By contributing reporter Christine Schell.
The Natick Historical Society (NHS) makes history this weekend with its much-anticipated museum reopening on Sunday, April 30, from 1-4pm, on the ground-floor of the Bacon Free Library. Featured artisan Ron Michael will demonstrate the arts of caning and basket weaving, and visitors can experiment with quill pen writing.
What’s there to get excited about? Well, plenty! A 2017 renovation resulted in the museum’s collection being housed in two different locations. When the pandemic hit and NHS closed its doors for almost three years, Director Niki Lefebvre was challenged to think “inside” the box—that is, how to reunite the NHS collection back into that jewel box of a room in the historic library. With deliberate consideration of the NHS mission (“Building community by inspiring connections to local history.”), along with the curator’s code that values professional preservation methods, and a historian’s canny sense for telling a rich story, Lefebvre and research manager Gail Coughlin ushered Natick’s history firmly into the 21st century. And they got everything under one roof.
Yesteryear’s display of stuffed exotic birds has flown the coop. Lefebvre notes that NHS’s special niche is, well, Natick history. “If you want to do local history in this space, all the tools and resources are here in one space,” she said. Lefebvre encourages folks to research their houses and families, explore artifacts from Natick’s past, and engage with her and Coughlin, who are both well-versed in the town’s past.
Due to the small space they’re working with, the NHS team is unable to display all the town’s artifacts at once. However, thoughtful integration of multi-media technology has allowed Lefebvre and Coughlin to make parts of the large NHS collection available visually. For example, next to the Natick High School display case is a video monitor that shows vintage high school football games.
Judicious use of QR codes makes some of the large collection accessible online, enhancing museum artifacts with virtual content. Also, the NHS website and its You Tube channel are chock-full of information on the archived collections, online catalog, and more. Lefebvre notes that “you don’t need to stop learning when you leave the museum. If you find something interesting, then when you get home, you can continue the conversation.”
Displayed artifacts of note include the Algonquin Bible translated into Algonquin languages by indigenous linguists and Rev. John Eliot in the late 1600s. (A digitized edition of another Algonquin Bible is available via a link on the NHS website.) Also, four land documents from the 18th century link by QR code to several more land documents, and in total trace the story of the gradual dispossession of indigenous land by recent arrivals.
Coughlin said that a few of her favorite artifacts are part of the Natick High School display case. A 1920s photo of the high school girls’ basketball team after an undefeated season “shows the legacy of athletic women who have accomplished things.” An 1878 copy of Bertha Valentine’s high school music reader sheds light on Natick’s educational interests and priorities from almost 150 years ago.
NHS staff invite the public to visit and explore the museum’s story of Natick. There’s seating for research, and plenty of natural light streams through six massive windows that offer scenic views of the Charles River basin, Eliot Church, and some of South Natick’s other historic buildings.
Natick Historical Society
LOCATION: 58 Eliot St., Natick MA (ground floor of the Bacon Free Library)
GRAND REOPENING: Sunday, April 30, 1pm-4pm
REGULAR VISITING HOURS: Tuesday, 4pm-6:30; Thursday,10am-1pm; 1st and 3rd Sunday of the month, 1pm-4pm
VISIT BY APPOINTMENT: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, 9am-5pm
PARKING: On-street parking on Eliot Street or Mill Lane. Additional parking in the lot behind 207 Union Street.
ACCESSIBILITY: The Museum is wheelchair-accessible through the garden door. There is no accessible restroom and no wheelchair access to the library on the upper level. Accessibility can be limited during the winter months. Please call ahead.