Gibson House Museum - Historic, Authentic, Illuminating

The historic Gibson House Museum is situated at 137 Beacon Street in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston, MA. The average visitor may find it a bit difficult to spot amongst the many rows of other equally beautiful Victorian brownstones lining the streets as this area of Boston is considered one of the best examples of well-preserved 19th century architecture. However, with all of this in mind, the Gibson House is most certainly worth the visit; not only for the fantastic treasures held within its walls but for the way it creates an “authentic” experience of how a multigenerational household would have ran during the Victorian Era. In addition to Gibson House being a fantastic stand-alone museum, it has most recently been showcased in the feature film, “Little Women”, adapted from Louisa May Alcott’s famous novel.

Dining Room

The story of this iconic house begins with Catherine Hammond Gibson moving herself and her family into the up-and-coming trendy residential in 1860 after she was left widowed and alone in 1858 with her two small children. Throughout its existence, Gibson House was home to over seven different Gibson family members comprised of three generations as well as their domestic workers until 1954. By all accounts, the Gibson family was considered Boston elite and the house, their furnishings as well as personal paraphernalia truly live up to that standard. The Gibson House museum is unique in that many, if not all, objects are original to the Gibson family dating from the 19th century. While three generations may have resided in the establishment, each took great care to maintain the house’s Victorian elegance and way of life. Gibson house was a much-loved home and is presented as such to all those who enter its doors.

First floor staircase

While visiting Gibson House, one can be found standing on the original carpet, touching the original wallpaper, viewing the private quarters as they were lastly used. In this regard, Gibson House works as nothing short of a time capsule for the unsuspecting visitor. Various narratives are presented throughout each tour, from the strong feminist widow moving her family into a newly renovated home by herself to the smallest details of those living from the backstairs serving the Gibson family. Every aspect of the house is open for discussion including the general questions relating to Victorian culture, questions regarding the material culture present (the house is eclectic in nature as was the Victorian way), as well as any question a visitor may have about a Gibson family member. Nothing is off limits.

Most notably, many of the questions relate to Charles Hammond Gibson Jr., the final Gibson family member to reside in the home, identifying as a gay man who never married and produced no children thus, making Gibson House his legacy. Charles Jr., after an inspiring visit with his cousin Henry Francis du Pont (who would later establish the Winterthur Museum) returned to 137 Beacon Street with the intent of preserving his family home and creating an establishment of Victorian “authenticity”.

Red Room fireplace
PHOTOGRAPH BY Gibson House Museum

This type of “authenticity” does begin to spark a debate. Is it better to provide personal objects and furnishings of the family with the knowledge that eventual damage is imminent? Would it be better to provide an “authentic” experience with reproductions or better maintained objects of the time even if they did not personally belong to the “head family” or their domestic help? What is the meaning of “authenticity” and the “authentic narrative” when it comes to house museums; should one preserve, restore, conserve? The debate is endless, but Gibson House provides an illuminating perspective/approach as to what it means for a house museum to be “authentic”. It most certainly, does not disappoint.

The Need to Know:

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Emily Loy

Born in Midwest America, Emily developed a love for museums and historical sites at an early age thanks to her grandmother making “every vacation educational”. After receiving her MLitt in Art History: Dress and Textile Histories at the University of Glasgow, Scotland Emily moved back to the United States in order to pursue opportunities in the museum field. In between museum internships and working on a graduate certificate Emily can be found cuddling with her cat while enjoying a good historical drama.