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Steve Ayers: “If we’re ever gonna get beyond the divisive policy differences we have now, we have to go deeper. We have to find where we share common values. And once we figure out where we have common values, then that makes the policy issues a lot easier to address.”
Anita Walker: Hi, I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is the Reverend Steve Ayers from the Old North Church in Boston. Welcome to our program.
Steve Ayers: Thank you, Anita. Great to be here.
Anita Walker: Well, you clearly occupy the centerpiece of American history as does Boston as does much of Massachusetts, and, lo and behold, we’re looking at some more anniversaries. <laughs>
Steve Ayers: We’re coming up on some big anniversaries, both for Old North Church and obviously for the nation and the city as well. Old North is gonna turn 300 in 2023, so we’re trying to gear up for that to make some improvements to the campus, to add some new interpretive features. The big three projects we’re working on are to restore our crypt, which is very popular with visitors who like to know about burial practices in the Colonial Era, and that project we actually hope to get underway next year. And then the following year we hope to redesign one of our gardens or a couple gardens and install in that the poem “Paul Revere’s Ride.” Of course that’s what makes us famous. Everybody knows “One if by land, two if by sea.” Nobody knows that that poem was written on the eve of the Civil War and it was written by an abolitionist. Longfellow was very sympathetic to the abolitionist cause, and we want to be able to teach about that and teach about the role of poetry in civic discourse, so we are going to post the entire poem in there. It’s a fairly long poem, as my designers keep saying, but we have enough space to do that and turn this area into an outdoor classroom, so that’s very exciting.
Anita Walker: Actually, I discovered how long it was when you asked me to read it at one of your annual events to celebrate the Old North Church and the poem, and I thought I was gonna be reading one verse and it is a couple of pages long, but it is a fantastic piece. One other thing about the North Church before we get into the rest of the 250th anniversaries, most people who have visited the North Church in the recent past probably remember the inside looking white.
Steve Ayers: Yes, and that’s one of the– the third major project we’re working on is to bring the church up to code, which means ripping up a lot of walls to put in new electricity, new ventilation, but it also gives us a chance to restore the church to its colonial appearance. Right now the color scheme is basically colonial revival whites and soft pastels, and thanks to the support of the Mass Cultural Council and other funders, we’ve done a thorough paint analysis, and when we’re ready to restore the church we’re gonna be able to bring it back to its colonial splendor, a lot more color in the church then, and what is really cool is up in the gallery archways, and there are 20 of these, and in each one is a cherub that was painted in roughly 1730. And they’re intact, just buried under a lot of paint, and we are gonna very carefully peel away that paint and bring those cherubs back because we firmly believe that America is in need of more angels right now.
Anita Walker: <laughs> Certainly. But that was a big surprise to you.
Steve Ayers: We knew they were there from previous research. We did not know that they would be so intact, and that was the real exciting piece of the research. And, again, we thank Mass Cultural Council, the Cultural Facilities Fund, for helping us do that.
Anita Walker: So the Old North Church is gonna be 300, but some of your younger friends in the neighborhood are turning 250. Tell us about a bunch of historical organizations are getting together, and there is a laundry list of 250ths that are gonna start rolling out pretty soon.
Steve Ayers: But we’re already rolling through 250th anniversaries. Of course we’re referring to the 250th anniversary of the birth of the nation, which for most folks goes back to 1776. Of course, we at Old North like to think that it really started on April 18th, 1775, when we hung two lanterns in our steeple. But the history predates that, and historical organizations, public historians, universities in Massachusetts have banded together in a group called Revolution 250 so that we can start to think about public celebrations so we’re not just– we wait until the last minute a year before 2026 and say, “Oh, we’d better throw a big party,” but we can actually teach about the history. So in 2015 we came across the 250th of the Stamp Act, and we did a great production in Downtown Crossing, a Stamp Act Parade, involved a lot of local schools, made replicas of the original lanterns that were hung in the Liberty Tree. It was a great event. Old North hosted another event that year where we talked about the sacking of Lieutenant Hutchinson’s house, Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson’s house, which was part of the Stamp Act riots, happened in the North End. And because he filed for an insurance claim we knew exactly what was ruined, a very fascinating talk. So next year, for example, 2018 will be the 250th anniversary of the landing of British troops, so we’re all beginning to think about what kinds of educational programs we can have that use the theme of occupation, which of course was very important in the beginning of the revolution. Occupation is certainly a theme that is very important today as well, so we’re encouraging all our member institutions and other cultural organizations to begin to think about events like this. How do you work that into your programming so that we can teach the general public a much deeper understanding of our American history and help us appreciate the values that are embedded in that history. One thing I firmly believe is that if we’re ever gonna get beyond the divisive policy differences we have now, we have to go deeper. We have to find where we share common values. And once we figure out where we have common values, then that makes the policy issues a lot easier to address. Unfortunately we’ve abandoned support for history and the other humanities. It’s been years since we’ve taught civics in most schools. We need to get back to that so we understand what our history is, who we are as a nation. And if we can understand that and understand the values embedded in that, then perhaps we won’t be so divisive as we work with each other.
Anita Walker: So there’s more than just sort of having a party and a celebration because we’ve hit a birthday with a zero at the end of it. There’s really a long-term benefit of thinking about where we’ve come from.
Steve Ayers: Well, you know, if you look back to the bicentennial, it was a similar set of circumstances. America as a nation had just come out of the Vietnam War, which was very divisive. Our generation were running around as hippies in the streets making everybody agitated. We had just been through the resignation of Richard Nixon, and the bicentennial was intentionally used as a way, again, to reassert our common history, to teach civics, and to get people to kind of reconnect to America and what America stands for, so we look at that as an example. In Boston and in Massachusetts that was also for those of us who run historic sites, that was an opportunity to do a great deal of improvement to our sites. For Massachusetts the bicentennial brought the National Park Service to Boston. It was then that we started First Night. It was then that Faneuil Hall Marketplace was first restored, so there were a number of great long-lasting improvements that came out of the bicentennial. And we’re hoping that we can get civic leadership to understand the value of a big milestone like this as a way to renew not only our commitment to the nation but renew what is one of the most essential brand identities of our state and our city, which is this is the birthplace of the American Revolution, and we still can be revolutionary.
Anita Walker: You know, it’s interesting because while we have this wonderful legacy and advantage of being the birthplace of America, the place where people come from all around the world to go to the Old North Church or the Paul Revere house or to experience the Freedom Trail, there is a lot of responsibility that comes with that benefit that we have.
Steve Ayers: There’s a huge responsibility, and unfortunately often we’re taken for granted. It’s like you’ve been around for 300 years? You’ll be around for another 300 years. Well, it takes a lot of effort and a lot of support. When the National Park Service was brought to town, everybody said, “Well, that’s gonna fix the problem of maintaining all the historic sites.” And it helped for a long time, but if you read the headlines, the National Park Service is facing huge budget cuts under the current administration. They’re up to about a $12 billion delayed maintenance problem, and it gets worse every year. All the sites in Boston are part of that delayed maintenance problem. We all have requests pending, but there’s no money to help us deal with those. So we have to figure out working on all levels of government, with private sector and philanthropy how we can get the resources together to make sure that these great icons of American history survive for another 250 years.
Anita Walker: And once they’re gone they are gone. A replica isn’t the same thing as being in the real place. You took me on a steep climb to the top of the steeple of the Old North Church, and I mean I just get chills thinking of standing in that spot.
Steve Ayers: You know, hundreds of thousands of people, half a million people or more come to the Old North every year because we are really the birthplace. We are the start of the American Revolution, thanks to Longfellow. The American Revolution was started by two lanterns in our church. Everybody wants to see and touch it, and it’s so cool to say, “This is the original building. Those are the original bricks. Some things have changed, but it’s basically the same.” And people get in touch with their roots coming there. Also, they love the fact that we’re not just a museum. There’s still an active church that’s worshipping there. Unfortunately some people may think that God has a checkbook and can write all the bills for maintenance.
Anita Walker: Not so?
Steve Ayers: It doesn’t work that way, no.
Anita Walker: <laughs> Darn. Well, actually, you do give me an opportunity, you mentioned the Cultural Facilities Fund, and we are thrilled to have celebrated $100 million of investment in projects like yours over the last 10 years all across the commonwealth. But maintenance never ceases, does it? <laughs>
Steve Ayers: It never ceases, and the 100 million you’ve invested, and we’ve been beneficiary of a few grants and we’ll be back again fairly soon, but 100 million in and of itself, that’s about the delayed maintenance budget in the local Boston National Historical Park. So it’s great what you can do, but the needs are huge, and the longer it gets delayed the harder it gets to tackle them all.
Anita Walker: And, again, it’s stewardship not just for Boston and not just for Massachusetts, because we’re preserving physical assets but we’re also preserving a story that the rest of the world is fascinated by and looks to for leadership.
Steve Ayers: Looks to and they come to. I mean a lot of our visitors are coming from around the world. What’s most important to us is obviously our history and our values, but we recognize we’re a key part of the tourism industry as well. We don’t get to charge the same room rates that the hotels or charge 100 bucks for dinner that the restaurants can in the neighborhood, but people come because they want to see the historic sites, and we are a major contributor to the economy and need to be maintained so that we can continue to support what is the third biggest industry in Massachusetts.
Anita Walker: So Revolution 250, where could people find out more about all the different anniversaries coming up?
Steve Ayers: Revolution 250 is putting together a new website right now. It should launch shortly. As I said, we are currently housed at the Mass Historical Society, so you can get in touch with them and watch as we emerge, and all the member sites–and name any historical organization right now mostly in eastern Mass, but we’re beginning to recruit organizations in western Massachusetts as well–were all involved in that. What I also want to mention is that beyond a statewide effort there’s a new nationwide effort being led by the Smithsonian and Mount Vernon and a number of D.C./Northern Virginia organizations, but it includes historical societies from Minnesota and Wisconsin. We don’t have Iowa yet, so we’ve gotta to work on that.
Anita Walker: <laughs>
Steve Ayers: But trying to say, okay, how are we gonna use the 250th to encourage people to know and love their history, so their working title now is called Made by U.S., and we’re looking at a number of ways of marketing our sites to bring younger generations into the sites to learn their history and to value where we come from as a people and who we should be as a people.
Anita Walker: So in the last couple of minutes that we have, I think we should talk about chocolate. <laughs>
Steve Ayers: We can. We’ll talk about chocolate, which is somewhat related to Made by U.S. Old North is a historic site. It is not just a church. We have two wonderful living history exhibits. One is a colonial printing press. It’s the Printing Office of Edes & Gill, who were major printers during the Revolutionary Era. King George called them printers of sedition, which they were. And right now if you go into that you’ll see us demonstrate the press by printing the Declaration of Independence. But this fall on Constitution Day, which is September 17th, we will be debuting the U.S. Constitution, a replica. And to make this what we’ve done is we’ve taken a high digital res picture of an original constitution, recreated the type for that, and we’re in the process of typesetting that. So, Anita, I hope you can join us on that day.
Anita Walker: That sounds awesome.
Steve Ayers: You can print your own copy of the constitution. It’ll be a lot of fun. And so that’s one of the programs that we have. But the other one you referred to is our colonial chocolate shop, which is named after a member of the congregation, Captain Newark Jackson, so it’s Captain Jackson’s Chocolate Shop, and we demonstrate how chocolate was produced in the Colonial Era. We even give people a sample of it. And you think that that’s a little frivolous, but it gives us a way to talk about the colonial economy. Captain Jackson was an importer and manufacturer of chocolate. He has an incredible backstory. Turns out he died while smuggling chocolate out of Surinam. He died in a mutiny, and the mutineers came to a rather gruesome end. We’ve been able to research that. We’re actually working with archives over in the Netherlands and we’ve just gotten the trial transcript of that. But it gives us a way to talk about slavery because Captain Jackson was a slave owner. Slavery was very much involved in the cacao plantations in Central and South America and also in the production of chocolate up here, so it gives us a way to talk about part of our history that we need to recognize but is not as easy to talk about, but you smooth it over with a little bit of chocolate and people are willing to listen and understand.
Anita Walker: So one way to our intellect is through our taste buds. <laughs> And it’s good chocolate, by the way.
Steve Ayers: It is really good chocolate. Colonial Chocolate was a drink. It was heavily spiced, so if you sample our drink you get pepper and vanilla and cinnamon and anise, a number– each chocolate maker would blend their own set of spices. What’s very wonderful about this program is that it’s backed by the biggest chocolate manufacturer in the world, the Mars Corporation, who are very interested in American history and in the history of chocolate as well, and they are also big supporters of the Made by U.S. Campaign, which is a national campaign, so we love working with them. They understand that labor issues are still an issue in the production of chocolate and are working as hard as they can as a major corporation to address those issues and to recognize those issues. So they’re very supportive even though we’re telling about what you might call the dark side of chocolate.
Anita Walker: So have a big bite of history with a side of chocolate. A lot of exciting things coming up over the next few years. I want to thank the Reverend Steve Ayers, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.
Steve Ayers: Anita, thank you very much.
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