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FAQ: Stewardship of the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace by GSUSA

Why did GSUSA purchase the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace in 1953?

GSUSA purchased the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace to offer girls a place to experience Girl Scouts as Juliette would’ve wanted—with spirit, curiosity, and courage—rather than to establish a traditional historic house museum. This intention is documented in a 1955 letter to the Girl Scout Movement from then-national director (CEO) of Girl Scouts, Dorothy Stratton:

 

Although the house itself is interesting as an example of Regency architecture, it is not primarily for its historic interest that the Girl Scouts have bought it. Generally speaking, it is not within our purview to own or restore old houses... Nice as it is to own this house and to restore it to its former beauty, it is not to be a period piece unrelated to the life of the Girl Scouts in the second half of the twentieth century. Ms. Low was a woman of action. If we merely preserved her home, we would fail to realize completely the possibilities of her birthplace. To be true to her ideals and her plan for the girls of the United States, the birthplace must provide opportunities for girls to talk about their dreams, their ambitions, ways of serving their country, ways of making friends in school, their town, their country, and other countries.

 

Read more about the mission and history of the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace.

What is GSUSA’s strategy for preserving the site and making it accessible to tens of thousands of visitors each year?

Work at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace reflects critical thinking, innovation, and best practices in the field. GSUSA’s strategy for stewarding the birthplace ultimately aligns with our mission, commitment to girls, and attention to Juliette’s legacy.

 

  • GSUSA devotes significant resources to repairing, restoring, and maintaining the site, ensuring that it will be enjoyed for generations to come.
    • For example, upon purchasing the birthplace, GSUSA dedicated considerable funds to repairing and in part restoring the site following numerous changes made by Juliette Gordon Low’s family in the preceding decades.
    • More recently, in 2012–2014, GSUSA allocated a large portion of board-designated funds for exterior renovations.
  • GSUSA ensures the birthplace is preserved according to best practices in the field. For its efforts, GSUSA was honored with Historic Preservation Awards from Historic Savannah Foundation in 2004 and 2015, the Excellence in Preservation Award from the Georgia Trust in 2015, and a preservation award from AIA Savannah in 2016.
  • GSUSA stewards the site with care, adhering to all requirements for maintaining its National Historic Landmark designation. We work to carefully preserve the buildings, grounds, and collections while balancing our need to provide access and innovations/interactivity for visitors. This approach is supported by local and national experts in historic preservation and is considered to be standard practice within the field.
  • GSUSA interprets the site in accordance with the Statement of Significance for the Juliette Gordon Low Historic District, as outlined in the National Historic Landmark designation:
    • Person of significance: Juliette Gordon Low
    • National Historic Landmark themes: expressing cultural values; creating social institutions and movements
    • Historic context: social and humanitarian movements
    • Period of significance: 1860–1927

 

Read more about the history of GSUSA’s efforts to responsibly preserve and restore the nearly 200-year-old building.

 

Read the National Historic Landmark application

Why was the library “reimagined”?

In 2015, GSUSA created something new in the library of the birthplace, a space that, before, had been loosely presented as a period room  that employed a wide range of furnishings referencing various eras rather than one specific period. “Girls Writing the World: A Library, Reimagined” created a space where girls can explore a connection between the literary arts and Girl Scouts, and see themselves reflected within the literary tradition that was so strong among the women of the Gordon family and that remains of core importance to the Girl Scout Movement. Numerous stakeholders were involved in its development, including experienced professional staff led by GSUSA Cultural Resources Executive Cindi Malinick, general visitors, Girl Scouts and troop leaders visiting the birthplace, a diversity of cultural leaders and community members in Savannah, GSUSA staff, and a number of National Board members. Key reasons for reimagining the library include:

 

  • To take the opportunity to place girls and the Movement, which centers on female leadership, at the heart of the site
  • To position the space as a portal to more fully engage Girl Scouts and the general public with more sensory experiences, as well as relevant and innovative programming that accommodates many different learning styles
  • To address a problem with the previous space, which consisted of many unlabeled objects and props with no connection to Juliette Low or her family (see What was the previous library installation like? below)
  • To feature the significant contributions of women in the literary arts, in addition to Juliette’s own love of reading and writing (including poetry), rather than present “a southern gentleman’s library” that communicates that reading and writing were/are only for educated men
  • To clarify the learning objectives of the space, enabling all girls to see themselves reflected in the possibilities and promise of the Movement created by Juliette Gordon Low
  • To emphasize something of core importance to Girl Scouts—the written and spoken word—and to serve as a place of communication in the form of a library. (As early as 1913, Girl Scouts offered badges explicitly tied to communications, and today, the legacy continues with badges around communicating effectively in the 21st century.)
  • To take an opportunity to pilot new methods of visitor engagement in a contained space
  • To highlight a range of meaningful objects that were not previously on public display, including Juliette Low’s, handbag, campaign hat, and paper dolls; the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded posthumously to Juliette Low; early Girl Scout badges; dozens of Girl Scout publications; and an original painting used for an American Girl magazine cover

 

Read more about what visitors see when they enter the exhibition.                 

 

What was the previous library installation like?

In early 2015, the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace underwent a holistic assessment led by GSUSA and birthplace staff, along with third-party consultants. At that time, a range of significant concerns were raised about the library, including:

 

  • Of the 57 objects previously displayed (not including books, which were behind glass and inaccessible):
    • 8 (14%) had a direct connection to Juliette Gordon Low. (Note that all 8 of these objects remain on view at the site today.)
    • 11 (19%) had a connection to the immediate Gordon family but not directly to Juliette Gordon Low.
    • 38 (66%) had no connection at all to Juliette Gordon Low, the immediate Gordon family, or Girl Scouts.
  • The library installation wasn’t based on any documentation, such as a Historic Furnishings Report, the standard method used for traditionally operated historic house museums and which documents original room layout and suggests an installation based on the significance of the objects.
  • The installation included furnishings spanning a range of decades and periods on either side of the Victorian Era, the purported period of interpretation.
  • The installation was one of many past iterations, and therefore did not represent the only logical display. Furnishings had been changed over the years, and in fact the room had been used for different purposes throughout the time of the Gordon family’s ownership and also after GSUSA purchased the site.The installation rendered invisible some members of the household or incorporated untruths or unverified stories, in addition to facts not central to the narrative of Juliette Gordon Low and/or Girl Scouts.

 

Is the reimagined library successful?

From February through June 2016, birthplace staff, as well as an independent consultant, evaluated Girls Writing the World as one part of the larger visitor experience of the site. A range of tools were employed, including interviews with youth and adult visitors, surveys of troop leaders and Girl Scouts, activities that encouraged visitors to share feedback, comment cards, and observations of visitor behavior.

 

As shown in the evaluations, visitor response to the reimagined library is very strong:

 

  • 69% of surveyed Girl Scouts and troop leaders cited it as their first or second favorite room in the house.
  • 39% cited it as their favorite.

 

Among comments from Girl Scouts about the reimagined library:

 

  • “We loved how interactive the activities were.”
  • “I liked the library because it was very creative and had a lot of thought and details in it.”
  • “I loved seeing authors’ names on the shelves—books written by women and about women.”
  • “In the library I learned about Daisy’s love for poetry…and loved time “progressing” through books that we got to touch and look at.”

 

Read more testimonials about the exhibit.

 

From our expert evaluator consultant:

 

Based on the data collected from all of these differing formats, it seems clear that the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace engages visitors, making an impact on Girl Scouts and other visitors. Visitors find their own meaning in a visit to the site, and in particular, many Girl Scouts find deep personal meaning in their visit. The new library installation is a critical component of that inspiration and meaning-making process, helping girls and others connect past to present. With its focus on girls, leadership, visitor engagement, and innovative interpretation, the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace has the opportunity to become a leader in the reinvention and relevance of historic houses in the 21st century.

 

Birthplace staff observations of the reimagined library:

  • Numerous visitors have found the reimagined library to be a positive and integral aspect of the birthplace experience.
  • It has served as a catalyst for rethinking historical interpretation at the site as a whole, moving the interpretation to one of active inquiry where visitors are encouraged to learn and explore on their own or with prompts.
  • The new exhibit positions girls as active participants who offer their own creative contributions to make the world a better place.
  • Exploring history in unexpected ways via the exhibit has surprised and challenged guests in positive ways, and has allowed experimentation with new platforms for discovery that make history relevant to girls and adults.
  • The theme of women’s empowerment, which was the core of Juliette Low’s work and is the central tenet of the Girl Scout Movement today, bridges past and present in the space.
  • By preserving and communicating Juliette Low’s interests and ideals, this installation offers innovative solutions to the challenges faced by traditional historic house museums.
What about the leadership at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace?

 

The Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace is managed with rigor and thoughtfulness, with careful attention paid to its conservation and the sharing of authentic core stories about Juliette, the arc of her life, and the Movement she founded.

 

Lisa Junkin Lopez, executive director, has more than 12 years of experience in the field, including eight in senior positions at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago. She is a thought leader in the field and a member of the National Editorial Board of The Public Historian journal.

 

Sherryl Lang, curator and past interim director, has 20 years of experience in the museum field, including as executive director of the Gardner Museum of Architecture and Design in Illinois. Lang has worked at the birthplace for 9 years, providing leadership on the site’s historic preservation, collections management, and research.

 

Cindi Malinick, GSUSA cultural resources executive, has worked in the field for more than 30 years, including as deputy and chief of staff to the senior vice president of historic sites at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, before she joined Girl Scouts. Malinick holds a master’s degree in history from the University of San Diego.

 

The Birthplace Community Committee (BCC) is an informal advisory group that provides a forum for information sharing and discussion among birthplace staff and various stakeholders in the Savannah area. The BCC helps advance the institutional goals of the birthplace, cultivates new strategic and programmatic partnerships, and strengthens the network of organizations committed to serving girls and women in the Savannah area and beyond.

 

Note that as GSUSA prepares to assemble and convene a diverse Cultural Resources Taskforce to serve as an active partner in the next phases of our important work, the BCC has been placed on hold. Decisions as to its continuance will be communicated in due time.