Inside Cliveden of the National Trust: Q&A with Executive Director David Young

Inside Cliveden of the National Trust: Q&A with Executive Director David Young

Audiences take in Liberty To Go To See, 2015, at Cliveden’s Main House, an interactive dramatic event based on the Chew Family Papers, produced by the New Freedom Theatre and featuring a script created through a year-long partnership between Cliveden and the Philadelphia Young Playwrights.

How are cultural leaders and practitioners addressing artistic and organizational challenges today? And how do they make room for creative and institutional growth, while facing shifting audience expectations and consumer behaviors? In this series of interviews with Center grantees, we offer a look inside the organizational and artistic practices of many of Philadelphia’s leading cultural institutions and practicing artists, their distinct characters, aspirations, and more.

Here, we speak to David Young, executive director of Cliveden of the National Trust, an 18th-century historic house and the site of the 1777 Battle of Germantown. A National Historic Landmark, Cliveden’s site includes two historic properties on over five acres of green space in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood. The ongoing Center-funded project, Cliveden’s Living Kitchens, compares domestic life in two centuries, and the experiences of those who were enslaved and in service, through the exploration of the site’s 1767 and 1959 kitchens. The project includes a series of “Kitchen Conversations” and a community exhibition of kitchen objects and recipes, on view April 22 – July 31.

Young talks with us about the complex process of crafting shared histories, the importance of community input in developing interpretive programs, and his vision for Cliveden in the years to come.

How would you describe your organization’s character or personality? What distinguishes Cliveden from other historic sites in our area?

Cliveden is a historic site where ideas matter. A 1767 mansion built for the wealthy Chew family, Cliveden has multiple levels of significance. Not only was Cliveden the scene of a bloody Revolutionary War battle, but the Chews were the largest slave owners in Pennsylvania during the 18th century. We tell stories of the struggle for freedom and the war for independence in ways that give life to history—even if that history is not pleasant.

Various communities see themselves in the stories of Cliveden, and we offer multiple ways to make Cliveden meaningful to them. People use Cliveden’s grounds and buildings for community events; they tour the house or attend reenactments of the Battle of Germantown; and they watch performances of our play, Liberty to Go to See, that dramatizes the plantation records. We depend on the various communities who see Cliveden’s history as useful. We engage their participation, and their input helps us plan and shape programs and preservation priorities at the site.

Your ongoing Center-funded historic interpretation project, Cliveden’s Living Kitchens, aims to reorient how audiences understand and engage with Cliveden’s history. How is the project shaping the ways in which you think about audience engagement?

Crafting a shared history, even among neighbors, is a difficult process. We’ve had success involving the surrounding neighborhood and different audiences in conversations about what programs they would like to see through our long-running “Cliveden Conversations” series. Community members give us feedback on the stories they’d like us to tell and the ways they would like us to tell them at Cliveden. Such input has spawned an expansion of our use of dramatic arts and video in our interpretations of the site.

For Living Kitchens, architectural excavation and archival research only take us so far. This project involves history, heritage, and memory, and we are gathering reactions people have to our kitchens, along with their own memories and associations with food and people who prepare it. This means collecting input from multiple generations, varied backgrounds, and diverse viewpoints about the past. To activate the 1767 and 1959 kitchens we plan on using different learning styles with ways to trigger senses like smell, sound, and taste in order to reach a broad spectrum of perspectives.

Interior of the Cliveden Main House’s 1959 kitchen space, built from a kit made by the Quaker Maid Company. Hailed in the 1950s as the “Kitchen of tomorrow,” it is located in what was once a Colonnade (circa 1776) that connected the Main House with the Kitchen Dependency outbuilding.

How effective is collaboration to your organization and to the region’s cultural community? Can you share an example of a successful partnership that has influenced your approach to programming or expanded your audiences?

We’ve collaborated with numerous fantastic organizations, including other Germantown historic sites, community development corporations, and local high schools. Liberty to Go to See is a collaborative program that brought us to new levels in many ways. Teenagers from Philadelphia Young Playwrights worked with Cliveden staff and historians for two years to develop a script based on Chew family papers related to Cliveden’s slave-owning history. The playwrights experienced the site fully and workshopped the script in collaboration with the public and several Chew descendants during “Cliveden Conversations” workshops. Philadelphia’s New Freedom Theater produced performances of the play for our Juneteenth celebration in 2015.

Producing a play inside the Cliveden mansion was challenging, but the audiences were blown away by the results. The immediacy of the site-specific stories amid the actual architecture lent a sense of “beingness” to the experience. The co-authorship among partners, and the mentoring of young people in exciting ways, brought life to the house in ways that surprised all of us.

Cliveden has dedicated significant time and resources to addressing the shifting demographics and cultural consumption patterns that many cultural organizations are now facing. This includes projects like the Center-supported Emancipating Cliveden, which sought to reinterpret your historic site and develop dialogue-based public programs. What have been your biggest successes in this initiative to-date, and what have you learned from the process?

I have learned that people are eager to learn the “tough stuff” of history. Continued research of Cliveden’s history—and that of the Chew family’s extensive slave owning—prompted a community-wide planning process that produced Cliveden’s first-ever interpretive plan and new initiatives, including an updated National Historic Landmark nomination to include social as well as architectural history.

Cliveden is far more than a shrine to the Battle of Germantown. Today Cliveden is a community center where people feel welcome and respected as they participate in programs that consider the ways that race, history, and memory inform how we tackle contemporary issues. The use of dramatic arts and innovative technology make it an exciting time to experience Cliveden. No longer a staid house museum, Cliveden uses animated maps, timelines that provoke dialogue, and touch displays that show more of the collections—innovations that make Cliveden’s history useful. These initiatives have brought new partnerships and wider, more diverse audiences to learn about America and themselves.

How do you envision Cliveden in 5 years? In 10? How will you be different than you are today?

In the near and midterm future, Cliveden will continue to find ways to bring life to history that are both inviting and challenging. We foresee greater attention to “whole place preservation”—considering the entirety of the 5.5-acre site for ways for people to engage with the past. This will include using the grounds during the day and night, and fuller interpretation of the landscape. A priority is to increase the involvement of the surrounding neighborhoods—something the Living Kitchens project helps us achieve by collecting the memories of our community and exhibiting them as part of our Mixing Memories – Sharing History exhibition.

In the future, we anticipate a robust schedule of food history programming that explores food preparation, consumption, and disposal in the past, present, and even the future—illuminated and made even more compelling by the context of Cliveden’s kitchens over the site’s 250-year history. Within five years we expect to have made significant progress in our goal to offer youth training programs in preservation, creative interpretation, and research.



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