History lessons

February 5, 2018

I know that’s probably



a bad choice for a headline. As soon as most people see the word “history,” they’re ready to turn the page. I wish I could say that I was different but, in most of my early school years, I was a terrible student of history.


In those days, American History was a required course, as well it should be. It skimmed over everything from “the shot heard round the world,” to the World Wars. I date myself, but history in those years did not yet include Vietnam: That was part of our present.


Everyone passed American History. Well, almost everyone…I failed it my first year and squeaked by my second time around. I just couldn’t get interested in dates and who did what that made what else happen.


Remembering my distaste for history makes it all the more ironic that I should find  myself, in the final chapter of my career, working for an organization that’s all about history.


Here at the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities (MAC) in Cape May, our foundation is laid on the cornerstones of history. The 1879 Emlen Physick Estate, brought back from its derelict state of the mid-1900s to a gracious, Victorian house museum today, was MAC’s first preservation effort. Next came the Cape May Lighthouse. Built in 1859, it, too, languished in disrepair until MAC undertook its revival and today it is a major attraction for locals and visitors, as well as a working beacon for those at sea. The latest effort, just completed in the last decade, was the World War II Lookout Tower on Sunset Boulevard. That structure was probably the least notable in its forgotten state, a big lump of concrete in the scrub brush with no one to tell its story. At least, not until we came along.    


So, why bother, those indifferent to history might ask. Because, as I have learned many years after those failing American history tests, history is important. It’s about me, and it’s about you. It’s also about your children and their children to come.


At the Physick house museum, we learn about the Victorians: how they lived, what they invented, and what they contributed to our life today. It may represent a lifestyle completely foreign to what we know, but it shaped ours nonetheless. If you take nothing else away from a tour of the estate, you will certainly gain a new appreciation for the easy lifestyle we have, compared to theirs.


I like to think that I would have been a better student if I could have stepped away from the history book and into the real thing, and that’s the opportunity we offer you and your family. It’s not just reading about it or listening to someone talk about it. You can step into it and become a part of it. What an experience!


There’s not much going on this time of the year, and – even without big storms – we’re all getting a bit of cabin fever. So, cure it with a step back in history. The Physick House museum is open Saturdays for a tour. You can also come for some Friday tours in March that are free with a contribution to the Cape May Food Closet. Best thing to do is check our website at www.capemaymac.org for the dates and times.


I’ll bet, when you tell friends or family how you spent an enjoyable winter afternoon, you won’t even mention that “H” word.


-- Jean Barraclough is manager of publications & website  at MAC