What’s Up Downstairs? Servant Life and Interactive Exhibits at Maymont in Richmond, VA

If you keep up with our Facebook and blog posts, you know that here at the Northeast Museum Services Center, we travel a fair amount. Since we are responsible for assisting nearly 80 parks throughout the Northeast Region, we often find ourselves traveling between Maine and Virginia. On these trips, we spend our time working on many types of projects related to cultural resources such as scopes of work, pack and move projects, emergency response, and other types of technical assistance. In addition to these tasks, we are also rethinking how our region’s historic sites are interpreted and have been researching museums and institutions throughout the northeast to see where interpretation is headed in the 21st century. In early March while we were providing technical assistance at Richmond National Battlefield Park, we took a much anticipated trip to Maymont, a 19th-century estate in Richmond, Virginia, to see the home and grounds.


The exterior of Maymont with a light dusting of snow. (NMSC photo)

Maymont is owned by the Maymont Foundation, which took over the property from the city of Richmond in 1975. The mansion was built in 1893 and lived in by James and Sallie Dooley until her death in 1925. It was turned into a museum after Sallie Dooley’s death and remains open as a historic house museum to this day. For decades, visitors have come to the Dooley’s home for a guided tour of the lavish rooms, which still contain the vast majority of their historic furnishings. More recently, the modest “below stairs” has become a reason to visit on its own.

The food storage and preservation room at Maymont.  (NMSC photo)

The food storage and preservation room at Maymont. (NMSC photo)

Servants were essential to running large, Gilded Age houses like Maymont and the National Park Service’s Vanderbilt Mansion.  The foundation and staff at Maymont have made servant life a fundamental part of the history that visitors learn about. The servant population in Richmond was different than that found in houses farther north – at Maymont nearly all were African American while in the north they were largely northern European immigrants. Our tour was led by Dale Wheary, director of historical collections and programs. She took us through the “below stairs” area and we were very impressed with the level of scholarship and time that had been put into restoring and furnishing the various rooms including sleeping quarters, pantry, and kitchen. My personal favorite room was the wine cellar. When I saw it, I imagined lavish parties upstairs and a busy time for the servants below stairs; it really brought Maymont to life for me.

The wine cellar and alcohol storage at Maymont. (NMSC photo)

The wine cellar and alcohol storage at Maymont. (NMSC photo)

Aside from the wonderful furnishings, there were interactive exhibits that were informative and well suited for children and adults who learn through doing, like me. Interactives are often perceived to be cost prohibitive pieces of technology that can become obsolete in a decade, but at Maymont they are much technologically simpler and still very effective. It is important to remember that not all visitors learn best by a guided tour, sometimes they need to interact. This is valuable knowledge that we can use when we’re thinking about how to interpret historic sites in the Northeast Region of the National Park Service.

I loved the interactives throughout the restored

I loved the interactives throughout the restored “below stairs” space! (NMSC photo)

As someone who frequently visits historic houses, I am always fascinated by new interactive approaches to interpretation and I love to learn about people that history may have previously overlooked. At Maymont, I really got a sense of what life was like for the entire household, especially the people who worked to keep the home running smoothly. It was also a great case study for the direction that historic houses are heading in the 21st century. Thank you to Dale and the staff of Maymont for welcoming us and giving us a wonderful tour! For more information, visit Maymont’s website or read “From Morning to Night: Domestic Service in Maymont House and the Gilded Age South” by Elizabeth O’Leary.


O’Leary, Elizabeth, “From Morning to Night:Domestic Service in Maymont House and the Gilded Age South,” University of Virginia Press, 2003.

Maymont Foundation Website – https://www.maymont.org


About Nikki W.

Nikki is a museum technician and has a M.A. in historical archaeology from Boston University and a B.S. in geological sciences and history from Salem State University. Her areas of interest include historic ceramics, 17th and 18th century New England history, geoarchaeology, and American decorative arts.
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