Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Running Lambert Castle: An Interview with Heather Garside

Running Lambert Castle: An Interview with Heather Garside
Written by Don E. Smith, Jr.

In the heart of Passaic County, New Jersey is the city of Paterson which traces its origins back to Alexander Hamilton. On the border of Paterson and Clifton is the beautiful Gothic Revival mansion called Lambert Castle, now home of the Passaic County Historical Society. Take one step through the front door and the portraits of Judge John and Jane Van Winkle, the first couple in Passaic County murdered in 1850, greet the visitors. The amazing twenty-seven year old Heather Garside helps keep the museum running. She is the Acting Historic Site Manager/Curator and every weekend visitors shuffle in and out to see the many amazing exhibits the castle has to offer. We asked Ms. Garside what it takes to bring New Jersey history to life.

Don Smith: First, tell us a little bit about your background in history.
Heather Garside: I received my bachelor's degree from Union College in Schenectady, New York. In undergrad I studied history and minored in anthropology. It was here that I first really studied British history in great detail. I also spent several summers participating in archaeological investigations, both in the United States and the United Kingdom. For graduate work, I went on to study at the University of York in England and received a master's degree in Medieval Archaeology. Directly before and after grad school I worked for a county historical society, not unlike PCHS (Passaic County Historical Society), in the archives and library. In my current position at Lambert Castle, I primarily work with the collections, both designing exhibits for the public and working behind the scenes inventorying and organizing our collection (which represents about 100 years of collecting).

DS: First, history is just fun, wouldn’t you agree?
HG: I think history is always fun, but most people have lost sight of that fun because of the way we are taught history. Standardized testing has turned stories into basic facts and the juicy, interesting, and human bits of history are being left out. I think that public history as a movement has succeeded in sparking an interest in history again and reminding people that it can be fun. Part of this is of course showing people (and reminding them) of their own stories and their own local history, which is where many smaller museums, such as mine, fit in.

DS: Do you feel the popularity of movies such as Lincoln or the John Adams mini-series on HBO have helped with that?
HG: I think it is very good for the history and heritage industry - for the public to be interested in projects like these. They remind people that history has depth and human interest. Often historical movies have inaccuracies; some more than others, like Braveheart for example. That being said, I think those movies are still valuable if they get people interested enough in the story to dig deeper by reading and researching. It is only dangerous when people take movies and TV as one hundred percent truth. Then there is a risk of people thinking that Lincoln killed vampires between drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation. I think that big budget movies and TV have the ability to raise interest in local history. However, it is a fine line for local history museums. I think sometimes there is a risk that the organizations will sell-out in an attempt to ride the popularity wave. But if museums ignore these projects completely, they are equally at risk, for they will appear stagnant.

DS: Now, how did you first develop an interest in history?
HG: I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t love history. My family was very into daytrips and we were always traveling to historic houses, museums, and battlefields. History was never memorizing facts for me - it was seeing, doing, and experiencing. I remember being fascinated, even as a kid, with how places and people who seem totally unrelated connect in such interesting ways. And history came alive for me literally sometimes too. I remember visiting Hildene in Vermont, (home of Robert Todd Lincoln). Looking out the upstairs window into the garden, there was Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd, sitting on a bench. My mother thought I was crazy when I told her Abraham Lincoln was in the garden, but finally she looked out the window, and he was there. The house had been doing a photo shoot and had hired some reenactors for the day.

DS: Is there any part of American history that you feel drawn to? For example, pre-Revolution, post-Revolution America, pre-Civil War, post-Civil War?
HG: As one of my major interests in history is Medieval and Post-Medieval Britain, I find Colonial America, and the early period of Anglo-American relations (through the 1820s) very interesting. I tend to be a bit of an Anglophile, so I often sympathize with British motivations. But then someone has to! Too often Americans only know the watered down versions of American history and never really understand the deeper complexity of periods like the American Revolution.

DS: Let’s talk about Lambert Castle. It is an old castle with decades of history in it. What do you find are the most exciting aspects of Lambert Castle as to what it offers the public?
HG: I think one of the exciting things about Lambert Castle is that visitors get to visit both a historic house and a museum. Because we have the first floor rooms arranged in period style, but also offer changing exhibits on the second floor, which display our other materials, the public really gets two pieces of local history in one. At the same time, they get a glimpse into the life of Catholina Lambert, prominent local citizen and they can see assembled glimpses of pieces of the County’s history, some of these items being centuries old. I also think that the inventory project (currently being conducted by the Passaic County Historical Society) will prove to be a great asset to both the local history community and the community at large. Past members and trustees have rescued and preserved so much of our local history in both the museum collections and the archives. But what the inventory project is doing is allowing us to better understand what we have and where we have it. In the long run, this will make our collections more easily accessible to the public both electronically and in person.

DS: Are there any surprises that people do not realize about the museum?
HG: I might be biased, but I think the museum is full of surprises. We have one room with an “oddities” display, full of weird, random, and interesting items we have in our collection. Now that we have been delving deeper into the collection, conducting the inventory, I am starting to realize that the oddities room is only the tip of the iceberg. We have a little bit of everything, which means really any exhibit is possible.

DS: What sort of exhibits does Lambert Castle plan to offer in the future? What exciting things do you have next on your agenda?
HG: I always have several ideas up my sleeves, in case of a rainy day. The biggest project we are currently working on is our Gaetano Federici Conservation and Exhibition project. We are currently looking for sponsors to restore the Society’s collection of original plaster plaques and statues by this Patersonian sculptor. We have already had eight of the pieces sponsored, but we still have a long way before they will be ready for exhibit. We were hoping to open the Federici exhibit in early 2014.

DS: What have been some of the most rewarding experiences about being interested in history?
HG: I really love my job. I love all of the interesting items I get to work with, and all the new things I learn about each and every day. Sometimes I feel a bit like I am training to be on “Jeopardy,” but I find two things particularly rewarding about my job. One is listening to visitors' happy and interested comments as they look at our exhibits: “Well isn’t that interesting,” or “Honey, listen to this….did you know that?” Let me know that I have succeeded to engage and teach history to others. The other aspect of my job I find incredibly rewarding is working with and training my team of college interns. We usually have about seven to fourteen interns volunteering with us at any one time, and watching them actively engage in history, helping them to learn about museums, local history, and proper museum cataloging really is what gets me out of bed most mornings.

DS: Heather, thanks so much for being a part of this!
HG: Thank you!

Acting Historic Site Manager/Curator of Lambert Castle, Heather Garside.
Image Courtesy of the Passaic County Historical Society.
Additional photos of Lambert Castle on Pinterest

About the Author:
Don Everett Smith, Jr. is a comic book writer and author who lives in Bergen County, New Jersey with his wife, Laura, and their three cats. His books Images of America: Hawthorne (NJ) was published by Arcadia Publishing and The Goffle Road Murders of Passaic County was published by History Press. His bio-comics on the lives of Ronald Reagan, Rush Limbaugh and Jesus Christ (from Bluewater Comics) received national attention. He independently has published comic books dealing with the paranormal and the unusual with Spirited Comics. He also has spoken at libraries, local groups, and bookstores about local history and comic books. Visit his web site at

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Great article I have been to Lambert Castle a few time and find it a wonderful place and rich with local history

Wow! I waited too long to respond! Thanks so much, Richard!!

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