November 17, 2023

Nancy Van Dolsen: Cliveden and the Complexity of the Past

For Nancy Van Dolsen, executive director of Cliveden—a National Trust Historic Site—located just outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, "complex, beautiful, and challenging," captures the site’s essence in three words.

Situated in an area known for Colonial and Revolutionary era history, the staff at Cliveden are dedicated to sharing the story of the Colonial era from a variety of different perspectives. Over the years, the site’s programs provided visitors with a glimpse of its gorgeous architecture, including its living kitchens; a deeper understanding of the women who lived, worked, or were enslaved by the Chew family; a unique program involving music and theatre called Liberty to Go to See; and an open and honest dialogue about reenactments that used to occur as part of the Revolutionary Germantown Festival, and the broader issue of gun violence in the United States.

In terms of virtual offerings, the website offers videos, links to primary sources and photographs, and a program called “Virtual Cliveden” which was developed, in collaboration with History Hunters, for school children,

Van Dolsen's commitment to this site is rooted in her personal connection to the Germantown neighborhood and the unique opportunity Cliveden plays in the broader Colonial and Revolutionary landscape. We asked Van Dolsen a few questions to better understand how her story intersects with Cliveden and her hopes for the historic site.

Two people looking at interpretive signage along the back of Cliveden.

photo by: Cliveden

Nancy Van Dolsen and Willie Graham one of the consultants for a project at Cliveden called "Transcending Thresholds." They are standing at the back of the house reading some interpretive signage.

What first inspired your love of history?

I grew up loving history, it was my favorite subject. When I was eight, I remember asking for history books for presents, or a typewriter so I could be a historian, and I always, always, loved old houses.

My father's family has been in the area for a long time, and while I left for twenty years in North Carolina, I'm back [here] to where I grew up. I think that knowing that my family had been here, even as a child, also gave that kind of connection that you need to really love history. Which is something we do here at Cliveden. We want to give those connections to history to all who come to the site.

What's your earliest memory of experiencing a historic site?

We were surrounded by history, and so my first experience with a historic site was my own neighborhood. Both sets of grandparents lived less than a mile from Cliveden in older buildings. I would just ride my bike with my friend, and we would sit at one of the many in the area and just enjoy it. My dad loved history, so we went to places like Gettysburg, and because I grew up twenty miles outside of Philadelphia, we also had those historic sites to visit.

I do think the power of place is so important. Being in a space, a historic space, really can connect you with people better than anything else.

When people visit Cliveden, what do you want them to see, do, and feel while they are there?

I hope that visitors walk through the grounds, under the towering trees, and feel the history, connection, and power of place. I hope they learn about the people who worked and lived at Cliveden for more than 250 years, including the experiences of the enslaved, the elite, and the ever-changing workforce. Seeing and experiencing the spaces within the house and other buildings brings these tensions to light.

I think the one great thing about historic sites is that you can bring forth all those layers. I think the importance of everyone who lived here, their relationships and how those relationships reflect today’s stratified relationships. As a site of enslavement in the North and in a city, it's also a very different story than it is in a rural area or on a plantation. For the people who were enslaved here, which changed during different time periods because the Chew Family owned a series of plantations in Maryland and Delaware, enslaved individuals were moved back and forth even before the gradual act of emancipation.

Trying to understand that is difficult, as well as trying to figure out how Cliveden fits in with all that. What I want people to understand, maybe a little more, because people hold a certain view of colonial life, is the complexity of the past.


View of visitors at Cliveden during "Liberty to Go to See," one of the special programs that Cliveden hosts sharing the story of the people enslaved by the Chew family.

What is your favorite part of your site?

There’s this big space with two doors on the side, and when you go through you see the big gracious staircase up. This is the entry hall of Cliveden, the hall is all about showing off with the 14 foot ceilings, wide spaces, these three dimensional columns, it's all about power, wealth, and then if you just go straight and take a little turn and enter the kitchen dependency, which is a beautifully proportioned room because it is Georgian, but its scale is smaller, it's domestic. The juxtaposition between the hall as you enter through the front door and the kitchen dependency—so many stories can be told through the comparison of the two.

The contrast between the entry hall and the kitchen dependency really tells the story of Cliveden and its significance. It reveals how people who were in the hall were able to live as they did, and it also illustrates the lives of those who lived and worked in that space.

The dependency would've had this big, huge fireplace and hot and smoky, and maybe a little dim with lots of action and noise, as opposed to the hall where you're supposed to walk in and be awed.

A view of an excavation of the hearth in the kitchen dependency at Cliveden. It is a view of a brick opening with the plaster removed.

photo by: Cliveden

View of the Cliveden Kitchen showing the excavation of the hearth.

View of the entry hall at Cliveden. There are three columns in front and a table in the foreground. The columns are flanked by two portraits under which are two chairs.

photo by: Cliveden

A view of the entry hall at Cliveden.

What project at the site is energizing you today?

Our Transcending Thresholds project, funded by a grant from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. Working with a community commission of near neighbors, and nationally known architectural historians, museum professionals, public historians, and exhibit designers, we are developing ways to make Cliveden’s stories more relevant to our surrounding community, by addressing how Cliveden embodies the complexity of human relationships. Particularly dealing with power, economics, intimacies, boundaries, family, and how that plays out in our lives today. The project will result in a new exhibit in the house, along with a tour that focuses on how the spaces reveal through their layered history the stories of those who lived here.

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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