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I'm author of The Snipesville Chronicles. I'm also a published academic historian, but don't hold that against me.Oh, and I'm a Brit. I just happen to live in Georgia.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Museum Review: Atlanta History Center, June 12, 2008

I am deeply ashamed that, while I have lived in Georgia for twelve years and visit Atlanta several times a year, I have only this past week actually darkened the doorstep of the Atlanta History Center, tucked away in a residential area of the chi-chi Buckhead district. I do promise I won't wait a decade for the next visit.
Alec, my son/kid assistant and I, arrived early on Thursday afternoon: Forewarned that the only affordable food on the premises was Chick-fil-A (a fast food offering that, frankly, grosses me out) we ate beforehand.
We had what I thought were modest goals: To tour the main exhibits about Atlanta history, and the Tullie Smith Farm, an 1840s farmhouse that is presented as a pointed reminder that few Antebellum Georgian plantation houses bore much resemblance to Scarlett O'Hara's Tara. In a moment of weakness, I accepted the offer at the front desk of a guided tour of the Swan House, the other historic house at the Center, about which I knew diddly-squat.
Turned out, I was overly optimistic, given an eight-year-old in tow. But it's a mark of how impressed I was that I also whisked him into the Civil War gallery and a temporary exhibit on school desegregation ofr a quick look, even though he was tired and I normally get very sanctimonious about adults who force-feed kids history.
The Swan House, our first stop, was probably a mistake on my part. Turns out, there's an audio tour three days a week, and we arrived on one of these days. Good audio tours for families can be a godsend, but this one was "one size fits all," and spent too much time cooing deferentially about the antiques, the architecture, and the original owners, who were "prominent"in Atlanta (read "rich".)
That said, there were interesting points to be made about the lengths to which the wealthy (and all of us who aspire to gentility) go to turn homes into theatres to impress our friends.
The first owners, who commissioned the building in the 1920s, were avid Anglophiles, who tried desperately to create an 18th century English country house. Alas, they were done in, not so much by the ugliness of modern technology (which the architect cunningly hid, such as in a small room for the phone, or carefully camouflaged heating ducts), but by the grandchildren.
The audio tour included snippets of interviews with those grandchildren, who recalled being banned from various rooms (presumably lest they conflict with the decor), running toy trains in the grand hall, and eavesdropping on phone conversations by pressing their ears to the heating grilles... Encouraging Alec to think about how hard it is to have a perfect living space when kids are around helped him to survive what was otherwise a less than suitable tour.
The Tullie Smith Farm was much more kid-oriented, and led by a real, live docent, the kind who gives docents a good name. She constantly engaged Alec and Bryce, the other eight-year-old on the tour, asking them questions and tolerating their off-the-wall comments with great humor. The house and its outbuildings were appealing spaces for small boys, who dashed about exploring after the tour. When Alec recounted his visit to his father, it was the farm that figured largest in his recollection.
Throughout our visit, in the exhibition halls and gift shop as well as the historic houses, the staff members and volunteers of the Atlanta History Center were unfailingly friendly, and did their best to make Alec as well as me, in my T-shirt and jeans tourist mode, feel welcome. One of my beefs with museums (anywhere) and the city of Atlanta's cultural attractions is that staff too often are grumpy, snotty, or even border on the hostile (High Museum, anyone?) To find a museum in Atlanta, of all places, with a srong ethos of hospitality was truly a pleasant surprise.
While the AHC's displays are not particularly oriented toward kids, the Tullie Smith Farm, the attractive exhibits, the full program of family-oriented events, the gorgeous gardens, and the friendly staff make it a good bet for families with older kids, especially if you're willing to take the lead in helping interpret the exhibits for your children. Alec got tired and grumpy at the end, but we were there for three hours, and his exhaustive account of the day, given later to his father, showed that he took in a great deal: He also expressed enthusiasm for returning.
Just be sure to bring a lunch or eat first (we recommend Johnny Rocket's, about a quarter-mile away at the intersection of Peachtree Road and Paces Ferry Road, or the new branch of Flying Biscuit Cafe, at the intersection of Pace's Ferry and I-85.) Otherwise, be prepared to splurge at the posh Swan Coach House restaurant, or deal with the horror of the Coca-Cola Cafe, serving a limited menu of elderly Chick-fil-A products: The day we were there, they were selling pre-cooked sandwiches from a cooler. Ugh.
For details of hours, exhibits, etc, visit the AHC site at

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