The human spirit is an unwavering thing. By nature, we are curious and optimistic even in the most uncertain times. Grounded in family, community, and shared experience there is a constant that can be found across time and miles. When faced with the worst and the unimaginable is often when we find the best in ourselves. Our ability to band together in the worst of times is perhaps our greatest gift. In the early 18th century, St. Augustine was often cut off from a friendlier outside world. Decades of destruction in Florida’s interior efforts, continuous English raids, European wars, and pirating created perfect storms. Food, money, and goods were often hard to come by as farming became near impossible (due to the English) and Spain focused its efforts away from their colonies. Were it not for spirited entrepreneurs this would have been the end for our city. Shops often closed and reopened, providing any goods they could find. Trading with the British was illegal, but starving was worse. To save the town some turned to piracy themselves, and while many still struggled our town was able to endure. Cristobal Contreras was one of these entrepreneurs whose shops sat on the land the Ximenez-Fatio House Museum occupies today. Another entrepreneur, Juan de Ayala y Escobar, a Captain and Sergeant Major of the colony, who saved the town in 1712, during one of the worst food shortages, by bringing in five boatloads of edible British contraband. When the governor tried to arrest him, nearly all the citizens of St. Augustine banded together to protest and successfully saved Ayala. It’s easy to see humanity as individually-driven and selfish. Certainty, we have our moments – Juan de Ayala y Escobar sold those goods at an exorbitant price! – but ultimately, human beings are communal. In recent history, we find some of the best examples of this in grassroots efforts, such as the “Cajun Navy” and Occupy Sandy relief efforts. When government-led efforts fall short it is often the community as a whole that steps in and fills the gaps. Not for personal glory or profit but out of generosity for their fellow man. Especially now, when things seem uncertain on a scale we never imagined, it’s important to remember that the human spirit has prevailed during the worst of times. Whether it was over three hundred years ago with bootleg British food or right now while private citizens make much needed facemasks, we have always found a way to lift one another up. And like all disasters we have faced throughout history, this too shall pass, and the human race will have learned what we’re made of! 1914 is a year when we as a race might have been at our worst. Five months into what we will eventually call WWI and already the Western Front had solidified. There had not been a large scale war in Europe in almost a hundred years. Men who had grown up being taught the glories and…
The world has been changed by the outbreak of COVID-19, not only on a personal level but also professionally for museums of all sizes and styles. Virtually overnight, museums were tasked with determining how to keep their audience engaged while both the museum staff and their followers were sheltered at home. We at the Ximenez-Fatio House Museum have worked hard to bring our social media audience a variety of content during this time. In addition to pretty photos to distract, we have created activities which can be completed from home with family members. Now, as the world begins to reopen, we are looking to the future and planning what needs to be done to ensure the safety of our guests as well as our staff. It can be daunting when considering the steps which might need to be taken to prepare for reopening a museum. The museum community throughout the world has gathered together to brainstorm best practices, while following local and national government guidelines. The majority of the actions required to reopen our museum on June 1 are those which were set in motion from the very beginning of the outbreak. These include social distancing, wearing personal protection equipment (masks and gloves), washing hands well and often, and regularly sanitizing frequently used surfaces. We will also have hand-sanitizer stations available and our guests will be required to wear masks, as well. This is to protect everyone – staff and guests alike! One thing is for certain, in a phrase repeated in museums all over the world, “The museum we closed will not be the museum we reopen.” But, rest assured, it will be as safe and healthy as possible.
Working in an historic home, one gets a daily dose of how simple life used to be, yet continually amazed at how “modern” some of the items we have in the museum were to the 19th century lifestyle. If these folks only knew how much their lives and expectations from society were about to change. “How,” they might ask, “could life get any more convenient…more amazing?!” We demonstrate in every room how much the 19th-century “normal” was changing, which brings many smiles and giggles as to how archaic and old-fashioned these items seem to us today. Historic home museums not only show us what life was like way back when, but how far we have come in our endeavors to improve upon our daily existence. But have we truly come as far as we believe that we have? We think that so much has been improved upon over the last one-hundred years and yet here we are in a global pandemic. None of our technological advances, as astronomical as they have been, fended off this crisis. Right now, we would all be happy if things to just got back to normal! But…what will the new “normal” be? If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how much our society misses some of the simpler things in life – things that we stopped taking time to enjoy years ago – like borrowing a cup of sugar from the folks next door, visiting grandma and grandpa on Sunday afternoons, going to a ballgame or a movie or out to eat. Going anywhere for pleasure rather than purpose. Children are actually missing school! I don’t know about you, but I’m not that anxious to get back to “normal.” Not knowing your neighbors, or even wanting to know your neighbors, used to be normal. Crowding into elevators and shoving our way past people on the sidewalk used to be normal. School shootings were becoming normal – never acceptable but, sadly, normal. I am just not anxious to relocate that brand of normalcy. We have an opportunity to reinvent our societies through this crisis; a way to come out of this with a degree of positivity. The Humanities may never be viewed the same once this is over. An entire population may learn to never again take art, live performances, and museums for granted. We may learn to be kinder, more patient, more tolerant, more helpful from this. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful new normal? Here’s the good news – it’s up to us! As Yule Brenner so famously said, “So let it be written. So let it be done.”
At the Ximenez-Fatio House Museum we interpret 19th-century historic living, as seen in the lives of three single women who owned, consecutively, this grand old house and operated a very respected boarding house within its walls. Here we offer a glimpse at the simplicity of the 19th century, as we display its most fashionable designs and daily comforts that couldn’t possibly, ever be improved upon! It truly was a simpler time back then. Yet, if you think about it, 19th-century America was bigger than it is today. It was more spread out, with more distance between cities and towns, and fewer people to occupy the wide-open spaces. The nation as we know it today was incomplete. Ranches and farmlands dominated the western lands, with several territories still awaiting statehood status. It was a time when neighbor helping neighbor was essential to survival. Essential. Now there’s a word we hear a lot about these days. Essential personnel. Essential job descriptions. Americans need their neighbors more now than perhaps we ever have, yet we’ve never been farther from one another, metaphorically, than we are in this pandemic. That is one reason that so many “non-essential” organizations are collaborating via the internet in order to survive. Museums, libraries, historical societies, archives, orchestras – all of those places we begrudgingly dragged our feet toward on school field trips (presumably for doing something terribly wrong to deserve such a fate!) – have come together to keep the people of the world’s lives enriched with their information; their resources; their harmonies. We need harmonies right now. We need old-style neighbor helping neighbor activities to help the world maintain some sense of balance, if not for ourselves then at least for the children. Isn’t that what the Humanities are truly about – keeping humanity balanced? The Ximenez-Fatio House Museum is striving to collaborate with other similar institutions to bring stories to homebound children who are looking for…needing…an outlet of innocence and “happy endings” in their lives. Stay tuned as we put this program together so that we can bring you a schedule of old fashioned entertainment and distraction – storytelling. What a concept! What an essential, wholesome concept for our children to hear and remember. Talk to any adult who lived through a crisis of global proportions as a small child and they will recall the games that they played and the stories they heard. That’s why one of our missions right now is to ensure that today’s children have no shortage of stories to hear. Please join us by submitting your favorite children’s stories so that we can help you help them as we read these stories live on Facebook. Let’s make sure that the children of today have the same remembrances of childhood that the rest of us enjoyed and have held so dear.
April 13, 2020 This latest pandemic is not the first time that St. Augustine has experienced a quarantine. On October 1834, when Dr. Seth Peck, his wife Sarah, and their children Mary, Rebecca, John, Lucy, and baby Sarah arrived in St. Augustine, they were not allowed to disembark. The schooner Topic, which brought them from New York, was ordered to quarantine everyone and everything onboard. The quarantine was imposed by the St. Augustine city council due to the threat of yellow fever and the Asiatic Cholera reported in nearby states. There was reason to be fearful! Cholera, an infection of the small intestine that causes diarrhea, vomiting, muscle cramps, dehydration, and death had spread from India across Asia, Europe, and America. The Asiatic Cholera caused more deaths in the 19th century than any other epidemic. Although no cases of cholera or yellow fever had been reported in St. Augustine, the city council declared that all streets, lots, houses, outhouses, and gardens were to be kept clean and dry. Observance of such regulations and the quarantine, “with the blessing of Heaven,” would avert the pestilence. Citizens were asked to “keep themselves clean and be temperate in drink, diet and exercise.” The city fathers were indeed wise in their decision. The spread of cholera and yellow fever was halted even before it started. As for Dr. Peck and his family, they spent three years boarding at Mrs. Whitehurst’s Boarding House, known today as the Ximenez-Fatio House Museum, where they added their own story to the long history of the house.
March 31, 2020 Human history is rife with plagues and pandemics. Just say the word “plague” and most people will conjure images of the Bubonic Plague (1347-1351) and Monty Python characters calling “Bring outcha dead!” That was a hilarious scene until you are reminded that over 200 million people lost their lives to this disease. Most recently, the Spanish Flu (1918-1919), with a death toll somewhere between 40-50 million people brought the world to its knees. COVID-19 is the new, unimaginable micro-biotic enemy in our midst. The Ximenez-Fatio House has a unique history with pandemics and infectious disease outbreaks. In our own backyard, an archaeological dig in 2002 unearthed a Caravaca Cross made of white bronze. One of only two such amulets found in North America; the cross was sanctioned by the Spanish Catholic Church to celebrate the end of the plague of the 1660s that ravaged Europe. When this plague is over – and it will be! – let us celebrate by holding high the historic Caravaca Cross in our possession as a reminder that we are all part of history. It’s what we do with our knowledge that will determine if we ever need such a cross again.