Behind Closed Doors at the William Paca House
A great public museum is a complicated place. The Nooks and Crannies Tour at the Historic Annapolis William Paca House reminds us that the Paca House is both a great public museum and a complicated place. This tour quite literally looks behind closed doors and into the cupboards of the grand historic house.
During the Nooks and Crannies Tour, we learned that the Paca House has a collection of more than 3,000 objects, many of which reside in collections storage rooms out of public view. Each of these artifacts can be a portal to the past, telling a story and opening the door to discussion and public engagement.
We also learned that a museum collection is only as good as its interpretation by a good curator. The curator’s job is to manage and develop the museum’s artifacts, all the while attending closely to history, art, culture, technology, physical security, public engagement, education, and of course, money.
The Paca House Curator of Collections is Pandora Hess, and the Public Programs Coordinator is Aliya Reich. Together they led our tour group on a two-hour narrated expedition.
These two professionals created the Nooks and Crannies Tour based on their obvious passion for the Paca House and their in-depth knowledge of its underpinnings. Their narration was peppered with humor, anecdotes, and insider tales – tales more about the realities of museum curation than about colonial history. Curating any museum balances historical accuracy, best-practice conservation, modern day comfort, and funding needs.
A House with Tales to Tell
We started at the garden’s summerhouse and springhouse at the foot of the terraced garden and then moved into the Paca House to discuss the structure’s four levels. We gained insight into the site’s more than 250 years of history, seeing corners usually off limits to the public. We saw the purportedly haunted back stairs, the passageway turned closet for a 1970s telephone system, and the original wine cellar excavation that is now an electrical room.
The house was constructed in 1763-65 by William Paca, a patriot leader, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Maryland’s third Governor. The five-part brick Georgian mansion and pleasure garden were built using the inherited wealth of Paca’s wife, Mary Chew.
The house lived on as a residence and rental property until it was converted into the grand Carvel Hall hotel around 1901. The huge hotel addition was attached to the back of the colonial house and covered much of the old garden. Historic Annapolis and the State of Maryland bought the property in 1965.
A favorite stop on the tour described the search for a secret drawer in the colonial drop-front secretary desk in the Paca House study. After telling us about the room’s temporary role as the former Carvel Hall reception and bell-hop area, Paca House Curator Pandora Hess regaled us with an amusing tale of her extended search for the hidden drawer in the desk. In the end, she found the drawer, but we’re going to keep its clever location a secret for now.
The Business of Museums
This tour is a glimpse into the business of museums. We learned about the previous funding arrangement between the Maryland State government and Historic Annapolis that required the occasional use of the Paca House to house foreign dignitaries visiting Maryland. One high profile 1984 visit involved the multi-night use of Paca’s historic bedroom by the visiting Duke and Duchess of Kent.
Midway through the tour, we sat at a conference table to examine selected objects that are not usually on public display. We were provided with gloves for handling the items, which illustrated the Carvel Hall hotel period. We examined matchbooks, printed napkins, a tour guidebook, a trash bin, and a ceramic plate from this period. Did you know that best practices in museum curation require the handling of ceramics and glassware with clean bare hands and a firm grip, rather than slippery gloved hands?
We heard the story of how the Paca House and Garden were restored during the 1960s and 1970s to their 18th-century appearance. Teams of archaeologists, architectural historians, paint and wood analysts, x-ray photographers, and other experts studied components of the structure and site. In the dining room alone, $60,000 was expended in studying the room’s condition and restoring it to its former grandeur. The nails in the floor boards, the paint and wallpaper layers, and the fabric of the draperies were scrutinized.
The tour’s many tidbits of insider information add up to a rare opportunity that expands on the typical guided tour. The Nooks and Crannies Tour is offered on Wednesday, November 8 and December 13, from 6pm to 8pm. The cost is $25 ($20 for Historic Annapolis members and volunteers). Reservations are required. For details, visit http://www.annapolis.org.
All photos courtesy of Ann Powell