Whither House Museums?

Since we’re on the subject of heritage sites and the role of public history (and when I say “we” I mean “I”), I thought I would share a link I came across in my vast amounts of research on the subject. It’s a symposium called “New Audiences for Old Houses: Building a Future with the Past” that was held two years ago at the Boston Athenaeum. It’s the kind of symposium that I might have gone to, had I lived in Massachusetts two years ago, which I didn’t. But for those of us who couldn’t make it, the Nichols House Museum, one of the sponsors, has helpfully placed a synopsis of the event, along with full text of all the presentations at their website–you can access that website by clicking here.

Remembering how closely tied to house museums the preservation movement has been since its beginnings, we should all be paying attention to the ups and (most recently) downs of house museums. Is the recent decline in attendance to many well-known museums and heritage sites across the country also an indication of the decline in preservation awareness and interest, or is it more about the individual sites failing to cater to new audiences? Those are questions raised with attempted answers in this symposium, and if you get a chance and have a few spare minutes in your busy day, you should read through the various talks. The topics included:

  • “A Thing of the Past: The Beginning of History Museums”
  • “The Country House in Britain–Yesterday and Tomorrow”
  • “Recovering the Popular Past:  The Beamish Open-air Museum in its British Context”–which I admit doesn’t sound very interesting at first, but actually it’s a fascinating paper.
  • “Leighton House Museum and the New Connoisseurship”‘
  • “The End of History Museums: What’s Plan B?”

In his “The End of History Museums: What’s Plan B?” Cary Carson of Colonial Williamsburg notes that the GenXers, Millenials, etc. have different learning styles than previous generations and that house museums and heritage sites must adapt to reach younger audiences. He also lists some things that have been proven to not work in building new audiences: large expensive visitor centers (is anyone listening? anyone?) and major rehabilitations or renovations top the list, and have even driven some long-standing museums out of business. His “Plan B” includes better collaboration between museums in telling a “larger narrative” and harnessing the power of social networking and other new media that allow the user to interact with the story and create new stories from diverse places.

I’m not sure what the answer is. I do know that while I’m a GenXer (and a hip and cool blogger of course), I maybe just like to learn the old-fashioned way. Being guided around the house by someone who knows what they’re talking about and who makes it interesting is just fine for me without all the bells and whistles.  But maybe I’m in a distinct (and distinguished) minority?

Just to be helpful to our museum friends out there, so that you don’t have to do any special surveys, here are some things I don’t like in a house museum:

  1. Not being able to go fully into a room–when they have the little ropes set in a block just inside the doorway so that all you can do is take a few steps in and look around? ARRRGGH! I hate that! Why must you try me so?
  2. Being herded–I paid good money for this experience (usually) and I like a little time to be left to my thoughts as I examine the place. Is that too much to ask?
  3. Being stared at by docents who obviously expect me to grab something and run, or knock it over and break it. Seriously, if it’s that irreplaceable, maybe you should find a different way to display it. At Rosalie in Natchez, for instance, the lady in charge back in the good old days actually glued every movable object to its table so that it couldn’t be taken or damaged. I’m not advocating that obviously . . . . but you have to admit it’s pretty creative.
  4. Not being allowed to take pictures inside. I understand no flash photography, but no photography at all? Annoying.
  5. Exhibits so old they are dusty–a good Spring cleaning once a year never hurt. They make these cool new dusters that are almost fun.
  6. Making the original owners or whoever a heroic god-like figure instead of acknowledging their humanity, which is always a lot more interesting.

I’d like to see more 20th-century house museums–we are in the 21st century now, right? I am glad to hear that the National Trust is taking on Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House as its newest house museum–this in addition to their ownership of Philip Johnson’s Glass House.

Carson mentions the success of the Tenement Museum in New York City, and since I’ve visited there, I feel I can chime in on that. To me, the Tenement Museum is so simple and compelling it doesn’t need all the flash and glitz of a new visitors center or whatever. They just need to keep doing what they’re doing, which is researching and opening new sections of the building and telling the incredible stories of the occupants there. The tours there are all guided, which I sometimes don’t like, but here, they are telling the stories of the people as if they really knew them and they convey that passion and interest to their audiences. I really loved that museum, and I can guarantee if I go back to NYC anytime soon, I’ll be returning for a second visit. At least when I was there, their visitor center was in the basement, which worked fine, allowed flexibility, and didn’t cost a lot.

I know I have some readers who are veteran museum-goers–what’s the answer for house museums and heritage sites? Do they have a future in this Brave New World of social networking and interconnectivity, and if so, what do you think it is? Is there a house museum in Mississippi that you particularly love and why? Of course, you all know my favorite (so far) is Waverley.

Related Posts:

  • Columbus Pilgrimage Report: Observations from the Columbus Pilgrimage 2009
  • Getting Back to Myths: A scholarly look at the myths that historic site docents love to tell (and that we love to hear)
  • On Recreating History: Changes to the historic sites at certain National Parks seem to strip away the layers of history in favor of one approved interpretation.

Categories: Historic Preservation, Museums, National Trust, Preservation Education

4 replies

  1. Oh, historic house museums. There are so many challenges and at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, we’re trying to help them with many of our partners. The same year as the symposium at the Boston Athenaeum, NTHP brought together two dozen leaders in the field to diagnose the condition of historic sites across the country and develop some solutions. We published our report last spring and a summary of the findings is available at http://www.preservationnation.org/forum/spring-2008/.


  2. Thanks for passing on that link–I had missed that in my online research. It sounds like the symposium faced up to realities and also produced some interesting perspectives.

    One that I had probably recognized, but just hadn’t crystalized in my thinking was “Many professional standards and practices in the historic site field were borrowed from the museum community and, in practice, often deter creativity and sustainability at historic sites.”

    So possibly historic sites need to develop their own independence from the traditional museum culture, where the (non-architectural) artifacts reign supreme?


  3. What a can of worms this is! And no easy answers in sight. This fall’s AASLH conference also took a stab at this dilemma – proposing alternate activities like fashion shows and wine tastings inside of historic sites. The plethora of historic houses in Natchez provide some alternative models – lots of B&Bs, plus small hotels (Monmouth & Dunleith), plus garden club houses geared for socializing, plus more stringent house museums operated by NPS. It is clear that only imaginative use will generate the revenue needed for upkeep – and I confess to agreeing with many of the peeves listed above, just not having a brilliant option to letting the public run unchecked (and unobserved) through rooms filled with original (valuable, and breakable) objects. Some Pilgrimage homeowners have begun experimenting with a more living history “characters in costumes” approach. Or maybe we should go more with mystery/fantasy and geocaching? I think a venue for conversation is definitely in order!



  1. Historic House Museums Struggling? « Preservation in Mississippi

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