It was from the Hasbrouck House in Newburgh that General George Washington commanded the final 16 months of the American Revolution. And it was from that house that he set out to quell a mutiny that was brewing amongst his officers. He triumphed in both of those instances.
Just last month, the staff and volunteers at Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site (as well as a host of other supporting facilities) achieved a triumph of their own with the reopening of the Georgian Revival museum building and the unveiling of an astounding new exhibit there.
Today, Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site is a 6+ acre park in the middle of the city’s East End Historic District with a view of the Hudson Highlands and Mount Beacon. The Hasbrouck house opened as the first public historic site in the nation in 1850. In addition to interpreting Washington’s time there, the site has amassed an extensive collection of additional artifacts donated by the people of Newburgh. The museum was constructed in 1910 when those collections became too large for the small house, and reopened this December after five years of building restoration and exhibit design.
I was lucky enough to attend the opening of “Unpacked and Rediscovered: Selections from Washington’s Headquarters’ Collection,” and to discover over 13,000 artifacts in the second floor galleries, some of which have been made accessible to the public for the first time, in “open storage.” There are cases devoted to artillery, edged weapons, long arms and pistols, as well as to domestic, personal, and commemorative items, fine and folk art, and “curiosities.” There are also flat files with drawers full of military and commemorative items, documents, knapsacks, and dolls.
Whether you choose to use one of the computer stations located throughout to investigate an item by typing in its four-digit code, or if you prefer to simply wander and stare, the exhibit promises a sense of discovery and something of interest to all. This exhibit also represents a significant step by the museum toward remaining vital within its community; it has placed a portion of the physical history of Newburgh on display.
Rather than presenting just one narrative to visitors, the Open Storage and accompanying catalog allow individuals to follow their own interests and to make their own discoveries about the City’s past. The catalog was developed on the iPad platform in anticipation of providing it online for educators and virtual visitors as well as an app so that smart phone users may download it and have instant access to information as they roam the galleries.
Many local history museums have amassed collections in this same way over the years, and Open Storage exhibits could enable them to display a greater number of these artifacts than would otherwise be possible. Tech savvy catalog solutions such as this can compensate for lack of staff – though no phone will ever be smart enough to replace an enthusiastic and well-informed guide.
Much of my interest in the exhibit is due to the potential for it to serve as a model to be adopted and modified by others. But my initial and enduring excitement is due to the fact that when I walked into those galleries I was reminded of what I felt when visiting our local museum as a child, the excitement of embarking on an adventure and the anticipation of a new discovery. Everyone involved in creating this exhibit should be proud, and everyone reading about it here should go see it as soon as you can.
Photo: Open Storage cases at Washington’s Headquarters.