Open House: If These Walls Could Talk
An exhibit at the Minnesota History Center
A playfully interactive exhibit, “Open House: If These Walls Could Talk,” brings to life the adage “if these walls could talk” by using a single, existing house—in the “Railroad Island” neighborhood on St. Paul’s East Side—as a window into the daily lives of people of the past.
Stories of families, from the first German immigrants through the Italians, African-Americans, and Hmong who succeeded them, are told through rooms representing different eras of the house. Visitors become detectives, piecing together lives of the families who made this house their home.
Stories are brought to life through vivid use of voices, photographs and multimedia imagery. Familiar settings produce surprises at every turn. Taking a seat at the table triggers Grace Tinucci’s memories of meeting her future in-laws at a big family dinner. Touching a silver dollar launches home movies and a family’s memories of saving coins for vacations across Minnesota.
In the parlor, visitors can run a magic lantern show, play with Victorian toys, and see why Martha’s piano lesson went awry. In the kitchen, visitors learn about 75 chickens, the war, and Michelina’s wedding day. In the living room, the view out the window dissolves into scenes of Laos and Thai refugee camps, visions from the journey Pang Toua’s family took to America.
Uniforms hanging on hooks represent lives of the East Side workers—brewery and railroad workers, housewives and hatmakers—who made their home here.
Open House depended on collaboration with East Side residents. Exhibit Developer Benjamin Filene and his colleagues launched a series of community-based projects that built connections between the History Center and the neighborhood.
“This exhibit came to life because people were so generous in sharing their stories,” Filene said. “Sometimes people would tell us they had nothing important to say, but then the memories would start flowing and we would hear such wonderful, revealing anecdotes. It demonstrates how everyone has a story to tell. That’s what history is all about.” Examples of the neighborhood collaborations include: