Summertime tourists have been flocking to Cape May to beat the heat for nearly 250 years. Back then most visitors came by boat. Some travelled down the Delaware River from Wilmington, Philadelphia, and points North, while from across Chesapeake Bay came Baltimoreans, residents of Washington DC, and all points South (as well as their slaves). Today many visitors come down the Garden State Parkway (certainly the most direct way for the tourists traveling from New York, New England, and French Canada) but for those starting from Philadelphia or via the Delaware Memorial Bridge there is a better route that offers the opportunity to visit any of several public humanities sites along the way.
The first stop on your public humanities road trip, the Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, is a small museum housed entirely within Upper Deerfield Township’s Municipal Building and open only Monday through Thursday from 9 AM until Noon. This unique site tells the tale of Japanese-Americans originally from California who moved to Seabrook, New Jersey to work on vegetable farms during World War Two, as well as the troubling story of their wartime internment and the cultural history of other groups who lived at Seabrook (mostly from Eastern Europe). Yet perhaps the most interesting part of the story is the fact that the museum was funded by pooling reparations payments that the community received from the Reagan administration in the 1980s, allowing the community to tell their tale as they recall it.
The second stop on your public humanities road trip is the Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 AM to 5 PM, Wheaton is home to the Museum of American Glass, which this year is hosting a special exhibit as part of New Jersey 350 that focuses on the historic glassmaking industry. The site also contains an artists’ studio that offers visitors the opportunity to see pottery thrown by using an old-fashioned wheel, and glass hand-blown by many of the journeymen who still migrate to Wheaton village to refine their craft. Yet this focus on the past, and a few skilled workers who still practice the trade today, ignores the reality that most of South Jersey’s historic glassmaking industry has long since left (including the Atlantic City factory where my own grandfather once worked).
The third stop on your public humanities road trip is the Aviation Museum at the Naval Air Station Wildwood (located far from the Wildwoods), which is open daily during the summer from 9 AM to 4 PM. The museum is primarily housed within a single huge hanger in an area of the airport which was a military base during World War II and includes extensive exhibits on social life during the 1940s and Vietnam War era helicopters, but somehow manages to forget the Korean War despite displaying a Soviet MiG Fighter Jet. And while one would think from its name that the Forgotten Warriors Museum, located just across the street, might do a better job remembering the ‘forgotten war’ it is in fact mostly devoted to displaying materials from Vietnam, with only a small corner reserved for items from Korea.
The next stop on your public humanities road trip is Historic Cold Spring Village, which is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10AM to 4:30 PM during the summer months. Spread out over more than thirty wooded acres, Cold Spring Village is a living history museum that says it recreates the ‘Age of Homespun’ from the 1790s through the 1830s including open-air exhibits on topics like basket-making, tin-smithing, wool-spinning, and woodworking as well as indoor displays about baking, blacksmithing, bookbinding, and printing. There is even an old-fashioned jail, railroad station, schoolhouse, tavern, and poultry house brought to this site from all across Cape May County. Yet what you will not find at Cold Spring is any mention of slavery, despite the fact that the institution played a prominent role throughout the area until the Civil War (an omission that reminds me of former practices at Colonial Williamsburg).
The final stop on your public humanities road trip is the Emlen Physick House, which is open daily during the summer for guided tours from 11:45 AM to 3:30 PM. This Victorian mansion includes four floors of period rooms recreated in the style of the late 19th century and from the same location you can start a trolley tour of the many 19th century houses around the city, some of which exist today as Bed and Breakfasts. Yet what neither tour will tell you is that, from the early 20th century until a late 1970s Victorian revival, many of these historic houses were left to decay and major fires were common.
You can easily spend a day (or three) enjoying the many public humanities sites ‘On The Way To Cape May’, just make sure to keep in mind the hidden histories that often lie behind the tales told to visitors on vacation. While some of these sites, most clearly Seabrook and the Forgotten Warriors Museum, are actively devoted to using heritage tourism as a means of helping to recover the histories of very specific communities of memory, it is worth noting that they are also the least often visited of these sites. At the same time such sites work to problematize triumphalist narratives of American exceptionalism that are presented at many mainstream museums across the country such as the Aviation Museum. Yet the far greater popularity of Wheaton Arts, Cold Spring, and the Physick house suggest that most vacationers prefer to skip debates over 20th century issues entirely and instead dive headlong into the 19th century, where key contemporary concerns about post-industrial dislocations, race relations, and urban decay can be temporarily forgotten amid hand crafted arts, costumed interpreters, and recreated Victorian splendor.