House Museums, What Would You Change?

The National Trust for Historic Preservation released this announcement of their receiving a grant to support an initiative to increase visitor engagement at historic house museums. You can read the press release here: National Trust Initiative to Innovate House Museum Model.

Some of my first museum memories are from historic house museums, they are what some call sticky memories. I don’t remember the whole day, but I remember the red exterior of Gilbert Stuart Birthplace, the amazing elevator in Gillette Castle, the opulence of Rosecliff Mansion (okay, so at least the last two aren’t so house-y, but they followed the model at least back then, and they were houses to some people). I was between 6 and 9 when I went to these places, and that I at least remember some facet of them 20 years later means that those running the museums and leading the tours are doing something right. I’d go back to them too.  There are certainly some house museums that I have been to much more recently that I remember less of…and those I won’t name, at least not now.

Still, things need to be changed when it comes to house museums, and supporting visitor engagement is a huge step in the right direction.

What do you think needs changing about how house museums are run or about how one experiences a house museum?

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7 Responses to House Museums, What Would You Change?

  1. I once saw a house the National Trust had only just acquired. Walking through the rooms was one of the creepiest feelings of my life. My imagination couldn’t shake a sense of trespass; an instrusion I was not easy at making. Walking through that building was sad, but not because of what it said of the distant past. The last of the family had moved out but their patina remained on the house. Above the toilet in one of the bathrooms, a snapshot of a dog was sellotaped to the ceiling. Fluorescent ‘Fat Willy’s surf shack’ stickers had been half-scraped from the back of a door. A few of the rooms were equipped with the handles and bannisters I recognised from my elderly relatives’ homes.

    That memory is very vivid, and I think if houses could show more of the different phases of their existence it might make them more lively. Perhaps the visitor path could show how different people have used the houses. I visited Sutton House recently, where the NT have presented the house’s different occupants in different rooms. It was great, and I’d like to see more experimentation in this kind of approach.

    • Sounds like you went to quite the bell jar of a museum, where it looks like the owners have just stepped out. Some are nicely done, but I agree, others turn out to be kind of creepy. I went to one where you could still see the stain on the fabric covered headboard from years of resting one’s head against it…eek.

      I think it would be neat for house museums to present the different occupants, but it makes me wonder about those houses that had some residents stay 3 years and others 30. I visited a house museum named for one of its prominent residents, but the inside didn’t talk about him at all.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Pingback: exploring/visiting | Curating the Global City

  3. Reblogged this on Menokin: Rubble With A Cause and commented:
    The Menokin Foundation agrees 100% that the model of the traditional house museum needs freshening up. Find out how Menokin is rattling the chains of traditional house museum preservation and conservation. http://www.menokin.org/Menokin%20Project%20Reaching%20Our%20Vision.html

  4. Pingback: Shouldn’t Miss News of the Week | Preservation and Place

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