Reinterpreting Sexuality at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum

Historic house museums often center their interpretation on the historic residents of the homes. Sites like the George Eastman Museum, Alice Austin House Museum, and Mercer Williams House Museum are left with the complicated legacies of their residents’ queer lifestyles. Prior to the early 20th century, sexuality was not considered an individual identity, so while people then may have engaged in what we consider queer relationships and behavior, they did not identify as queer, lesbian, gay, or any other contemporary queer identities. Even after sexuality became an identity, people may not have left behind any clear, explicit evidence of their same-sex desires or sexual identity. Identities and labels, especially in regards to same sex love and desire, are fluid and their interpretation and definition depends greatly on historical context. Sexuality is a social construction, and because naturally, historians live in fact and evidence, interpreting same sex relationships can be difficult in historic house museums. Historians debate on how to and if museums should interpret the sexuality of historic figures. Some scholars believe that focusing on a historical figure’s sexuality and intimate life overshadows their work and achievements. However, other historians contend that the personal lives of historical figures “is a topic of legitimate interest” and “rounds out our understanding of [them] as important figures.” [1] What should a museum do if the individual they are interpreting had same-sex relationships?

Smith Painting
The painting of Mary Rozet Smith displayed in Jane Addams’ bedroom

At the Jane Addams Hull House Museum in 2007, the museum director and staff decided to let visitors choose how to interpret sexuality in an alternate labeling project. The museum’s new director, Lisa Yun Lee, in 2006 discovered a painting of a brunette woman in a yellow dress in the back of the museum’s offices. Lee asked museum staff who the woman was, and she got a range of answers from Addams’ “biggest business supporter” to “her lesbian lover.” [2] Lee and the museum’s staff began a yearlong probe into the museum’s archives to research the nature of this woman in yellow, Mary Rozet Smith, and her relationship with the pioneer of the settlement house movement and social justice advocate, Jane Addams. [3]

Lee saw this as an opportunity to show visitors about the process of history and reveal that historians do not have the answers for everything. Sometimes historical research only complicates our understanding of past events and people. Lee and the museum staff wanted to “represent the complex information around the painting and the era, and it wouldn’t do to simply call Addams a lesbian.” [5] The museum staff wrote three labels that interpreted the painting and Addams’ sexuality to various degrees:

“one label identified Smith as Addams’ “companion” and focused primarily on Taylor, as the artist. Another label identified Smith as Addams’ “life partner,” acknowledged the hypothesis that they were “lesbians,” and emphasized the difficulty of applying precise categories to the relationship. The final label identified Smith as Addams’ “partner,” did not mention the word lesbian, identified same-sex unions as a common choice for college-educated women of the era, included a romantic quote from one of Addams’ letters to Smith.” [6]

The museum prompted visitors to choose which label they found more meaningful. Visitors could also write their own labels and leave critiques and comments about the labels. Some of the comments questioned the importance of their relationship to Addams’ narrative and were opposed to delving into Addams’ private life. [7] Interim director, Lisa Junkin, reflected on these negative comments:

“Occasionally there’s also a sense of fear or anger that we’d be telling that story, especially around young people. There have been teachers who have cut off the educators from telling the story of the relationship or who have covered over the label when students walk by.” [8]

Label
The new label for the painting that resulted from the alternative labeling project.

However, the overall tone of the comments and feedback from the visitors was positive and inquisitive. Comments “revealed a hunger for information” beyond what was included in the labels. [9] The majority of the visitors liked the label that interpreted their relationship as a partnership but contextualized it with female relationships in the time. The museum decided to use this label as the new permanent label for the painting.

As a result of this project, the relationship between Addams and Smith was reinterpreted in the museum’s new permanent exhibition in Addams’ bedroom which opened in 2010. The exhibition interprets their relationship using their own words and documents, leaving the “audience [to] come up with their own understanding based on the evidence [the museum provides].” [9] The project also created new programming including a film series “around the sex positive movement and contemporary issues of sexuality” and started a new gender and sexuality tour of the House. [10] The alternative label project at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum is a perfect example of how small historic house museums can start a dialogue around LGBT issues and reinterpret their narratives in innovative, respectable, and ethical ways.

 

[1] Nara Schoenberg, “Outing Jane Addams,” Chicago Tribune, February 6, 2007, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2007-02-06/features/0702060273_1_hull-house-mary-rozet-smith-lesbian/2

[2] Jennifer Brandel, “Should We Use the ‘L Word’ for Jane Addams?,” Wbez.org, September 5, 2013, https://www.wbez.org/shows/curious-city/should-we-use-the-l-word-for-jane-addams/2157704a-3738-4b8f-a879-b5aed91bb8f8

[3] Brandel, “Should We Use the ‘L Word’ for Jane Addams?”

[4] Susan Ferentinos, “Lifting Our Skirts: Sharing the Sexual Past with Visitors,” National Council on Public History, July 1, 2014, http://ncph.org/history-at-work/lifting-our-skirts

[5] Brandel, “Should We Use the ‘L Word’ for Jane Addams?”

[6] Ferentinos, “Lifting Our Skirts: Sharing the Sexual Past with Visitors”

[7] Ferentinos, “Lifting Our Skirts: Sharing the Sexual Past with Visitors”

[8] Brandel, “Should We Use the ‘L Word’ for Jane Addams?”

[9] Brandel, “Should We Use the ‘L Word’ for Jane Addams?”

[10] Brandel, “Should We Use the ‘L Word’ for Jane Addams?”

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