Last weekend, I finally visited the renovated library at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace in Savannah, Georgia. I had not toured the house since the library’s controversial redo in April 2015.
Based on the criticism I’d read, I expected to step into a high-tech Apple Store, with rows of gleaming iPads, computer monitors, and glaring fluorescent lights. The reality was quite different.
I watched a Cadette troop swarm into the room and head straight for the activity table in the middle of the room. Most of them passed right over the iPads—that’s something they see every day. What they really liked was the stereopticons. Everyone had to try out the “vintage virtual reality glasses.”
I spent over an hour in the library with Lisa Junkin Lopez, the executive director of the Birthplace. She arrived in November 2015, shortly after the new library was unveiled and instituted several modifications in response to a range of feedback. We had an excellent discussion about the purpose of various museum features.
Honor the Past, Serve the Future
The interactive table is the focus of the library and provides hands-on activities that allow girls to physically connect with the past. After a series of “do not touch” displays in other rooms, the girls welcome the change. The activities are grouped around the themes of Poems, Songs, Speeches, and Storytelling.
The exhibit has also been designed for maximum accessibility. Girls can feel Braille letters, for example. Girls are encouraged to compose poetry about their Girl Scout experiences, and they can leave their own mark on history by adding their favorite book to the memory journal. At one point, they could use a beautiful blue vintage typewriter to record their thoughts, but it was so popular that the machine would jam and congest the room. As the last stop on the tour, the library also offers a transition between past and present.
The library is now stocked with books by and about women, which builds on the Gordon family’s love of reading and learning. Troops are encouraged to bring contributions for the library, and returning girls often search the shelves for “their” books. Surplus books will be donated to Loop It Up, a local literacy charity.
There are also traditional Girl Scout handbooks and fictional stories on view, but these are for display only. It might be nice to have scanned excerpts of the older books available to browse on the iPads.
For All Girls
While the Birthplace is one of the holiest shrines of Girl Scouting, it also is one of the best-known house museums among the many restored mansions in historic Savannah. It is also the only house museum that has an elevator, making the upper floors accessible to visitors with physical disabilities.
Lisa explained that the Birthplace has an opportunity to expand on Juliette Gordon Low’s principle of inclusion. It can serve as a model and resource for other historic house museums seeking to improve the accessibility of their facilities without compromising their historical integrity. That seems like an outreach effort worth pursuing.
The Girls’ House
Overall, I did not find the new library as horrific as often portrayed. I’d feared isolated girls with earbuds roaming about, following a pre-recorded tour.
Instead, I was delighted to watch girls eagerly experience both the old and the new technology. We need to use the tools and technology available to help modern girls connect with the past. I’m sure I’m not the only Girl Scout historian who has referred to semaphore as “vintage texting.” That translates into something the girls understand, something more appealing than waving an old rag on a stick.
I also don’t think the redesign of the library has damaged the historical integrity of the building. The rooms have not been structurally modified, just the contents changed. Any house museum will have to make compromises to meet modern building codes. I’m fairly sure the gift shop and public restrooms were not part of the original layout either, but I don’t hear complaints about those.
I find that when girls connect with Girl Scout history, when they discover their place in this venerable movement, they come away with a deeper appreciation of Girl Scouting. That’s what I saw happening in the Birthplace library, and I have no problem using the occasional iPad to help that process along.
©2017 Ann Robertson
17 thoughts on “Back to the Birthplace”
I understand what you are saying, but the point for me personally is that the Gordon family is deeply hurt by this and we are brushing off their years of goodwill without needing to. And it will only get worse if they change the garden. I also think the designation “holiest shrine” is ridiculous under the circumstances. This is the Gordon’s house, NOT where Juliette did her GS work. She just happened to be born there. She did her GS work at the Low House anyway, something the Birthplace staff always has glossed over when I’ve been there.
Thanks for your support, Jayne!
Hi Ann. As a family member of Juliette Gordon Low, I have no problem with the exhibit itself. I do strongly feel that it does not belong in the library of the house–there are other spaces available. There were decisions made–like hanging original Gordon family books, some of which belonged to Juliette–in an unprotected, artsy display above the fireplace–that we find both incompatible to a historic house museum and potentially damaging to the historic objects themselves. I’m glad to hear that girls are enjoying the exhibit, but I still think the modernization of the house is shortsighted. My family is glad that GSUSA has invited us to participate in a task force to review GSUSA’s cultural resources, including the Birthplace. All the best to you.
Allow me to concur with my cousin Margaret. I have said for nearly two years that I have no problem with today’s technology being used at the Birthplace to benefit the Scouts. However, it needs to be available to the girls either in the basement (which lost its historic charm decades ago) or in an outbuilding (same loss of charm).
I still weep over the loss of the once-lovely library. I’d like very much to see it restored and to see Mabel’s bedroom upstairs restored and reopened. The sight of magnificent old books haphazardly piled above the fireplace wrenches my heart. The writings on the walls, the track lights surrounding the lovely old chandelier….it is SO not Daisy!
Allow the Scouts to tour the House and see its historic beauty as Daisy lived it, as my father lived it, as I, then my children, loved it. End their tours with the technology in its appropriate place: the basement or an outbuilding. Thanks.
Dear Ann, your letter is well thought out. What or who lured you to visit and write such a detailed and picturesque blog after all these years? Did you not enjoy the birthplace before this latest redo? Did you ever consider that this technology and innovation could live well ALONGSIDE the first historic house museum of Savannah and therefore Girl Scouts could have it all; history and fun interactive technology too? How long did you spend at the birthplace outside of the hour with Cindi who was the mastermind of this project? Did you take a break from that nouveau methodology to see ALL of the alternative areas at the birthplace where this interaction could take place such as the two carriage houses? Did you ask why Mabel’s bedroom is closed upstairs and has also been dismantled and is now being used for mishap storage or why the foyer and dining room and other main living rooms have had nearly all of the historic contents removed and why basically the entire house has been emptied of the majority of its contents? Your detail and effort defend the current staff and not the history and legacy of the founder of your movement nor the children who need their history and movement to be held in tact.
Our family is working together and alongside with GSUSA to find a way to support and encourage an uncompromised understanding and appreciation of history in modern times and we strongly believe that the need for an engaging interaction Is equally if not more valuable to the girls of today only if paired respectfully with the past… right next door in the carriage house. Please reconsider your shining down upon the current display by remembering all those at Girl Scouts who came before you and struggled donated and gave of their time and hearts and energy to create what was dismantled in a fortnight, then think about all the other spaces you mentioned and what the birthplace is to our Girl Scouts and how a reinvisioning could be easily put elsewhere and thus real actual history not destroyed in the process. The library can and should be restored to its beautiful place in time, because girls such as mine could feel what Juliette felt in that living room and dining room and all of the main house and they could live her story in their own imaginations, and then they could add their personal touch thru poetry or song or dance and find the technology of today and the future technology exhibits in one of the carriage houses or even the gift store as you mentioned. Do you keep family photos and letters and pieces or relics of your own history? This is what the birthplace has done for decades fornthe Girl Scouts and the main reason the birthplace has become significant. Why would you, a long time Girl Scout, be an advocate of erasing or “reimagining” your own history? Juliette was your founder, not Gloria Steinem or Oprah Winfrey. We will eventually want to go see Oprah’s house and how she lived. I wouldn’t go to Oprah’s house to see a book that Juliette wrote! They too have done amazing things but this is not their home. If Girl Scouts are struggling to stay relevant to its Girls, then they need to embrace and honor their past and its founder as those who’ve come before them who were the fabric that made Girl Scouts last 100 years until now. I fear that the current leaderships methodology in hiring people who openly claim that their teachings come from the actual “Anarchists Guide to History”, who are given authority to make such glaring errors and furthermore convince such long time devotees as yourself to not see the smoke and mirrors put before you. I encourage you to reconsider and take a stand to help us preserve and persevere together to find a solution to this dismantling and crisis at the core of girl scouting. Historians have been let go and in an effort to make Girl Scouts more colorful and all encompassing its own rich history is being whitewashed and hollowed out. God Bless Juliette as she rolls around in her grave hoping someone big up at GSUSA will take a stand and stop this modernization at the expense of its own core.
Nina, thank you for your extensive comments. This was only my second visit to the Birthplace, so I do not have an extensive memory about the old library. Normally I only get to Savannah twice a year, dropping off and picking up my daughter from SCAD. I have been anxious to see the library in person because I have heard so much comment about it, but with the Birthplace closed on Sundays I had not been able to arrange it. I made a last-minute roundtrip from Washington to Savannah last Saturday–yes one day–to see my daughter’s latest play. With so little time in town, I asked Lisa if I could come to see the library. She agreed and we struck up a nice conversation. Cindi was not there. I would welcome the opportunity to see more of the house when I return to Savannah later this month, but there literally were not enough hours in my day on this particular visit.
In my earlier comment I did not state that I work at a Living History site and deal regularly with donated items, scout groups and the restoration and preservation of historical objects. Many things need special care to be enjoyed by generations and I think the Birthplace need to know more about that than they do. Since that certainly colors my perception, I wanted to acknowledge that here.
As a great-niece of Daisy’s, I doubt she’d be amused by the change in her family’s library. I do feel, however, that were she still with us, she would be the first to lead the way into the new world of technology so critical to today’s Scouts and the rest of us. She would applaud the use of iPads and Scrabble tiles, but probably would move the exhibit to another venue like the old carriage house, so as not to interfere with the ambiance of the original library. But that’s just how I THINK she’d feel, especially after listening to my father tell stories about his childhood with her. What an incredible lady!
Thank you Ann for posting photos and insights on your visit with the Birthplace library renovation. As a lifetime member, historian by training and a former museum professional now working in a history and genealogy library, I had great concerns over the renovations of the Birthplace library. I like so many of the members of our movement have only visited the Birthplace once. Just a few years ago my adult daughter and I made the pilgrimage.
While I appreciate the Gordon family’s concerns and comments, and still hold my own concerns for the appropriate treatment/archive/display of historic materials house wide, I also understand the need for a museum to connect with and build its audience.
This glimpse into one aspect of the Library renovation and the interaction with girls was welcome concrete information.
Ms. Johnson….I appreciate your input. But again…..The Gordon family is NOT averse to the use of technology at the Birthplace. We simply ask that it be moved to a more appropriate and equally accessible location. That’s it. That’s all we want. That’s it.
Hi Ann. I hope you know (and your readers should know) that this is not just a family concern. There are many others who have expressed concern over changes at GSUSA. I am sorry not to be able to meet you in Savannah next week but you will enjoy meeting my cousins Leigh Ashman and Kinzie Gordon. It sounds like it will be a very interesting group involved in this review process. All the best.
Margaret, thank you for your comments. Perhaps we’ll have the chance to get acquainted at the next meeting.
As a senior officer at GSUSA, I welcome the thoughtful comments posted here. As we hold the convening of the Cultural Resources Taskforce next week in Savannah, we join a journey that Juliette started over a century ago. We enter with a wide tent of ideas, a rich cadre of thought leaders and a spirit of engagement. We will be sure to reject cynicism or its cousins – unhealthy skepticism and negativity. Every voice will be heard, and no space will be given for malignment of perspectives as we discover, ideate and gather data for decisions that GSUSA will ultimately make. And, oh yes, spirited debate is welcomed. We look forward….
Great to have the chance to meet you in person, Ann. Glad you could join us.