From Everything.Sucks

A historic house museum is a house that has been transformed into a museum. Historic furnishings may be displayed in a way that reflects their original placement and usage in a home. Historic house museums are held to a variety of standards, including those of the International Council of Museums.

An article originally published in 2010 about  History News magazine, called: House or Home? Rethinking the House Museum Paradigm: “At their best, historic sites and house museums provide meaningful and personal touchstones to the past. They provide a forum and a place to connect historical, social, and cultural issues with contemporary counterparts. They inspire us to think about and act on those issues in our own lives and communities.Yet for much of the public, a historic house museum connotes something at least partly negative: an old building filled with precious things carefully protected by velvet ropes and draconian guides, offering an experience that is alternately boring and fanciful, passive, and even off-putting. House museums have overlooked the essence of these places as homes, precluding current relevance in favor of immutable stories and physical barriers. House museums are at their worst when they overemphasize the physical attributes of the site—its aesthetics and its collections, the “thingness” of the place—through rigid standards for historical preservation and collections care, carried out at the expense of the site’s educational and inspirational potential.The cultural tourism model has failed most house museums. Iconic places, like Mount Vernon, will always have a place in the museum landscape, but the majority of house museums are not destination sites. Places of local—as opposed to regional and national—relevance, may suffer lingering deaths if they do not adopt new methods and philosophies. Inevitably, the roof will collapse, figuratively, and literally. It is time to reconceptualize historic sites and embrace the Darwinian principle that survival requires adaptation.A good start would be to abandon the term historic house museum and with it the physical and metaphorical velvet ropes it has come to imply. The word house objectifies the museum setting, treating the building as something that is as much a part of a collection as the things contained within it, rather than as a place of warmth where real people lived and breathed, ate and slept, drank too much, had sex and raised children, fought with each other, and maintained strong and controversial belief systems—in short, all of the things that happen in a home today.A historic home museum acknowledges and celebrates the events of everyday life, de-sanctifies the house, and creates instead a setting for the occurrences of life. It converts vague and sacrosanct historical figures into flesh and blood, warts, and all because our flaws are an important part of what makes us human. A house is just a building, but a home is a place of life with the potential to connect the past and present through objects, stories, and emotions—our shared humanity.Tenement Museum, which focuses on difficult and complex issues involving immigration and assimilation. There, objects play a supporting role to illustrate stories of real people and families. Their visitors—including descendants of immigrants, recent immigrants, and international tourists—seek personal relevance, and often find emotional connections, in the experiences of the historic inhabitants of 97 Orchard Street. At its heart, the Tenement Museum is a site of activism, presenting and interpreting the variety of immigrant experiences on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Its challenge is to draw on connections between past and present to elevate the national conversation about immigration.A lesser-known example is Dr. Bob’s Home in Akron, Ohio, where Robert Smith and Bill W. (Wilson) battled their addictions and hammered out the basic principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Dr. Bob and his wife Anne helped hundreds of people, invited many to stay in their home, and counseled them over endless pots of coffee. Today, a sign above the front door greets visitors with the words “Welcome Home,” as does the staff inside. The greeters serve a dual function of presenting the story of Dr. Bob and Bill W., and of engaging visitors who might be struggling with their own addictions. 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 a seat at the kitchen table. Visits are self-guided, with simple labels indicating the rooms where Dr. Bob and Bill W. slept. Every June, 12,000 people make a pilgrimage to Akron for Founder’s Day, visiting the site of the first A.A. meeting, the graves of Dr. Bob and Anne Smith, and Dr. Bob’s Home. These places have deep personal and spiritual meaning to visitors struggling with their own recoveries. Dr. Bob’s home is an activist place of the spirit that only happens to be made of bricks and wood.Unfortunately, professional standards for collections care and preservation have contributed to emotionless interpretation and limited visitor engagement. The typical house museum tour focuses on the senses of sight and listening and ignores the powerful human connections achieved through the remaining senses. This is most evident in the treatment of objects. The standard rule for visitors is “Don’t Touch Anything.” This is taking the easy way out. It does not require decision-making by museum professionals and preservationists, only obedience to a single uniform approach. In fact, some objects are more durable than others. Some are more replaceable than others. Further, at the risk of bringing angry torchbearers to my heretical door, some objects are more important than others, and there is such a thing as an acceptable risk. Instead of don’t touch anything, the revised standard that historic house museums should adopt is “Don’t Touch Everything.” Museums should invite visitors to touch, hold, sit upon, and even smell certain objects. Historic sites should employ the collective wisdom of curators, conservators, educators, preservationists, peer reviewers, and funders in making decisions about responsible and flexible use of collections”


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