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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.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Museum Review: Andrew Low House, Savannah

I've lived near Savannah for twelve years now, and so I'm a bit cynical about the city's charms. True, the historic district, with its fabulous Regency and early Victorian architecture, is remarkably beautiful, and worth a visit on that basis alone. But too much of the historical tourism in the city is pretty dire: The railroad museum, for example, is underfunded and tatty (if you've been to the California State Railroad Museum, you'll be shocked by Georgia's effort.) City tours are overpriced and frequently outrageously ill-informed: I once listened to a cocky young tour guide tell everyone in a matter-of-fact way that slavery didn't come to Savannah until after the Revolution. I wouldn't have minded his many errors quite so much if he hadn't been so boring. And the ghost tours? One of my students was a Savannah tour guide for many years, and assured me that she and a friend made up several of the best ghost stories over a few beers. I believe her.
The worst sin that Savannah has committed in my book, however, is that I and others have endured too much snottiness among the history-powers-that-be in the city. I recently made the mistake of taking a city walking tour offered by the Owens-Thomas House, on the subject of the Wanderer, the last slave ship to arrive (illegally as it happens) in America. It was led by a volunteer, it was free, and it was worth every penny I paid for it. Actually, I ought to have been paid: Disorganized, uninformed, dull, and most importantly, rude, the guide was a good example of why Savannah desperately needs better and professional public history. At the tour's end, my historian friend and I agreed that it had been a waste of time, and a terrible disappointment, especially because there is so little African-American history on show in Savannah. Another historian friend of mine encountered what she described as a very snotty tour guide at the Andrew Low House a few months ago, and so I asked her to accompany me back there today.

The Andrew Low House (1849) was built by a Scotsman who made his fortune as a cotton merchant, and then very sensibly retired on the proceeds of slave-grown cotton to the less malarial climate of England. It was in England that his son met and married Juliette Gordon Low, later the founder of the Girl Scouts, and they lived in the house periodically, although England remained their principal home. Since 1928, the house has been owned by the Colonial Dames of America, first as their HQ, and, since 1952, as a house museum.

Savannah isn't really a destination city for families, and so I usually forgive its house museums for being inattentive to kids. However, the Andrew Low House is frequently visited by one particular group of kids, Girl Scouts, because of its connection to Juliette Gordon Low.

On this particular day, only my friend and I were on the tour. The House is open in the midst of a massive restoration project which involves a few boarded-up exterior areas, but we didn't mind since we got a three dollar discount off the usual $8 tariff. Our tour guide wasn't particularly friendly, but nor was she insufferably snotty. She was fairly well-informed, but seemed a bit bored, and wasn't very encouraging of questions. In other words, she was par for the course in Savannah.

Most of the furniture was true to the period, although almost none of it was original. The tour, although it took us to both floors, wasn't too long, but included no view of the service area, or any mention of the African-Americans who staffed the place in slavery and freedom. Perhaps the stories about them don't exist. What we didn't get, however, was a better sense of the personalities who had inhabited the house: Andrew Low, the merchant, who came to Savannah as a Scottish teenager and fled it to become an English gent, was an intriguing guy.

I wondered to myself whether he left letters or diaries that might have helped us bring the house to life. The guide told us a couple of funny stories about Juliette, but only after the official tour had ended. I didn't see any evidence on the web site or in the shop that the Museum makes any effort to reach out to children, despite the fact that hundreds if not thousands of Girl Scouts are brought through the building every year. A scavenger hunt, a lively background briefing on the house and its inhabitants,or costumed character tours, all would enliven an otherwise stuffy presentation.

My historian friend described how rudely another of the docents had treated her group, including a Girl Scout whose angry mother protested. I hope that at least that experience isn't typical, but I fear that it may mark one end of a very narrow spectrum of unsatisifactory tour experiences at the Andrew Low House.

Particularly because I, admittedly, did not share my tour with Girl Scouts or any other kids, I do welcome feedback and suggestions from Low House staff or any reader who has visited within the past year, particularly Girl Scouts and their chaperones. Also, I do plan a visit to the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace soon.

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