, for the staff and board to consider—and cozy up to—architect Mohamad Farzan’s out-of-thebox suggestion to externalize the elevator in order to open up the interior and allow for much-needed storage and exhibition space. Yet it only takes a quick glance around the once quasi-Dickensian, albeit appealingly old-school interior, to see how successful that leap was.
During a recent morning visit, the newness of it all was still apparent. Desks were being delivered and the alabaster walls of the lobby, which will be used as an exhibition space for the society’s trove of Newportiana, were blank. All around, however, it was business as usual for the staff, going about their jobs of being the information hub, from a historical perspective, of all things Newport. “It’s our ongoing mission to provide broad access to all, from school children to avocational historians," Taylor says, adding that the reach is not only national, but international.
When asked what the Historical Society can do now that it couldn’t do a year ago, she explains that “there are two major areas of how we function that have been extraordinarily improved.” The first is in the depth and breadth of the services the staff is able to provide to the people it serves. By all accounts the massive trove of materials has been, for years, stored as pieces arrived: brought from private attics, a hodge-podge of treasures. “Before, we would struggle to find what we had where,” she said. “Everything was in shelves and shelves and bins and bins. If I was looking for something, it would take at least an hour.” Slowly but surely, with stateof the-art technology and equipment and museum-quality storage facilities, every last artifact that has been given to the Society since 1824, when it was founded as the “Southern Cabinet” of the Rhode Island Historical Society, is finding a home.
Sometimes one asks questions during an interview, already knowing what the answer will be. Taylor has been executive director since 2007; and affiliated, as a consultant, since 2005. When asked if she loves her job, the swiftness of her response seems to validate everything, major or minor, she has done during her tenure: “I love my job. It’s deeply satisfying. It’s fun; and It’s deeply satisfying. It’s fun; and the collection is amazing. It’s like Christmas, every day.”
And what makes it so, she is equally as swift to add, is her “amazing staff.” They are well-trained, and brimming with “professional expertise. They are excited about the work we are doing, understand the comprehensiveness of the mission. All of our projects are teamconceived, and team-driven,” she adds, and she is grateful for how well they work together.
Challenges remain. They now have the means and the mission for making every last letter, manuscript, bits of minutiae and slices of life accessible to anyone looking for information; but there is still a lot of identifying to be done. “Our policy of openness,” she says, “is often at odds with our ability to help. We still don’t know,” she adds, “what we have.”
But of what they do know, she knows that what they have is remarkable stuff. Taylor made one of the society’s better-known finds, in 2012, in a pile of papers—thought to be from the 19th century—of a hand-drawn map of Valley Forge. It is thought to have been prepared for George Washington, in preparation for battle. “We were looking at these papers in a collection of items,” she recalls. “I noticed a folded piece of paper that looked out of place, and I said, ’Let’s take a look at that.’ “ The clue for her was the anachronism factor and her historian’s eye: The 18th-century paper of the map stood out among the 19th century documents. “That kind of moment,” she says, is what defines the work she does. “I must have unfolded and folded it ten thousand times.”
As an anthropologist, Taylor sees villages and cultures everywhere, populating Newport’s nearly 400-year-old timeline, all with stories waiting to be told. The great strength of the Society’s collection— and what she sees as its importance going forward—will be to “deliver information about the past to the people who need it today.” The Smithsonian Institution in Washington has been called the nation’s attic; she says that the Historical Society is Newport’s Smithsonian. “I like to say that the bad news is that we still have a lot to go through,” she says, “but the good news is that we will.”