Guest Blog: Writing the Book on Campbell House

This week we’re handing the reins over to guest blogger Dylan McCartney, a Graduate Research Assistant working with us from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Take it away, Dylan!

When I arrived at the Campbell House in August, I knew very little about Robert Campbell, Virginia Campbell, or St. Louis. I didn’t even call St. Louis home. As a graduate student in the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ Museum Studies program, the Campbell House is where I will complete a two-year assistantship. And so, since I knew nothing about the Campbells, I was naturally asked to write up the definitive document about them.

Graduate Research Assistant Dylan from the University of Missouri-St. Louis

Graduate Research Assistant Dylan from the University of Missouri-St. Louis

Specifically, it is a new, updated Docent Guidebook. If a docent leads visitors through the house on tours and relates the story of the family and house, then the Docent Guidebook does the same for docents. It is not a script, because the thing that makes a tour of the Campbell House great is that every docent builds their own tour. Instead, the guidebook provides a massive amount of information, too much to possibly fit on a single tour. The thing our docents do best is to internalize the information, relate the most important points, the things they find interesting, and the things the guest finds interesting.

To write the Docent Guidebook, I have spent the better part of five or so months diving deep into the Campbell House archives. I’ve read letters by the Campbells, poured through their receipt books, hunted down newspapers, and worked with the Campbell House Museum’s researcher, Tom Gronski. I researched the objects, the rooms, and even the history of the Museum itself. And, of course, I chatted with the docents, to see what they wanted out of a new guidebook.

touring visitors

Campbell House Docent Tom Keay leads a tour in the Master Bedroom

A new guidebook was needed because a lot of things had changed since the old one. For instance, when the old one was written, the collections hadn’t even been returned to the house after our major restoration was finished! We’re also learning more and more about the Campbells every day. Before this past summer, we didn’t know about a special cabinet in the Butler’s Pantry hallway. We only recently discovered the names of the Campbell House’s architects. And, until a couple of years ago, we weren’t even sure if the Campbells were slaveowners.

The new edition of the Campbell House Museum Docent Guidebook: Dylan's pride and joy and the product of many many hours of hard work and research.

The new edition of the Campbell House Museum Docent Guidebook: the product of many hours of research and hard work by Dylan!

A new Docent Guidebook also allowed us to correct any myths that have arisen over the years. As with anything dependent upon oral discourse, a comment made twenty years ago by one person can slowly morph into accepted fact. For instance, many visitors have been informed that Virginia Campbell spent $40,000 on the furniture in 1855. In truth, it’s impossible to tell from our archives the exact amount spent, although it is in the tens of thousands. It is also clear that Robert was buying furniture right there with her. The irony of these myths is that it obscures a wonderful story: that Robert and Virginia purchased their furniture half a continent away and shipped it all via train and boat to St. Louis. Robert was even purchasing carpeting and draperies from St. Louis by sending his brother Hugh the dimensions of the rooms!

The result of all this work is 120 pages of thoroughly sourced information about the Campbells, St. Louis, the house, and nearly anything else that we could think of. This document will serve as the go-to source for new docents, interns, researchers, and anyone else looking for a broad yet detailed summary of the Campbell’s story. So if you thought our docents were already great, come take another tour to see how we’ve managed to get even better!

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2 thoughts on “Guest Blog: Writing the Book on Campbell House

  1. distlhistory says:

    Fantastic! Thanks for your hard work, Dylan. Can’t wait to see it.

  2. Tom says:

    120 pages! Sounds like quite the comprehensive document. I hope it’s made available on line for those of us interested in St. Louis history.

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