See The World, Right Here in Laurel! Montpelier Mansion hosts the Smithsonian exhibit Between Fences
This blog post is written by Holly Burnham, Director of Education, at Montpelier Mansion in Laurel.
People look at me funny when I tell them I love to read the obituaries. “How morbid!” they say. “Not at all!” I reply. Obituaries are all about how people lived! Where they grew up, where they’ve worked, how they met their spouses…. They’re how we learn about our neighbors. Everyone has a story!
Only problem with obits is, you have to wait ‘til people die to learn about their lives. So we decided to talk to our neighbors now, to get their stories, to learn about their lives, families, history. All this is in preparation for Montpelier Mansion’s new exhibit Barriers & Gateways: The Immigrant Experience. Created in partnership with the Laurel Museum, the exhibit shows that each of us has a fascinating history. And, even in a community as diverse as Laurel, we may have more in common than we think.
Barriers & Gateways: The Immigrant Experience is the companion exhibit for the Smithsonian traveling exhibition, Between Fences. This exhibit explores the multiple meanings of fences—whether made of split rails, decorative white pickets, or tall chain link, a fence conveys information about the people who built it, how they view and use their property, and the nature of their relations with their neighbors. Such barriers speak eloquently about how we view our communities and country, as well.
For an obit reader like me, developing our companion exhibition has been a dream come true. I’ve gotten to hear peoples’ memories about growing up with immigrant parents or grandparents, how cultures clashed within families, how immigrants themselves overcame prejudice, and how, through it all, the American Dream kept them going. Most moving of all has been the respect people feel for their immigrant ancestors and the risks they took for future generations, and how they hope they’ve inherited some of that spirit.
Take for example Don Dalphonse. Don is a long-time docent of Montpelier Mansion, a teacher at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, and has lived in Laurel for a long time. Don’s a great guy, a good friend, and I’m sure a nice neighbor too. But how did Don find his way to our community? Where did he grow up? And from what distant shores did the Dalphonse family come to America? Turns out both sets of Don’s grandparents came from Italy, from a small town in Abbruzzo Province, just northeast of Rome. But in pre-war Italy, Don’s grandfather on his mother’s side, Tito Sinibaldi, had to choose whether to raise a family Mussolini’s fascist regime, or leave behind everything and move the family to the U.S. He made the difficult move, and the family settled in New Hampshire, where he found work in saw mills and paper factories. There were challenges in the new country, since he knew no English, and the French Canadians and newly arrived Italians didn’t get along very well. But Tito worked hard and persevered. Don recalls a saying his grandfather taught him: “there’s no such thing as undignified work, as long as it’s honest.” Don moved to this area from New Hampshire to attend Catholic University, where he studied to be a teacher–a very honest and dignified profession indeed. What does Don think he’s inherited from his grandfather Tito? A strong work ethic, an ability to go with the flow, a desire to do good for his family and his community. Don Dalphonse, teacher, docent, neighbor, and grandson of an anti-fascist rebel. Who knew?
There are many stories, all equally fascinating, in the people we see every day. And a few of these stories are in our exhibit, Barriers & Gateways: The Immigrant Experience. We hope you’ll come and learn about your fellow Laurelites, and other Laurel residents from centuries past, at this exhibit.
Barriers & Gateways: The Immigrant Experience and Between Fences will be on view at Montpelier Mansion from September 19 to November 7.
Montpelier Mansion and its partner in this project, the Laurel Museum, will host complementary programs, For a complete schedule of events, see www.pgparks.com/between_fences.
Between Fences has been made possible at Montpelier Mansion in Laurel, Maryland by the Maryland Humanities Council. Between Fences is part of Museum on Main Street, collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution and state humanities councils.
For information on Between Fences at Montpelier Mansion, contact Holly Burnham at 301-377-7817 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information on Between Fences in Maryland contact: Jean Wortman 410-685-4187 or email@example.com.
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