Making the Past Present at the Cambridge Historical Society

cambridge historical societyHistorical Sociey Executive Director Marieke Van Damme pages through one of the society's books. Photos by Emily Cassel.

Tucked away in the 17th-Century Hooper-Lee-Nichols House, about halfway between Harvard Square and Fresh Pond Parkway, the Cambridge Historical Society doesn’t see much foot traffic. And that’s just fine with recently hired Executive Director Marieke Van Damme.

“We’ve realized that being a museum is not what’s going to bring people to this site,” Van Damme explains. The society moved into its current location at 159 Brattle St. in 1957, but the building isn’t meant to be a static vault housing relics from the city’s past. “It’s more important for us to get out into the city and meet the people there.”

A Cambridge resident since 2015, Van Damme has worked for historical nonprofits for more than 15 years. And while working with local institutions like the Freedom Trail has its appeal, Van Damme says she’s come to realize that she doesn’t like catering to tourists. The society’s mission, and the mission of historians in general, has changed over the past century. Today’s Historical Society is all about increasing civic engagement right here in Cambridge by presenting current issues through the lens of history. “We want to be relevant to the city, to the people of Cambridge,” says Van Damme, one of just two full-time staffers at the society. “We’re hoping to spark a curiosity and a thoughtful process about how we got here.”

In doing so, the Historical Society has introduced the first in a series of annual themes meant to both serve as a springboard for community members to voice their opinions to city hall and document those concerns so that future generations of historians and civic leaders can look back and know what today’s Cantabrigians were thinking. This year’s thematic question, “Are we home?” explores the ever-present issue of affordable housing in Cambridge. By moving away from being a physical showroom for historical artifacts and documents, the society hopes to become a resource for city officials, residents and future archivists. 

“We’re asking people questions and having people ask us their questions, and we’re recording that,” Van Damme says. “We’re writing everything down, we’re taking pictures, we’re conducting surveys and capturing all that so that in 100 years’ time, another organization can have another year about housing in history and have material.”

cambridge historical society

One method of facilitating more discussion is the society’s new series of events called “History Cafe,” which will take place in bars in different Cambridge neighborhoods from April through September of this year. Each History Cafe installment will feature a lecture from an expert in local history followed by a conversation among the residents in attendance.

The dates and locations of these lectures have not yet been finalized, but Van Damme is already excited about their potential.

“It’s really important for me that people know that they’re a piece of history and that they’re connected to this larger humanity,” she says. When the Society was formed in 1911, according to Van Damme, it was more a neighborhood association than a formal society. The city’s history-loving residents would gather in private residences in West Cambridge to share scholarly articles they had written. Though gathering in living rooms for a glass of wine and an intellectual discussion of the city’s past is a “lovely” idea to the executive director, today’s Historical Society wants to be more inclusive. These discussions are part of a larger effort in the museum field over the past 20 years to “move away from the rich white guy’s recorded history to the history that the rest of us have and experienced—the social history.”

That means including all the people who make this city what it is, not just homeowners. As a lifelong renter, Van Damme resents the bias some historical organizations have against short-term residents. “We’re not just for people who were born and bred here in Cambridge,” she says. “We’re for everyone.”

Another plan for further participation is the Cambridge History Fellows program, through which members of the community can come up with a historical question they want to answer, apply to the society and, if approved, receive a cash stipend and expert guidance to research the question and present their findings at a public event.

Of course, the society still accepts donations of artifacts and documents, and the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House is available for tours by appointment. Anyone who’s interested in research can run a keyword search of the society’s digital collections on cambridgehistory.org. And the archives aren’t going anywhere soon.

For Van Damme, however, the future of the society lies in writing the history being made today.

“We collect people’s thoughts and give them to the city,” she says. “We want people who come to our events to know that they are participating in a larger civic process by offering their opinions.”

This story originally appeared in our March/April print edition, which is available for free at more than 200 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription

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