On Saturday, October 20, 2012 Stratford Hall officially announced that it had begun an effort that would dramatically transform the visitor experience, assure its financial future and place Stratford Hall among America’s most innovative history museums. This $17 million effort, which has already attracted over $10 million in commitments, includes a variety of capital projects. These include the restoration of the Great House and the implementation of a new self-guided tour experience that will be available as a mobile app; the expansion and renovation of the Visitor Center to accommodate expanded exhibition space, proper climate controlled storage for Stratford Hall’s valuable collections and an expanded gift shop, café and a new meeting space. The campaign will also support the completion of a cultural landscape study presently underway in partnership with the University of Georgia. This study will enable Stratford Hall to fully understand the evolution of the landscape and provide direction for the staff and board to make decisions about the restoration, preservation, maintenance and use of the gardens and other landscape features. The campaign will also provide funds for capital improvements to the Stratford Hall’s lodging and hospitality facilities, including the two guest houses and the dining room. A significant portion of the campaign will be directed to Stratford Hall’s endowment, which supports operations and assures financial stability.
Stratford Hall does not undertake this effort casually; we believe our nation is becoming increasingly disconnected from what Abraham Lincoln called the “mystic chords of memory” that unite us. The evidence is everywhere: the precarious state of history education in our public schools and even in our best colleges and universities; the obsession with the present we see on our television screens and the way our politicians abuse the past and see only as far into the future as the next election.
Our nation’s history museums are part of the problem. We have for too long left the less attractive stories untold, presented a sanitized vision of the past, been unwilling to take risks, make new investments, reach out to new audiences or think broadly about how our assets can be used to tell new and engaging stories. Despite all this, a recent survey has indicated that Americans trust us more than schools, the news media or politicians to be faithful stewards of our nation’s history.
For too long, we have been overly obsessed with the stories of individuals like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. Not to say these men were not important. They were. But there is very little to be learned looking at only one person’s lifetime. It is only by looking at the impact of events over generations that we can truly understand how they affect our lives today.
Stratford Hall, if you will, is a history museum positioned for the 21st century. We tell the story of four generations of a family that collectively did more to shape and influence our nation’s history than many more recognized figures. They set the course of colonial policy and politics, were early advocates for American political and civil rights, helped create our nation and were part of the effort that sought to divide us. There were heroes and heroines, good businessmen and bad and they had their fair share of successes and failures and even moral shortcomings, they shared our impatience and fear for the future and worried about their inability to shape events. In some respects, they were more like us than we might imagine but in other ways not like us at all.
One cannot tell these stories in a vacuum. History takes place, and we have one of the best places where visitors can grasp the scope of the American story. Perhaps the finest surviving example of early American residential architecture and a 2,000 acre landscape we are only now beginning to understand and develop as an educational resource. These assets will enable us to tell a story that will take our visitors through over 10 million years of history: from the time where Stratford stands today was the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, through its occupancy by the Lee family.
It is past time for the story of this place and these Lees to be told and it is our moral and ethical obligation to tell it. We are grateful for the support that has enabled us to move forward with this effort. We will need the engagement of more generous people to help us achieve our goal, restore the mystic chords of memory, and provide a place where our nation’s citizens can escape from the banality of the present and learn that through an understanding of the past there is hope for the future.
-Paul Reber, Executive Director