2014-10-09 / Front Page

Blowing the Dust Off Newport's History

By Pat Blakeley

Scholar Christina Hodge examines the life of 18th-century widow and shopkeeper Elizabeth Pratt and the rise of the middle class in the colonies on Oct. 16. Scholar Christina Hodge examines the life of 18th-century widow and shopkeeper Elizabeth Pratt and the rise of the middle class in the colonies on Oct. 16. The Newport Historical Society held its 160th annual meeting at Colony House recently, and no, the news wasn’t as dry as the dust on some of its treasures. In fact, both the news and the programming at the NHS is exciting – and the momentum generated by its innovative projects is being felt all over town – and beyond.

One only has to observe the unprecedented popularity of historical programs on television, whether a Ken Burns series or drama such as “Downton Abbey,” to see that the public is hungry for more. The uptick in interest in the genre on PBS has spawned both an explosion of period pieces on cable TV and a closer look at how history is being presented across the country.

Board President Tom Goddard welcomed the record crowd, noting that heritage tourism is serving a growing and increasingly diverse population, which is “driving a need for a different and more sophisticated experience.”

The Society has reinvented itself in recent years and the change is extraordinary – and felt by visitors who come from across the country to see just what the big deal is. And it is a big deal. The NHS has gone from being a repository of historical artifacts and properties, donated and accepted just because they might be of significance some day, to serving as keepers of Newport’s and America’s past.

As Executive Director Ruth Taylor observed, “We do not really own our assets, but rather hold them in trust for the people of Rhode Island.” That philosophy is paying off; with marked increases in visitation, tours, and lecture attendance, coupled with careful asset management, the Society is in the black.

The roots of our nation’s commitment to religious freedom are easily traced to colonial Newport, where people of all faiths were tolerated – if not exactly welcomed with open arms. An unintended consequence of that principle resulted in a rapid, unparalleled economic expansion as expert craftsmen from across the globe flocked to the island, bringing with them diverse skills and cultures, many remnants of which linger throughout the city to this day – and serve as a magnet for history enthusiasts.

The Society, Taylor says, is continually exploring the roles of tourism and heritage with an eye towards balancing quality of life and economic development.

The “revolutionary” approach at the NHS was evident at the meeting. Instead of long reports from the board or even a prominent guest speaker, several younger staff members detailed changes in both content presentation and technology and described public reaction.

This summer more than 20 costumed interpreters re-created the Stamp Act Riots of 1765 in and around Washington Square, to the delight of hundreds of passersby who got a chance to glimpse into the lives of actual characters who lived in Newport during those turbulent times. In addition to being picked up by newswires, the vignettes of the past are now posted on YouTube, garnering hits from across the country. Plans are in the making to repeat the fête next year, to mark the rebellion’s 250th anniversary.

Ingrid Peters, associate director, pointed out that the NHS has been providing tours for 80 years but is furthering its engagement with the public in response to visitor input. New specialty tours examine particular subjects in detail and, in collaboration with the Newport Restoration Foundation, they offer a Tour of the Month with guest guides focusing on in-depth topics and concentrated time periods. The next is “William Ellery Channing’s Newport” on Saturday, Oct. 18.

The number and variety of lectures at the Colony House have increased dramatically over the year, drawing unexpected crowds. Ranging in subjects from “The Poison Plot,” a look at marital scandal in the 1700s, to “Kidnapping the Enemy,” on the abduction of General Prescott, to “Undressing History,” a peek at the intricate details of 18th century women’s clothing, the talks feature nationally-recognized scholars as well as local experts and authors.

October’s lineup continues with “Gentility and Consumerism in 18th Century Newport: A Widow's Story" on Oct. 16; and “At the Point of a Cutlass” on Oct. 30.

What’s new at the Newport Historical Society? The list goes on – from tours, to plans for new Revolutionary War exhibits, to the renovation and expansion of the headquarters to better serve the collection and the public.

As Goddard noted, “The winds of change are upon us.”

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