Power _ Predicament of Historic Houses_ History New Spring10 by Williamhosley


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									                                                 The Power and

                                                                                                                                                                   Bill Hosley
                                          Predicament of Historic Sites
                                                               By David A. Janssen, Bill Hosely, and Ron M. Potvin

                   Left: Little Falls Historical Society Museum, Little Falls, NY; Right: Wyman Tavern Museum, Historical Society of Cheshire County, Keene, NH.

                                                      istoric sites                         landscape of economic recession and demographic shifts.1
Megan Callewaert

                                                                                               At a grassroots level, the work required to preserve and
                                                      are in an                             share thousands of sites across the nation is personal and
                                                      era of self-                          emotional. It is often fueled by two main objectives: 1) A
                                             reflection. While many                         focus on preservation for preservation’s sake and 2) A Field of
                                                                                            Dreams faith that if you save it, they will come. The first pre-
                        individual institutions struggle
                                                                                            sumes that a site’s continued existence is enough to motivate
                        to fund- or friend-raise,                                           support, regardless of how it otherwise delivers on its poten-
     David A. Janssen
                        there is a broader need to                                          tial. The second relies on a heritage tourism model that is
  reconsider, articulate, and affirm their role. The                                        not working for most sites.
                                                                                               Historic site leaders cannot afford such passivity; nor can
  essays that follow respond to that crisis of identity.
                                                                                            we presume that a site’s worth to a community is evident.
  One mounts a defense; the other proposes a                                                We must earn the continued existence of our historic re-
  philosophical shift. Considered together, they raise                                      sources by looking hard at the benefit they offer.
  important questions about the very purpose of a
  historic house museum, the experience it provides,                                        The Experience
                                                                                               The stereotypical historic site product is a guided tour. In
  and its best chances for survival.                                                        the hands of strong interpreters, there is clearly educational
     Inspired by the U.S. bicentennial of 1976, seemingly every                             and evocative value in that use. History is complex and needs
  community looked to save the local, important house in a                                  to be viewed from different angles. While academic study is
  surge of populism and patriotism. The result is an average                                indispensible in gaining an intellectual understanding of his-
  of about one and one-quarter historic house museums per                                   tory, it lacks the emotive power of place, of standing in the
  county in the United States. Historic house museums are                                   space where events unfolded and lives were led. Presented
  ubiquitous, to an extent that art museums, science centers,                               well, historic sites can provide fascinating, provocative expe-
  or zoos are not. They are also a complex type of museum to                                riences that are without parallel.
  operate, combining all of the challenges of historic preserva-                               Dr. Kiersten Latham’s work on the numinous experience
  tion, cultural landscape conservation, educational method-                                of artifacts underscores this point. She explored the ways in
  ology, exhibitry, collections care, development, and event                                which artifacts and historic spaces can evoke an emotional—
  staging—typically with very small staffs and very limited                                 almost spiritual—connection to the lives they represent.
  funding. Facing mounting evidence that many are struggling,                               Simple objects, given the right combination of individual
  National Trust for Historic Preservation president Richard                                interest, knowledge, and context, can bring people to tears.
  Moe asked the provocative question in 2002, “Are There                                    That potential is the latent, unique power of a historic site.
  Too Many House Museums?” Addressing the issue five years                                  It is an asset that cannot be dictated or predicted, but should
  later, the Forum on Historic Sites Stewardship—the second                                 not be forfeited.2
  Kykuit Conference—produced a call for action and urged a                                     That said, it takes a great deal of skill (and luck) to
  willingness to consider alternative uses and models of opera-                             achieve the inspirational impact that the standard historic
  tion. The discussion continues in the midst of an evolving                                house tour aspires to offer. Additionally, the interpretations

                                                                                                                                                       h i S t o ry n e wS       7
                          and exhibits we design to make those connections are only          more couples postpone parenthood until later, the makeup
                          a part of the visitor experience. Anxieties stemming from          of the slightly older/better-educated/more-affluent-than-
                          directions, parking, bathrooms, and poor customer service          average visitor that museums attract is changing. In that
                          can quickly undermine the best program delivery. And               case, what will be the role of a nineteenth-century house
                          even when it is done well, and embraced by the visitors, the       museum in a twenty-first century society?3
                          house tour is never lucrative enough to sustain site opera-
                          tions on its own.                                                  The Value
                             External factors are shifting as well. Clearly there is more      Historic site leadership requires constant balancing: pres-
                          competition for the time and interest of potential visitors,       ervation vs. access, conservation funding vs. program sup-
                          and the make-up of the traditional audience is changing. As        port, and even reverence for those connected to the site’s
                          the Baby Boomers approach retirement, do they want the             past vs. respect for the needs and interests of those who can
                          same things from historic sites that their parents expected?       promise its future. That balance is different for every site
                          As minorities increase as a percentage of the population, as       and finding it depends in part on how well the site is con-
                          more wives become the primary household breadwinners, as           nected to its community. Both of the contributors to this

                                           Housing History: A Search for
    arthur Simoes

                                                                                             the perils of our most ubiquitous genre of museums. There are
                                           Place, Past and Community                         literally thousands of them. Most are poor. Many depend en-
                                           By Bill Hosley                                    tirely on volunteers who are not always replaceable. Some have
                                                                                             failed, others may follow. However, I believe the glass is half

                                                        he house museums, public col-        full and that the best is yet to come. Evidence is overwhelm-
                                                        lections, and historical societies   ing that it does not cost a fortune to transform buildings, col-
                                                        that serve, document, and reflect    lections, archives, and related historic resources into superb
                         Bill Hosley          communities face challenges to sustain-        visitor experiences and beacons for community spirit. It starts
                                              ability even as their relevance and value      with staff, volunteers, friends telling friends, and teachers with
                    have never been greater. Under the banner of “too many house             a spark who understand that the best learning often happens
                    museums” the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the            outside the classroom. Nothing beats exploring an object-rich
                    American Association for State and Local History recently began          environment with someone who loves and knows what they
                    discussion aimed at transitioning them to other uses. In some cases      have to show and share or of experiencing a constellation of
                    this is sensible and necessary. What’s missing from this campaign,       great things to see, feel, and do.
                    I believe, is the message that the best of our historic houses and          So why isn’t the preservation, presentation, and promotion
                    community museums offer inspirational experiences, are extraor-          of these treasures a priority? Small may be beautiful, but rarely
                    dinary teaching tools, do the work of historic preservation in indis-    is it powerful. Too often these treasures remain unknown and
                    pensible ways, preserve and present unique aspects of the American       unloved by the foundations, government officials and agencies,
                    experience, and are a refuge at a time when homogenization and           neighboring schools, and tourism officials who ought to care
                    consumerism are destroying local knowledge and chipping away at          most and are responsible for education, social and environ-
                    civic involvement that together are the essence of community.            mental welfare, economic development, and more. We need to
                       There are few institutions left in our civilization that so richly    make the case for this work more insistently. We need to get
                    encapsulate, embody, express, and reveal the quality, character,         better at self-advocacy and government activism and we need to
                    and diversity of American life and accomplishment. As experiential       take our own side in the issue every chance we get—to encour-
                    learning environments, our historic houses and community muse-           age friends and family to participate and explore. It is our job
                    ums are unrivaled and necessary. The cultural diversity they repre-      to bear witness and inspire others to see, as we do, that an af-
                    sent is not unlike the biodiversity we talk so much about. We lose       fection for historic resources is a pathway to civic engagement,
                    or abuse it at our peril.                                                neighborliness, patriotism, and environmental stewardship.
                       Despite the Kykuit conference’s report that there are too many           We’ve hidden our lights under too many bushels and have
                    house museums with too much in common, the inescapable truth             not always been persistent or clear in our conviction that house
                    is that there is hardly an institutional, educational, or commercial     museums and historical collections aren’t just another thing
                    genre in modern life more variegated and distinctive. Most histori-      like parks, libraries, schools, churches, art museums, hospitals,
                    cal collections are the antithesis of homogenous. Against all odds,      and performing arts venues. They are the most indispensible thing
                    they are preserving emblems of cultures and communities more             and every bit as worthy of public support from foundations and
                    genuine than flags or football; more peaceful than religions; and        granting agencies that need to adjust their costly procedures
                    in ways that are organic, grounded, and centered in the places           and abstract theories to accommodate the needs of the small
                    we love. There is no better way to refresh our sense of awe at the       and the local, even when—especially when—they are volun-
                    beauty and wonder of the American experience than by visiting and        teer-run. A recent survey of Vermont museums determined
                    revisiting these little laboratories of localism.                        that one-third have annual operating budgets less than $5,000.
                       AASLH and the National Trust are not wrong in pointing out            These are the organizations doing the lion’s share of the work,

8   Spring 2010
  piece stress that connection differently. Bill Hosley under-       Sustaining that contribution requires an objective look at
  scores the value in preserving the distinct histories of “little   how well each site is fulfilling its potential and a “willingness
  laboratories of localism.” Ronald Potvin suggests a more           to change its structure, programs, and services in response to
  active role, strategically using the past to address modern        the changing needs of that community.”5
  issues. Each approach is in line with the recommenda-                 Regardless of the unique histories we aspire to preserve
  tion stemming from the Kykuit Conference that argued,              and the ideals we espouse in defending them, our sites are
  “Sustainability begins with each historic site’s engagement        businesses that must grow financial resources to the degree
  with its community.” 4                                             that their operation and preservation require. While it is
     John Durel, of QM2, distills that recommendation when           easy to accept that every site’s story deserves to be pre-
  he asks, “Does your audience love you?” His question de-           served and shared, the harder truth is that many organiza-
  fines a level of support beyond volunteering, donating, and        tions charged with that common mission are failing. Too
  advocating. It suggests an identity for historic sites that is     many of us are forced to rely on the charity of our support-
  not based solely in a pride in local history, but in an immedi-    ers. Too few of us are adept at identifying community
  ate, real, and regular contribution to the lives of neighbors.                                                     (continued on page 10)

                                                                                                    House or Home? Rethinking

                                                                       Erin Boyle
preserving, presenting, and promoting our cultural heritage
and patrimony and the time to lend a hand is NOW. They ask                                          the House Museum Paradigm
for little. They get less. That’s got to change!                                                    By ron M. potvin
   That said, we have not always been the best friend to our

causes. Does local history belong to the descendants of the                                                    t their best, historic sites and
families who made the history? Have professional standards                                                     house museums provide mean-
gotten in the way of common sense? Has it become someone’s                                                     ingful and personal touchstones
personal fiefdom to hoard and restrict rather than share? Are                   Ron M. Potvin         to the past. They provide a forum and
there other things we do that say, “Not Welcome?”                                                     a place to connect historical, social, and
   Most of the time it is more a matter of cutting through the            cultural issues with contemporary counterparts. They inspire us
clutter of stuff designed to keep us buying what they’re selling.         to think about and act on those issues in our own lives and com-
No one is selling simple pleasures, domestic arts, neighborli-            munities.
ness, frugality, localism, gratitude, remembrance, or restraint.             Yet for much of the public, a historic house museum connotes
But these are the qualities our future depends on. And there’s            something at least partly negative: an old building filled with
no better way to get there than through this work. People                 precious things carefully protected by velvet ropes and draconian
who devote time and effort to civic betterment are the glue that          guides, offering an experience that is alternately boring and fan-
holds our society together. Our states, towns, schools, and               ciful, passive, and even off-putting. House museums have over-
foundations should not only support this work, but should                 looked the essence of these places as homes, precluding current
subsidize student visits and do more to assure that the civic             relevance in favor of immutable stories and physical barriers.
dimensions of life are a necessary and constant part of our               House museums are at their worst when they overemphasize the
children’s education. On some level all history is local and              physical attributes of the site—its aesthetics and its collections,
there really is no better place to start than by an immersion in          the “thingness” of the place—through rigid standards for histori-
local knowledge.                                                          cal preservation and collections care, carried out at the expense
   It is up to us to effect change. We are an army with outposts          of the site’s educational and inspirational potential.
in every corner and town in an age when the technology to                    The cultural tourism model has failed most house museums.
mobilize grass roots has never been stronger. Small though                Iconic places, like Mount Vernon, will always have a place in the
we are, we are many and our work offers the greatest chance               museum landscape, but the majority of house museums are not
of calling Americans to a higher sense of place, past, and                destination sites. Places of local (as opposed to regional and na-
community—needed now more than ever—because we love                       tional) relevance may suffer lingering deaths if they do not adopt
our homes, we value the ideals of America, and we understand              new methods and philosophies. Inevitably, the roof will collapse,
that good stewardship is imperative, for us, for our children,            figuratively and literally. It is time to reconceptualize historic
and for tomorrow.                                                         sites and embrace the Darwinian principle that survival requires
   We are still a nation bound together by a mission state-               adaptation.
ment and the United States is still the best deal on earth.                  A good start would be to abandon the term historic house mu-
Freedom and self-government depend on an informed, en-                    seum and with it the physical and metaphorical velvet ropes it has
gaged, educated, and virtuous citizenry as much now as when               come to imply. The word “house” objectifies the museum setting,
the Founding Fathers first envisioned it. Historic sites have a           treating the building as something that is as much a part of a col-
valuable role to play in fostering civic engagement and under-            lection as the things contained within it, rather than as a place of
standing. A civilization that remembers is a civilization that            warmth where real people lived and breathed, ate and slept, drank
moves forward with gratitude and grace.                                   too much, had sex and raised children, fought with each other,
                                                                                                                             (continued on page 10)

                                                                                                                                h i S t o ry n e wS   9
           needs and creating solutions that we are uniquely
           equipped to provide.                                                            and maintained strong and controversial belief systems—in
             Pondering the demise of his beloved Model T, the car                          short, all of the things that happen in a home today.
           that had sustained and defined his company for two de-                             A historic home museum acknowledges and celebrates the
           cades, Henry Ford complained that “The only thing wrong                         events of everyday life, desanctifies the house and creates
           with the car was that people stopped buying it.” Convinced                      instead a setting for the occurrences of life. It converts vague
           of the inherent worth of his product, Ford nonetheless                          and sacrosanct historical figures into flesh and blood, warts
           retooled the company’s offerings and identity. As we navi-                      and all, because our flaws are an important part of what makes
           gate our own crossroads as a field, we must not cling to the                    us human. A house is just a building, but a home is a place of
           models that have served us in the past, but make thoughtful                     life with the potential to connect the past and present through
           decisions about who we are and what we offer our custom-                        objects, stories, and emotions—our shared humanity.
           ers, before too many of them stop buying it.6                                      Examples of historic home museums do exist, including
                                                                                           the oft cited—but still worth mentioning—Lower East Side
           Conclusion                                                                      Tenement Museum, which focuses on difficult and complex
              A historic house can be the object-rich teaching environ-                    issues involving immigration and assimilation. There, objects
           ment that Bill Hosley describes; it can make the past im-                       play a supporting role to illustrate stories of real people and
           mediately relevant and personal, as in the examples Ronald                      families. Their visitors—including descendants of immigrants,
           Potvin cites. It can be a laboratory for historic preservation                  recent immigrants, and international tourists—seek personal
           and interpretation like Drayton Hall, in Charleston, South                      relevance, and often find emotional connections, in the ex-
           Carolina, or the backdrop for a community cultural hub,                         periences of the historic inhabitants of 97 Orchard Street. At
           like Brucemore, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Each site responds                       its heart, the Tenement Museum is a site of activism, present-
           to the expectations and needs of its audience differently.                      ing and interpreting the variety of immigrant experiences
              Regardless of which model and identity a site forges,                        on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Its challenge is to draw on
           the final measure of success is sustainability over time.                       connections between past and present to elevate the national
           The AASLH Technical Leaflet #224, “How Sustainable Is                           conversation about immigration.
                                                                                              A lesser-known example is Dr.

                                                                                                                                      The Detroit institute of arts, Bill kennedy photographic Collection
           Your Historic House Museum?” articulates characteristics
           of a sustainable historic house and offers a good perspec-                      Bob’s Home in Akron, Ohio, where
           tive from which to consider these essays and their ap-                          Robert Smith and Bill W. (Wilson)
           proaches to the field.8 t                                                       battled their addictions and ham-
                                                                                           mered out the basic principles of
           David A. Janssen (davidj@detroithistorical.org) is Vice President of            Alcoholics Anonymous. Throughout
           Collections and Interpretation at the Detroit Historical Society and            the 1930s and 1940s, Dr. Bob and
           served in a similar capacity at Edsel & Eleanor Ford House. He is a             his wife Anne helped hundreds of
           member of the AASLH Historic House Committee, the Seminar for                   people, invited many to stay in their
           Historical Administration Alumni Committee, and was a participant               home, and counseled them over
           in the Kykuit II summit chronicled in Autumn 2007 in History News.              endless pots of coffee. Today, a sign
                                                                                           above the front door greets visitors
           Bill Hosley (wnhosley@snet.net or www.billhosley.com), President                with the words “Welcome Home,”
           of Terra Firma Associates, is a cultural resource consultant, plan-             as does the staff inside. The greeters
           ner, teacher, writer, and photographer.                                         serve a dual function of presenting
                                                                                           the story of Dr. Bob and Bill W., and
           Ron M. Potvin is Assistant Director and Curator of the John                     of engaging visitors who might be                   Edsel and Henry Ford
           Nicholas Brown Center at Brown University. He can be reached at                 struggling with their own addictions.
           Ronald_Potvin@brown.edu.                                                        When I visited in 2007, a greeter offered me a fresh cup of
                                                                                           coffee brewed in a replica of Dr. Bob’s original coffeepot and
                Richard Moe, “Are There Too Many House Museums?” Forum                     a seat at the kitchen table. Visits are self-guided, with simple
           Journal.16:3; James Vaughan, “The Call for a National Conversation,” Forum      labels indicating the rooms where Dr. Bob and Bill W. slept.
           Journal, 22:3, 6-7. Jay Vogt, “The Kykuit II Summit: The Sustainability of
           Historic Sites,” History News 62:4, 17-21.                                      Every June, 12,000 people make a pilgrimage to Akron for
               Latham, Kiersten. “Numinous Experiences with Museum Objects”                Founder’s Day, visiting the site of the first A.A. meeting, the
           (Doctoral dissertation: ProQuest Dissertations and Theses database: AAT         graves of Dr. Bob and Anne Smith, and Dr. Bob’s Home.
           3357980) Emporia State University, April 2009.
                The Center for the Future of Museums, “Museums & Society 2034: Trends
                                                                                           These places have deep personal and spiritual meaning to
           and Potential Futures,” American Association of Museums, 2008.                  visitors struggling with their own recoveries. Dr. Bob’s home
                  Vaughan, 6-7.                                                            is an activist place of the spirit that only happens to be made
               John Durel, “Social Entrepreneurship: Leading through Crisis and            of bricks and wood.
           Embracing Change” CEO Forum, 2009 AASLH Annual Meeting, Indianapolis,
           Indiana; Vaughan, 6-7.                                                             Within homes, families have always engaged in domestic
                Peter Collier and David Horowitz. The Fords: An American Epic. (San        activism—in small ways inside kitchens, bedrooms, and par-
           Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002).                                              lors, in discussions about chores and family responsibilities,
                  For more information on StEPs see www.aaslh.org/steps.
                                                                                           or in larger ways with arguments about politics, race, gender,
                “How Sustainable Is Your Historic House Museum?” Technical Leaflet #224,
           included in History News, 63:4 and available at www.aaslh.org/hhouses.          and social structure and hierarchy. Historic home museums

10   Spring 2010
                                     should be places to discuss and even     This is taking the easy way out. It does not require decision-
                                    argue the many meanings of home,          making by museum professionals and preservationists, only
                                  from family rituals to the social or-       obedience to a single uniform approach. In fact, some objects
                                   ganization of slave cabins. Historic       are more durable than others. Some are more replaceable than
                                    home museums have the potential to        others. Further, at the risk of bringing angry torchbearers to
    robert Holbrook Smith collection, Brown University Library

                                     be the kitchen tables of cultural dis-   my heretical door, some objects are more important than oth-
                                       course. Identifying links between      ers, and there is such a thing as an acceptable risk. Instead of
                                       culturally relevant topics, his-       don’t touch anything, the revised standard that historic house
         This is the original          torical importance, and mission-       museums should adopt is “Don’t Touch Everything.” Museums
         Wear-Ever Aluminum            driven programs will result in         should invite visitors to touch, hold, sit upon, and even smell
         Coffee Percolator used        enhanced and sustainable visitor       certain objects. Historic sites should employ the collective
         by Dr. Bob Smith and
         Bill W. (Wilson) when         and community engagement.              wisdom of curators, conservators, educators, preservationists,
         they first began meeting        House museums a century ago          peer reviewers, and funders in making decisions about respon-
         together in Smith’s           sought to express the American         sible and flexible use of collections.
         home in May 1935.
                                       Experience in large part through          The shift in emphasis from house to home—from rigid,
                                       Progressivism and the Colonial         unimaginative sanctification to flexible, creative activism—
     Revival. These social movements promoted “proper” aesthet-               will require a careful balance between preservation needs and
     ics and “traditional” American values as a means to good moral           audience engagement, combining the imagination, creativity,
     character and behavior, especially for poorer working classes            and professional integrity of the preservation and museum
     and newly arrived immigrants. During this period, an underly-            fields. It also necessitates a close and ongoing reexamination
     ing goal of the creation of new house museums was to protect             of professional standards and practices, supported by funding
     and enshrine American virtue and to indoctrinate non-native              agencies and museum and preservation professional associa-
     peoples with this principle, itself a form of activism, guided           tions. This process is already underway, with the launch in
                                by politics and beliefs that are now          2009 of the Standards and Excellence Program for History
                                obsolete. In the years leading to the         Organizations (StEPs), a voluntary assessment program
                                American bicentennial, the American           for small- and mid-sized history organizations, created by
                                experience in house museums was               AASLH with support from the Institute for Museum and
                                further shaped by celebratory stories         Library Services.7
                                of patriotism, in part a reaction to the         The modern American experience remains mutable, and its
                                political and social upheaval of the          representation within house museums is unsettled. Its defini-
                                Vietnam War era.                              tion incorporates multiculturalism, characterized by the ma-
                                   During the movement toward pro-            turity of the Civil Rights Movement, the advent of expanded
                                fessionalization in the first half of the     LGBT rights, and the confident voices of Americans of many
                                twentieth century, the role of house          ethnicities and political persuasions in American govern-
                                museums as venues of activism became          ment and culture. Technology, especially the rapid spread of
                                secondary or lost. However, social            Web-based social networking, allows us to speak and accept
                                activism within museums has become            the cultural languages of many distinct groups. The Internet
                                more the norm of late, in places like         and some aspects of popular culture, including television, pro-
                                the Underground Railroad Museum               mote non-linear thought, through which we are able to weave
                                and Freedom Center and with orga-             seemingly unrelated ideas into rich and highly individualized
with a Model T, 1927.           nizations such as the International           patterns. However we define the contemporary American ex-
                                Coalition of Sites of Conscience,             perience, most house museums, with their tradition-bound sto-
     which counts among its members the Martin Luther King,                   ries, rigid professional standards, and linear interpretation (in
     Jr. National Historic Site, the District Six Museum in South             the form of guided tours) lack the nimbleness to close the cul-
     Africa, the Gulag Museum at Perm-36 in Russia, and the                   tural gap and remain relevant to their visitors and communi-
     Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Other sites also offer                  ties. In recent years, house museums have begun to do a better
     hope, such as Jane Addams Hull House Museum with its com-                job of telling the stories of immigrants, slaves, working-class
     munity organic garden and alternative labeling project, which            people, and women, but there is still much work remaining.
     the museum describes as “civic engagement and reflection.”                  The most difficult hurdle may be overcoming the reluc-
     These activist museums hope to engage and inspire their visi-            tance of historic sites to rethink or abandon traditional ap-
     tors to enact personal or social change.                                 proaches. This is understandable. Making changes to bring in
        Unfortunately, professional standards for collections care            an expanded or different public, tell new stories, and connect
     and preservation have contributed to emotionless interpre-               with modern culture is often a frightening prospect that risks
     tation and limited visitor engagement. The typical house                 desanctification of a site and alienation of existing audience.
     museum tour focuses on the senses of sight and listening and             For some house museums, the chasm between house and
     ignores the powerful human connections achieved through the              home may be too vast. However, the alternative is a site that
     remaining senses. This is most evident in the treatment of ob-           enshrines dead people, dead ideas, and dead culture—and a
     jects. The standard rule for visitors is “Don’t Touch Anything.”         collapsing roof.

                                                                                                                                 h i S t o ry n e wS   11

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