by ECW Correspondent Emily Losito
Walking through most museums, one becomes trapped behind barriers, peering through glass-encased artifacts, and shunned from touching practically everything. However, at Ben Lomond Historic Site in Manassas, Virginia, interaction is encouraged. The property, a pre-Civil War plantation, transformed into a hospital to aid Confederate soldiers following the first battle of Manassas.
Paige Gibbons-Backus is the historic site manager, and she’s in charge of planning and coordinating many of the things that go on at Ben Lomond.
“Having this job as the historic site manager entails a little bit of everything. It is very much a small site, so I take care of collections, I do tours, plan bigger projects and special events, and create new exhibits,” she said.
Some of the new plans include more first-hand experiences. “During October, we have our ‘Hospital Horrors,’” Gibbons-Backus said. “They’re evening tours of the hospital; tour guides give history of hospital like as if it’s regular tour, but the house is lit by candles and there are reenactors who portray wounded soldiers in the background. For the night, we recreated the sounds, smells, and sights of hospital; visitors said they felt like they stepped back in time.”
Gibbons-Backus said there is a similar tour happening in July for the anniversary of Manassas. “We’re trying to create new and innovative programs here at Ben Lomond because we have a different experience than other historic houses. Because we have an immersive experience, everything in the house, for the most part, is reproduction. People can try things on and pick things up…and because of that we can do a lot of different things to really get the visitors engaged.”
She said there are also scavenger hunts, happy-hour tours, and the museum is working on creating an overnight program for those who are brave enough to spend the night in the Civil War Hospital. “We try to make this house as much of a hands-on experience as we can. Not only do adults enjoy it, it’s great for any field trips we get to the site, and we also do many afterschool programs as well. We’re able to get kids involved since they can touch things and smell the hospital; they don’t just sit and listen.”
Since the site has a small staff, developing a volunteer program and working with volunteers is a key goal of her job. “As of now the volunteer corps I work with is relatively small, with only two or three people, many of whom are students,” Gibbons-Backus said.
Although she said they’re not all exactly interested in history, she tries to help them out in any way she can, making them more comfortable working with the public and developing their skills with different projects. She also has the opportunity to serve as the director of emerging professionals on the Virginia Association of Museum’s board, a state-wide museum organization that provides resources to the museum community. Through this opportunity, Gibbons-Backus enjoys making a difference in the field where she helps assist students and emerging museum professionals with career development. She said she gives advice, helps make them more comfortable with networking, and helps them with their resumes.
“That’s one thing I love about what I do; I get to do something different every day, and I can have an impact,” she said.
Gibbons-Backus said she knew that she wanted to be involved in history since she was young.
“Whenever my family would go on family vacations, we would go to national parks, battlefields, and historic sites instead of amusement parks or the beach. So, I’ve grown up around a family that was very much interested in teaching about history and going out there and seeing it,” she said. “However, growing up in Wisconsin, you have a different kind of history than you do here in Virginia…. a much earlier history that I was very interested in. I came to Virginia and went to the University of Mary Washington, where I got a degree in Historic Preservation and later a Masters in History at George Mason, where was able to get the internships, networks, and experience to get the position I have today.”
In 2011, Gibbons-Backus interned at Gadsby’s Tavern Museum in Alexandria and at Ben Lomond. “It was working at these two historic house museums where I knew this is what I wanted to do with my life, and the reason for this is because of the people,” she said. “Not just the people I worked with, but because I got to interact with the public, give tours, conduct programs, and educate people about the history of the site and the broader picture. This is what I enjoy most about what I do, and this is what I get do to practically every day at Ben Lomond.”
Gibbons-Backus has also worked at the Sully Historic Site and Ellanor C. Lawrence Park in Fairfax.
“Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, was interesting for even though it was widely known as a nature center—it was the site a historic farm during the Civil War, so they brought in a historian to help increase their history programming and make that part of the park more well-known instead of just the nature aspect,” she said. “I got to help create new history programs and new history exhibits, to bring out that history.”
Gibbons-Backus has been around Ben Lomond since it has been open to the public—from a volunteer, to an intern, to a full-time staff member. She said she got to help get it off the ground and take it to the next level. “Not many people have the chance to be involved with the same site as they develop their career, so I have I feel I have unique oppournity now that I am in a leading role at the site. Working at a smaller site has its challenges with smaller staff and budgets, but it also has its opportunities because I have the ability to create and try new ways to get the local community interested and engaged in the site.”
Engagement, she stressed, is the key. “This historic house museum is an immersive experience. It looks like a hospital, and smells like one,” she said. A scent machine emits odors of gangrene, smoke, coffee, and a smell Gibbons-Backus describes as “filth.” Audio exhibits are next on her list to add to visitors’ experiences. Gibbons-Backus said she wants the site to engage all of the senses and have people leave with a memorable encounter with the history.
“Here, I have the ability to change programs and to create new programs that get people more interested in the history,” she said. “The history we have here at the site is depressing, grotesque, and to some visitors scary, but it’s important to know what these men had to suffer through and how far the medical field has come today.”