Located in the small city of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, the Museum of Work & Culture (MOWC) has a surprisingly in-depth set of exhibits that focus on the American Industrial Revolution in the United States through the lens of French-Canadian immigration. Although the museum’s focus is highly specific, its interactive format makes the information accessible to people with varying levels of knowledge. As someone who studied this time period during my time as a master’s student, I was excited to work there as a virtual tour guide and in visitor services for a few months while I completed my degree.
MOWC is a fairly young museum, since it first opened in 1997 as part of the Rhode Island Historical Society (RIHS), a Smithsonian Affiliate. Some of its goals are to illuminate the immigrant experience, present a history of labor and education laws in the United States, and encourage visitors to become active citizens within their communities.
Fitting with its theme of industry, the museum is housed in a former water-powered textile mill along the Blackstone River. In fact, textile machinery is displayed on the “Mill Floor” section of the ground floor. Other related exhibits on that floor include replicas of a Quebec farmhouse, a French Catholic church, and a credit union. Every exhibit contains video or audio that explains different aspects of immigrant life, focusing on the struggle to preserve their culture, learn a new line of work, and deal with homesickness. Hands-on activities located on the Mill Floor allow visitors to experience the job of a textile worker, albeit in a much safer environment. Also on this floor is a fully restored Merci Boxcar, a thank you gift from France to the citizens of Rhode Island, as the country had received donated food and supplies from the United States after both of the World Wars.
The replicas on the top floor include a furnished house modelled after the “triple deckers” of the 1920s. These were three-storied houses where several generations of the same family would live on the different floors. Nearby are an interactive French parochial school classroom and a union hall filled with local artifacts. The baseball exhibit on this floor is a hit with sports fans, as it describes the lives of players on mill-owned baseball teams and contains memorabilia from local sports hero Napoleon Lajoie, who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum at Cooperstown, New York. The final gallery on the floor hosts the work of local contemporary artists related to the themes of fair labor practices and cultural heritage.
This floor also contains digital and physical archives. A touch table displays a map of Woonsocket, which allows visitors to tap and zoom in on points of interest to further learn their history. Beside the table is a kiosk containing video interviews of former mill workers and other employees from the area. Additionally, bookshelves beside the parochial school classroom contain the records of parochial schools throughout the state of Rhode Island. Many visitors are surprised to discover that they are part of the museum archives through their high school yearbook!
MOWC is accessible by car. Limited parking is available in front of the museum. There is handicapped parking near the entrance; however, these spots may also be used by patrons of nearby businesses. More parking is across the street, with well-maintained sidewalks and crosswalks near the lots. All parking is free.
When in the museum, visitors are able to use two different staircases. An elevator is available for those with mobility issues. Visitors who have difficulty seeing in the dark may want to bring a small flashlight, as some exhibits are dimly lit to add authenticity. The parochial school classroom uses motion sensor lighting and sound, so the two manikins at the front of the classroom seem to talk to visitors; this frightens some visitors. Signage is printed in both English and French.
The cost of admission at MOWC is $8 for adults and $6 for students, seniors over 61, and veterans. Children under 10 are free, along with members of the Rhode Island Historical Society (RIHS), North American Reciprocal Museum Association (NARM), Reciprocal Organization of Associated Museums (ROAM), and several other organizations. To guarantee admission to the museum, order tickets online through their website, rihs.org/locations/museum-of-work-culture. Drop in visits are permitted. The museum is busiest on Saturdays, with a regular stream of adults and families with children. Local school groups tour the museum during the week throughout the school year, but especially during April, May, and June.
As of June 2021, MOWC is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday and Saturday.
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Abigail Epplett leads a dual life as a freelance digital marketing consultant for small humanities-focused organizations and as a customer experience design creative specialist at lab equipment manufacturer Waters Corporation. She holds an MA in Museum Education from Tufts University, where she researched the history of New England from Plymouth to the Civil War. To learn more about her adventures with museums, visit her current blog at abbyeppletthistorian.blogspot.com.