By the MHS Welcome Team
The MHS is the first historical society in America. Our current building (1154 Boylston Street) was dedicated in 1899 and was built to be a temple to history. Designed by renowned Boston architect Edmund March Wheelwright, the building has grand rooms, some with dark wood paneling and others with monumental portraits hanging above white marble mosaic floors. It is the epitome of what you might imagine for the spaces of Boston’s 19th-century Brahmin elite.
This palace of history is available to anyone who wants to do research in our library, attend a program, or visit an exhibition. While the MHS is free and open to the public, we are now in the process of thinking about how accessible we really are. There is certainly beauty in Wheelwright’s design and the monumental portraits on display are of historically important people. However, from the experiences and reactions of visitors, we know that our building may not be welcoming to all. After a quick review last year, we found that while there were images of people of color in our temporary exhibitions, there were no such images in other rooms that are open to the public. Since realizing that, we have made some adjustments to our permanent displays.
Now is the time to take a step back, look critically at how the MHS presents itself, and ask ourselves if our institution is truly welcome to anyone who has an interest in history. Following a series of internal discussions, we decided to form a taskforce—internally referred to as the Welcome Committee—to explore these questions.
This group is working to evaluate our spaces and art as they are now and find ways to broaden the depth and diversity of our collections. We are aware that we need different perspectives and critical distance from the institution to have a robust evaluation. Therefore, as part of this effort, we plan to invite people from other museums, professions, and backgrounds to walk through our spaces and let us know what they see. Listening to their comments and working together, we hope to develop a plan that will respect Wheelwright’s design while also making the space feel comfortable and welcoming to the diverse, complex, and beautiful population that represents the nation today. If you have thoughts or suggestions on this process, we welcome them. Please feel free to reach out to Gavin Kleespies or Carol Knauff with your messages.