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Whose Stories Are Told or Left Behind, in the Objects We Preserve

Exhibit at Old State House asks provocative questions

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What stories are locked behind a single door? And whom do they belong to? Those questions form the heart of a wonderful exhibit now on view at the Old State House. Titled Through the Keyhole, the show includes items related to the Hancock Mansion, home to Founding Father John Hancock, and his wife, Dolly, which was located on Beacon Hill and torn down in 1863. But this isn’t your ordinary display of decorative arts. Rather, the curators have taken items from one prominent house and used them as a vehicle to ask some big and thorny questions: how do the objects we preserve shape our sense of the past? Whose story is being told in the objects we choose to preserve? Whose stories are left behind? And how does selective preservation shape our sense of who we are as a nation?

The Hancock Mansion is an ideal vehicle through which to frame those kinds of questions. The decision to tear down the house elicited such public outcry that it led to a major movement across New England to preserve other pre–Revolutionary War buildings. Those saved buildings have played a big role in how we view American history.

When you enter the exhibit, you are greeted by the imposing front door that once graced the Hancock Mansion. The Bostonian Society, which since 1881, has maintained the Old State House, partnered with the preservation carpentry program at the North Bennet Street School to restore the front entrance to John Hancock’s long-demolished mansion. This is the first time in decades it has been publicly displayed. The doorway serves as both a literal and figurative way for visitors to think about the national narrative and to begin asking how what we choose to preserve alters our sense of who we are.

In addition to items from the Hancock Mansion, the exhibit includes specialized tours and performances of a specially commissioned play by Patrick Gabridge, Cato & Dolly, which explores life in the Hancock house from different perspectives. The drama focuses on Dolly Hancock and Cato Hancock, a slave in the household. Performances are Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays at 11 am, 12:30 pm, and 2 pm through September 26.

Be sure to give yourself time to tour the Old State House itself. Built in 1713, it is the oldest public building in Boston. It is filled with unique architectural details, including a floating spiral staircase. And you can view some of the thousands of artifacts from the Bostonian Society’s collection focused on the American Revolution in Boston.

Through the Keyhole is on view at the Old State House, 206 Washington Street, Boston, through December 28. The museum is open daily from 9 am to 6 pm from Memorial Day to Labor Day and 9 am to 5 pm the rest of the year (closed some holidays). Tickets are $10 for adults, $8.50 for seniors (62+) and students, and free for youth ages 6 to 18, Massachusetts teachers, and US military and veterans. Via public transportation, take an MBTA Blue or Orange Line train to State Street or a Green Line trolley to Government Center.  

Carina Imbornone can be reached at carinami@bu.edu.

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