The Somerville Museum is providing Somerville High School’s Local History Club an in-depth glimpse into local history.

By Erin Wade

When you walk into the Somerville Museum for a Sunday afternoon lecture, it’s almost easy to forget that census data shows Somerville is home to more children than people of retirement age.

The lecture audience is graying, but it turns out the museum sees a lot more people of high school age than the demographics of this Sunday lecture might suggest, according to Brandon Wilson, the executive director of the Somerville Historic Preservation Commission.

“We have a Local History Club through the high school, and they actually interact with us in the museum and the city, when we do events. The students actually get dressed up in historic clothing and provide information to people,” Wilson said. “They learn a lot about their own community.”

This school year, Somerville High School’s Local History Club had about 13 active members, most of whom were ninth-graders, according to Adda Santos, a history teacher at Somerville High and adviser to the Local History Club. Santos, who is from Brazil, said the majority of the club’s members were students with immigrant backgrounds, like her.

“The students are actually very diverse. I’ve had students from so many different countries,” Santos said. “I’ve had students from Haiti, from Brazil, from Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia.”

One of the students in Santos’ club, Nabila Anandira, said this year’s group was especially diverse.

“There’s a huge range of people from everywhere,” according to Anadira. She’s originally from Indonesia and moved to the United States when she was 2 years old, so she said she knows more about U.S. history than Indonesian history.

But Anandira, a rising junior at Somerville High, said her involvement in the Local History Club has made her feel even more connected to her city.

“Being closer to Somerville history makes me feel more … Somerville-ian,” she said, laughing. And her teacher said the Local History Club makes her feel more connected to the Somerville community, too.

“After everything I’ve been through, and after all the education I got, and all the years I’ve worked here, I find that finally I’ve found myself. Like, OK, I love this club, I love this job,” Santos said. “And I feel like … I feel that I belong somewhere.”

Santos works with Historic Somerville to coordinate about four events for club members every year, including the Ghosts of Somerville, where the students wear costumes and assume the roles of significant figures from Somerville’s past. Anandira said she loves putting on the club’s era-appropriate costumes for these events.

“The costumes are really cool. Like, for the Ghosts of Somerville, I wore this matching ensemble, and the hat was handmade,” Anandira said. “And it was just really cool.”

Santos said this is a common reaction amongst the group of kids in the club, who get excited every time they have an opportunity to dress up.

“This is the generation of pictures and selfies, so I think they love being in historical clothing, and it’s something completely new to them,” Santos said. “A lot of the clothes are really nice. They may not be in the best shape, but they’re really nice and authentic.”

The Local History Club’s costumes are stored in the basement of the Somerville Museum, a few blocks down Highland Avenue from the high school.

There are costumes from a whole range of time periods, with plenty of wool overcoats, jackets and pants and dresses with lace cuffs and the occasional hoop skirt. A slightly musty smell hangs over the collection.

But the kids really do love to wear them. Kenia Arbaiza, whose first Local History Club activity was dressing up for the Patriots’ Day festivities at Foss Park, said she wanted to participate because it meant she got to put on a costume.

“I really wanted to pick out a costume, because I think they’re so pretty and it’s not something you see every day,” Arbaiza said. For Patriots’ Day, she wore a floor-length floral skirt, a white blouse, a vest and a mob-cap, a colonial-era pleated bonnet with a ruffled brim.

Barbara Mangum, the president of the Somerville Museum’s board of trustees and former chief conservator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, said watching kids get excited about history is one of the reasons she loves working with local high school students at the museum.

And, according to Mangum, the Local History Club students aren’t the only ones hanging out at the museum. Some students in Somerville Public Schools design their own Somerville Museum exhibits, which Mangum says is a unique program.

“There’s, like, no other place I know of where high school students actually get to go into a museum and create the exhibition, from step one to the final exhibition,” Mangum said.

Special programs like these can be pricey for a small museum. Mangum said the Somerville Museum’s main source of income is membership dues, calling it “the people’s museum.”

But some of its funding for special projects, like the elevator the museum is installing for disabled patrons, comes from government grants by groups like the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which is partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

President Donald Trump has proposed cutting all funding to the NEA for the 2018 fiscal year, which has the potential to impact the Somerville Museum’s grant-funded projects and programs. Mangum, however, thinks continuing to fund small community museums like the Somerville Museum is especially important to the cultures of those communities.

“A museum is a place where people can create meaning. It’s a place where we can create it and show it in our own context. And say, you know, ‘This is meaningful to me. I hope it’s meaningful to you.’ And to share that,” Mangum said. “That creates culture. So, every community should have their own small museum that they can dabble in.”

And Anandira agrees. She said interacting directly with history in museums, not just hearing about it in the classroom, makes it more real to her.

“I went to a World War II museum, and it’s one thing to learn about it in the textbooks and to read about stories, but it’s another thing to be surrounded by actual artifacts,” Anandira said. “That makes you feel so much more connected to it, so I think it’s your surroundings that definitely make local history way more compelling.”



1 Response » to “Somerville High School, Somerville Museum bring local history to life”

  1. Jen Fries says:

    This is a great article, but I feel it could use some photos. Let’s see the costumes. 🙂

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