Visitor Centers-Bah!

For your Sunday afternoon reading pleasure, and in light of my recent musings on the National Park Service and on the fate of heritage sites, may I suggest this article from Architectural Record’s March 2009 issue, “Rolling out the unwelcome mat for visitor centers” by Martin Filler. The author objects to the new visitor center behemoths because they distance the visitor from the place he or she came to visit. Beginning with the new and expensive (that’s an understatement) Capitol Visitor Center in Washington DC, he also looks at  centers at other iconic American place. Here’s a little snippet to whet your appetite–but you really should read the whole article:

After valiantly fending off anachronisms for so long, why did Mount Vernon’s venerable Ladies permit the intrusive and distracting additions by GWWO Inc./Architects — the Ford Orientation Center and the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center — that opened there in 2006? Partially submerged beneath a meadow adjacent to the mansion, the new facilities are banked by grass-covered berms intended to render them invisible. The trick fails, and the patriot weeps. Until these dreadful impositions, Mount Vernon survived as our pluperfect 18th-century time machine: historically veracious, high-mindedly noncommercial, and astonishingly unspoiled.



Categories: Historic Preservation, Museums, Preservation Education

2 replies

  1. In general, I agree; visitors’ centers mostly detract and distract from the actual attraction. Here’s one, though, that (I think) has more than a little merit:

    http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2009/07/hitchens200907

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  2. Thanks for that link–an interesting take on the topic!

    I’m not opposed to visitors centers in theory–for instance, I like the re-use of historic neighboring houses that MDAH has at both the Manship House and the Welty House–but it does seem like often in practice visitor centers swallow huge amounts of money and energy and end up detracting from the historic site which is, ostensibly, what people are coming to see.

    I’ve also seen lots of damage to the historic building when house museums are treated more like museums than houses (which they almost invariably are)–this means the introduction of expensive ductwork for an A/C system that usually ends up damaging the house or building either through outright demolition of historic building fabric in the attic or foundation areas, or through moisture problems that always seem to come when a house built to live without A/C has to learn to live with it.

    I don’t know if you had a chance to follow the link that a National Trust commenter left over at “Whither House Museums?” but it was about a symposium on these sorts of topics, and the statement was made that heritage sites/house museums needed to develop their own professional standards separate from the established museum standards, because right now, museum people generally follow museum rules when it comes to house museums, and it isn’t always a good mix.

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