“Open House: If These Walls Could Talk,” an interactive exhibit opening on Jan. 14, 2006 at the Minnesota History Center, will bring 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 lived at 470 Hopkins Street.
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 dining room table triggers Grace Tinucci’s recorded memories of meeting her future in-laws at a big family dinner. Touching a money jar 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 hat makers-who made their home here.
COMMUNITY OPENS UP FOR “OPEN HOUSE”
“Open House” depended on extensive collaboration with East Side residents. Senior exhibit developer Benjamin Filene launched a series of community-based projects that built connections between the Minnesota Historical Society and the neighborhood.
“This exhibit came to life because people were so generous in sharing their stories,” Filene said. “Sometimes people would think 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:
- ViewPoints: Neighborhood youth, working with a professional photographer, documented their neighborhood through photographs.
- Voices from Railroad Island: A series of oral interviews with current and former residents documented the people, places and stories of the neighborhood.
- History Happened Here: Students at HOPE Community Academy (a Hmong charter school), uncovered the history of their neighborhood and their families through a five-week curriculum.