But the stillness and vastness of the machines were enough to make him feel small.
It was 2009, and the historic site in Chestnut Hill was just cleared for operation as a museum. Since the Boston water supply switched to the Quabbin and Wachusett reservoirs in the ’70s, this old pump station had slowly deteriorated. The roof was missing pieces, the building riddled with debris, pigeons, and graffiti. Peterson began working to restore the place—a greasy, smelly, and detail-oriented gig.
“I have this amazing ability to change lightbulbs. It’s just a gift,” says Peterson. “And if you look up there, you’ll notice,” he gestures to the high buttressed ceilings of Great Engines Hall, “there’s a lot of lightbulbs to change.”
I am standing beside the three-story Leavitt engine, one of three here that once pumped water to the city. The Waterworks Museum seems to marry industry and nature in a timeless vacuum, exploring new and old technology under arches that evoke the wonder of standing in a centuries-old cathedral.
The building itself is the centerpiece of the museum’s collection. Built in 1887, it requires constant upkeep, something Peterson has attended to since his first day as a volunteer. The collection includes about 500 tools—“mostly wrenches, mostly big”—parts, and accessories for the engines.
While the museum centers around technology that’s lifetimes old, Peterson stresses that it’s not “a clubhouse for a bunch of old people.” Keeping the historical narrative colorful is crucial to their process—and it requires some imagination.
“History is stories. Anyone can connect with them as long as they’re presented in a way that’s compelling,” Peterson says. “Whether it was in the 1800s or in 800, you still have human attitudes and feelings. If you can put yourself in that mindset, almost anything becomes interesting.”
Up a flight of stairs beside Great Engines Hall, a gallery illuminates stories of laborers on the Wachusett Reservoir construction site at the turn of the 20th century. Photos of dust-clad immigrant workers, houses built into hillsides, and a dog splayed out on bedrock stand frozen in time.
“Even though they’re long dead, somehow they’re back to life,” Peterson says. “There they are, captured just in an instant.”
Such stories also become accessible through educational programming, which includes field trip activities at the museum and in-class instruction. Education director Tracy Lindboe focuses on integrating simple language and interactive activities into the exhibits to appeal to audiences of all ages.
Docents contextualize the waterworks technology in a broader narrative, offering a glimpse into the zeitgeist of the industrial revolution. But what sets these machines apart is their altruistic function.
“There’s a sense of respect you have to have for the confidence that was put in these things, the purpose they were intended for,” Peterson says.
Beyond the history, the museum is looking to educate people about safe water access today. In the face of climate change, Boston and other communities must adjust infrastructure, says volunteer coordinator Ethan Grosso.
“Water is always going to be important to people,” Grosso says. “As our landscapes change over time, our systems have to change to adapt.”
Lindboe plans to work with other nonprofits and bring more educational events to the museum—MIT professor Susan Murcott gave a lecture last summer, for instance. But the museum also reaches beyond waterworks to expand its audience. Great Engines Hall has become a destination for weddings, film screenings, and experimental music. Circus acts have also inquired about performing.
While noting that activities must be respectful of the space, Peterson stresses the importance of risk-taking. He recalls a sound installation that made fluorescent lights buzz precariously but never fall.
“Maybe it’s good to feel that kind of discomfort every now and then,” he says. “I still think it’s worth it to push the edge on that, try to explore the space. It’s not just about the sound—it’s the sense of the space as a whole and how it can be used and appreciated in different ways.”
METROPOLITAN WATERWORKS MUSEUM. 2450 BEACON ST., BOSTON. WATERWORKSMUSEUM.ORG, 617-277-0065. ADMISSION IS FREE FOR GENERAL ADMISSION, BUT DONATIONS ARE REQUESTED.