Honoring Its Past, Fort Ticonderoga Embraces Its Future
At the center of Fort Ticonderoga’s summer exhibit, “the Art of War” is Thomas Cole’s 1826 masterpiece, “Gelyna, or A View Near Ticonderoga.”
It’s not only the most famous painting in the Fort’s collection, it’s the most valuable. When Fort Ticonderoga found itself $2.5 million in debt in 2008, the Fort’s board of trustees gave some thought to selling the painting, which might have fetched more than $1 million.
The fact that it’s still owned by the Fort, and part of the first of many major exhibitions to come, signifies that America’s most historic fort has not only survived a crisis, but is in the midst of a renewal.
“Our vision is to create a site specific, high quality, 18th century experience,” says Beth Hill, the fort’s executive director. “People want to be immersed in the experience and become engaged, something that can’t be done with static exhibits.”
Hill became the fort’s executive director in May of 2010. That summer, attendance rose by 2% , and this year’s numbers will equal or exceed last year’s.
According to Hill, those details are important, because unlike many not-for-profit organizations or state-chartered musems (and Fort Ticonderoga is both), the Fort lacks a significant endowment.
“We rely upon admission fees and gift shop sales for 60% of our revenues,” said Hill. “To achieve our goals, we have to operate as a streamlined business.”
Hill’s job is not only to attract more people to the Fort, but to bring people to the fort who might otherwise have passed it by.
“We have to persuade people that history is not just about the past, it’s about life itself and its issues and challenges,” she said. “It incorporates science, math and music. It’s everything that’s happened in the past.”
Helping the Fort bring history to life in engaging yet authentic ways is its new Department of Interpretation, led by Stuart Lilie.
“Stuart was hired to help the Fort attain its vision of being the premier military historic site and museum in North America,” said Hill.
New programs include demonstrations of 18th century tailoring by Joel Anderson and a presentation by Joseph Privott on the role of the Indian agent.
The interpretive programs will change with every year, since every year will feature a new military unit and a different moment in the fort’s history.
This allows the Fort to suggest a context for what visitors see and learn, said Hill.
“While the richness of our history is inspiring, it can be overwhelming,” said Hill.
This year, for instance, the interpretive staff portrayed members of Colonel Willard’s Regiment of Massachusetts, who occupied the Fort in 1759. In 2012 the year to be revived will be 1775.
Of course, not everyone is happy. Reportedly, some of the groups of re-enactors who travel from site to site were not invited back to Fort Ticonderoga after 2010, which apparently caused some hard feelings.
Hill acknowledged that the Fort now requires a greater degree of fidelity to history than many re-enactors are able to achieve, and those re-enactors are no longer welcome at the encampments.
“Fort Ticonderoga was never a scene of encampments in the first place,” she says. “The French, the Indians and the British never camped near one another. Our goal is to keep the re-enactments colorful, but make them more authentic.”
According to Stuart Lillie, Fort Ticonderoga is a platform not only for military history but for the material and cultural history of the 18th century as well.
To attract individuals interested in that dimension of history, the Fort has introduced programs like “Material Matters,” which uses everyday objects from the collection to tell the story of daily life in the 18th century.
According to Hill, visitors who want to truly appreciate the whole of Fort Ticonderoga, both as a historical site and a destination for visitors since the 18th century, could do no better than spend time at its new exhibition, “The Art of War: Ticonderoga as Experienced through the eyes of America’s Great Artists.”
As curator Chris Fox explains, the exhibition encompasses not only the experience of war, but the experience of remembering, preserving and assimilating the past.
As organized by Fox, the exhibition addresses not only “what happened,” through works like Asher Durand’s 1839 “Murder of Miss McCrea,” but also “remembering,” and “preserving.”
“The Fort has an important art collection and much of it has never been exhibited,” said Fox. “The Art of War pulls together fifty works from our collection, and depicts every period from the construction of the Fort by the French in 1755 to the restoration in 1909.”
“The Art of War: Ticonderoga as Experienced through the eyes of America’s Great Artists,” will remain on view at the Fort’s Deborah Clarke Mars Education Center exhibition gallery through October 20.