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