Historical Interpretation at the Rosson House

   I volunteer as a docent at the Rosson House, leading tours through this lovely mansion built in 1895. Periodically, we attend education classes to bring us up to date on the research. Today’s class was very interesting, with ramifications–and a fight broke out.

There’s a big question–after building this lovely, expensive mansion, why did the Rossons sell it just two years later and move to California (after renting it out for the two winters they did live there)? We don’t know why. The standard line we’ve been told is that the Rossons left to “look into educational opportunities for their children.”  That’s bogus. Marilyn Sklar, Director of Education, has done meticulous research, including slides of the documents from the newspaper of the time. It turns out that Phoenix actually had a very good educational system for the time. The Rossons overspent in building their house, they were behind in back taxes, and Dr. Rosson was being sued for embezzlement of school funds. So, while we can’t say for sure why the Rossons left, the questions of debt and integrity can certainly be raised. (And don’t they make more sense?)

At the end of the presentation, a group of three older women at the back of the room got irate and said, “We should not say these things because they impugn the Rossons, and anyway, people don’t care. They just come to see the house.”

No, no. I didn’t get into the fray, but I was thinking–my philosophy of historical interpretation has always been that visitors don’t come to a mansion to see an old-fashioned apple corer. They come to catch a glimpse of history–to hear the story of the people who used the artifacts and how they lived in the house–and to imagine themselves living there in that time. What was it really like back then? How would I have fit in? Would I have enjoyed living there? That was the way I did historical intepretation at Colonial Williamsburg, and that’s how I do it at the Rosson House.

Tom Walsh, our Director, had to intervene with the comment that the people from the past lived in a lovely house, but that did not make them saints.

Personally, I find the facts and questions about life at the Rosson House far more interesting than seeing an apple corer. Don’t you?

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