Historic House Museums Struggling?

According to the Washington Post’s “Struggling to attract visitors, historic houses may face day of reckoning,” history sites such as Monticello, Colonial Williamsburg, and Stratford Hall are struggling amidst long-term attendance declines. This is a topic we’ve been covering here on MissPres since almost the beginning with “Whither House Museums.”



Categories: Museums

12 replies

  1. What is lacking is Eudora Welty’s “sense of time and place.” And with the new Globalization, and John Kenndy’s “Camp of the Saints” New Order immigration policy, the decline will continue. Their “founding fathers” are not our founding fathers.

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    • And yet . . . most of my Norwegian family immigrated to the US in the 1920s. So I guess in reality, the Founding Fathers aren’t my Founding Fathers either, but here I am, a member of the Mount Vernon association, etc.

      When you say there is a lack of sense of time and place, do you mean that the house museums are lacking or that the wider culture is lacking? Or either/both?

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    • When Ive traveled to England I enjoyed seeing the houses of their leaders with out having to be from England. I also enjoyed the Black Country Living Museum which has exhibits on every day life from the 1850-1950. I can only imagine a foreign visitor would appreciate the same in this country. While immigration has increased so has the population of natural born citizens. If one wants to blame something other than house museums themselves the Internet makes logical sense to blame. While you can see images of just about anything you do not gather the sense of place. I don’t think its good but some folks are fine with that experience. The bottom line is that house museums need to adapt ,just like any successful organization to get people through the door all with out endangering there collection which makes it more difficult.

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    • I think we should also observe the disappointing direction of television channels that were established primarily as vehicles for serious history and documentary subjects, The History Channel, A&E, National Geographic Channel, etc. Before I just cut my cable altogether last year, I realized that all of them are now filled with so-called reality shows dedicated to “pickers,” storage wars, pawn shops, etc. Is this trend away from real history an indication that the wider culture is not interested? Is there another explanation? And if that’s the case, then we need only look as far as our school systems, which have been ditching history in favor of the more marketable math and science curricula, as if the two are in opposition. Lots of knotty problems with no easy solution, and bad news for us as preservationists and history museum lovers.

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    • Well, my vast Hispanic family didn’t make it to the states till the ’70s, yet we all enjoy checking out local history when we travel the states.

      I think your comment is based on two incorrect assumptions:
      – Only patriotic Americans (wrong term perhaps, but this is how the comment read to me) visit these places
      – Most of these places are nationally significant

      In my only partly unscientific observation, the people who go to house museums and historic sites are interested in history in general, regardless of race, creed, nationality, etc. They’re the ones who “get” the nuances of time and place, and will return again and again. Also, most house museums and historic sites have little to do with the founding fathers (and mothers) or the states as a whole. They’re the local places filled with, as someone said in the article’s comments, minor characters in history.

      In any case, I believe this is a problem that has more than one solution.

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      • I agree with your assessment that “history people” regardless of background will go to these places. My concern is that there will be fewer and fewer “history people” in coming years (and maybe this is already bubbling up) because of the de-emphasizing of history in school curricula. I’m sure there will still be some people who have epiphanies as adults, but how many and will they be enough to keep these museums going, from the nationally known to the local history house museums? We’ve built up a pretty robust infrastructure of house museums in the last four decades–are the current numbers just a phase, or are they indicators that we built an infrastructure that isn’t sustainable for the next four decades?

        Just as another anecdote to add to the conversation: I was in DC this summer and made a visit to the Pope-Leighey House, a mid-20th-century Frank Lloyd Wright design. I was surprised that my docent, a National Trust employee, was Hispanic and a first-generation American. I’ll be honest, I was even more surprised by how in love with the house she was and how effective she was at conveying its architectural merits. She had never heard of Frank Lloyd Wright before she took the job with the National Trust, but had since read all sorts of books about him and is now planning a trip to Fallingwater and some of his other East Coast buildings. I came away from that tour with a glimmer of optimism about preservation–at least (and this is an important caveat) preservation of architecturally significant buildings. These buildings still speak a universal language. The trick is for more historically significant museums to be able to also speak that language and communicate to the new generations of Americans.

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  2. The problem seems far deeper than high gas prices and reductions in school bus tour budgets; it seems off mark to imagine hordes of would be visitors sitting at home, wishing they had a few extra dollars to gas up the auto and scratch the itch to drive out to Berkeley Plantation or the Mary Surratt House.

    Just as the antiques market has suffered a major readjustment that owes at least as much to a shift in personal tastes as to any shift in personal finances, historic preservation on the domestic front has undergone a shift, too, from its earlier emphasis on authenticity to an aesthetic where a few bits of patinated salvage are sufficient backdrop and counterpoint to “clean lines” and spare modernism. The complete gut job within an historic shell is the new ideal. Docents, scripted tours, house museums, antiques, historic furnishings, and historic sites themselves are considered a bit suspect, dusty and demoted except maybe as wedding venues; they have become a seriously hard sell that seems unlikely to be corrected by any degree of economic upturn.

    Some of the retooling of historic sites seems unlikely to boost the numbers of visitors through doors. Montpelier’s mission is to “Rekindle your passion for the Constitution”; Colonial Williamsburg, to judge by fundraising appeals, appears to be in the midst of a shift from “living history” and material evidence of the past toward civics lessons to “interpret the origins of the idea of America”, re-branding campaigns that would seem to de-emphasize the “sense of time and place.” Even as historic preservation has become increasingly taken for granted, the interest in seeing prime examples of historic sites has dried up.

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    • Thank you for this really excellent summary of the cultural landscape! Much to think about here. I hadn’t considered the full meaning of Colonial Williamsburg’s shift in focus and how it fits into this issue. My understanding of CW’s intent, having watched this shift as a member for about the last six years, situate CW as a living civics lesson, using their inherent “sense of time and place” as the setting for their new programs. This is in an attempt to replace the decline of civics as a required subject in schools. I’m not sure that their intent is to de-emphasize the physical architecture and material history they’ve always been known for, but given limited resources, that may indeed be the result of the revamped focus.

      I wonder if the decline in “authority,” the emphasis on individual taste and preference over any broader cultural or even scholarly authority also plays into this? So that our old arguments for preservation, even those based on numbers will become less effective (or already have)? So even if preservationists can show that preservation makes sense financially, that gutting good material and replacing it with usually inferior material does long-term damage to the building’s physical and financial value, etc. none of that matters if the owner just really loves the idea of bits of old wood attached to her modern walls? Once it becomes purely subjective, what grounds do preservationists have left from which to argue, even if we have local ordinances or federal regulations behind us?

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  3. “…When you say there is a lack of sense of time and place, do you mean that the house museums are lacking or that the wider culture is lacking? Or either/both?..”

    The latter, IMHO. When visiting museums and ante-bellum homes, I generally look through the guest list to see where folks hail from. I found that most of the “foreign” visitors are from Germany. Maybe it’s that “fighting and dying for a lost cause” connection ? Back in the mid-1960s, I was on leave in Germany(Frankfurt), waiting for a “military hop” flight back to Tripoli. Playing at a local theater was Gone With the Wind(with German subtitles)…it was packed. Prissy was most popular with the German folk there. After the showing, I walked out and saw the Confederate battle flag hanging from a window frame in what looked to be public housing.

    True story.

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  4. Sam Kaye(Lee High School, Class of 1958) obit:

    http://www.cdispatch.com/news/article.asp?aid=21325

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