Elizabeth Owen Walker '92
Elizabeth Owen Walker '92 keeps the Molly Brown House Museum afloat
Although "the unsinkable" Molly Brown famously survived the wreck of the Titanic, her historic home in downtown Denver nearly met with the demolition ball. Rescued by conservationists who began its ongoing restoration, the house has gained a second life as a museum. Attractive to tourists and scholars alike, the Molly Brown House Museum has much to teach anyone curious about Victorian architecture, decorative arts, manners, and social history; the status of women in Denver's early days; and the history of one unusual woman. At the helm of this enterprise stands the current curator, Elizabeth Owen Walker '92.
While conducting museum tours, Walker introduces visitors to a figure they've never met --Margaret Brown, a radical thinker who nearly ran for political office on a Women's Party ticket in the early years of the twentieth century, a supporter of children's rights, and a champion of laborers. Debunking the popular image of Brown as a half-civilized arriviste, Walker reveals in her stead a courageous, outspoken champion of the underrepresented and the poor.
That Brown was never known as "Molly" during her lifetime suggests the degree to which her image has been distorted by her popularizers. (Walker speaks of her exclusively as "Margaret," her given name.) Richard Willson, the lyricist for the Broadway musical, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, rechristened her. "Margaret," he said, did not fit the music. He invented the more euphonious "Molly."
The misnomer strikes Walker as emblematic. The well-known stage and screen entertainments represented Brown as ill-educated, ill-mannered, and socially snubbed, a gutsy but monstrous nouvelle riche. "This image was created initially by a person who professed not to like her, and it was circulated before Brown's papers became available some thirty years after her death," says Walker. The papers confirm Brown's inclusion on Denver society lists and demonstrate that she acquired cultured manners during several trips to Europe.
The recent film Titanic also gave out a false picture of Brown's character. "They showed her just sitting in the lifeboat, expecting to be served by the lower classes. But in reality she took the oars and rowed the boat herself. I wish the filmmakers had consulted us," says Walker, although the release of the film did precipitate a fresh wave of interest in the museum. Any publicity, it seems, is good publicity.
A Kenyon history major who wrote her honors thesis on Victorian women in Denver, Walker sees Brown's life as a story ripe for retelling. The daughter of impoverished Irish immigrants who were passionate abolitionists, Brown absorbed her parents' devotion to human rights. She herself suffered ethnic as well as gender discrimination throughout her life, leading her to advocate women's rights and suffrage. When labor unrest disrupted business at her husband's mine, Brown sided with the workers against her own economic interests. "She never forgot where she had come from," notes Walker, "no matter how wealthy she became."
Walker says she herself was politicized as a sophomore unable to get south-end housing at the College. A field-hockey athlete, she wanted housing convenient to the fieldhouse. But fraternity entitlements at the time meant that men received a disproportionate share of rooms in the historic residence halls. Walker and others protested what they saw as gender discrimination in the housing lottery.
Walker's duties at the museum include overseeing public education on Victorian life and manners, caring for some eight thousand artifacts held by the museum, and supervising restoration work at the site. Recently she has been researching fabrics, finishes, furniture, and paint for two of the private rooms in the Brown residence. These rooms will refocus what visitors see when they tour the house, since the only rooms on display until now have been those in which the public would have been entertained. In this, the museum reflects current trends in Victorian studies, where private lives and domestic interiors have become increasingly important subjects.
Being engaged professionally in restoration, Walker wants none of that at home. She and her husband, Frank Walker, live with their two labradors in a 1915 Denver bungalow whose previous owners had already modernized the kitchen and installed enough electrical outlets.
A Denver native, Walker has strong ties to Colorado history, a state her own family has lived in for generations. Since Walker's great-grandparents lived at one time in Leadville--Brown's birthplace--it is possible for her to imagine that her great-grandmother knew Margaret Brown (although no evidence of such an acquaintance exists). Walker's fascination with Brown's cultural milieu stems partly from an interest in her own roots.
Walker, who holds a master's degree in American studies from George Washington University, served internships at the Smithsonian Institution and the Colorado Historical Society before taking up her current position in 1996.
The moment of supreme satisfaction in Walker's job comes when she's been talking to museum visitors about Margaret Brown's life "and I suddenly see the light go on, and they get it! `She was really an amazing woman, wasn't she,' they'll say. It's hard to change people's minds in thirty minutes or less. You hope they'll retain one thing you've said."
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