History Alumni Lecture: Historic Homes and Audience

By Megan McNish ’16

"Panoramic image made from five photos taken Aug 2007 at Stratford Hall Plantation and merged together with AutoStitch," original uploader MamaGeek. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:StratfordHallPlantationPano.jpg
“Panoramic image made from five photos taken Aug 2007 at Stratford Hall Plantation and merged together with AutoStitch,” original uploader MamaGeek.
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:StratfordHallPlantationPano.jpg

On the evening of October 8 in Gettysburg College’s Joseph Theater, Paul Reber ’82 spoke on the historic house museum. Reber presented for the History Department’s annual Alumni Lecture, despite the fact that when he was at Gettysburg College, he was a Political Science major. As Dr. Shannon, chair of the History Department, said, Reber eventually saw the light. Reber spent the majority of his talk speaking on various historic house museums he has had experience with, including Mount Vernon, the White House, and Stratford Hall, where he is the current director. Stratford was the home of the Lee Family on the Northern Neck in Virginia and is one of the sites of the Civil War Institute’s Brian C. Pohanka Internship Program. Stratford has a particularly interesting history. When it was taken into the hands of the historic preservation community in the 1930s, the home closely resembled what it had been like when Robert E. Lee was born there. During this period, however, the structure was restored to its Colonial appearance. Reber and his staff are attempting to restore various rooms in the home to their appearance based on various periods of the Lee family ownership.

Despite its interesting history, Stratford, like any museum, faces questions as to who its audience is and should be. These are important questions for public historians. Should museums and historic homes cater to the audiences they have or should they try to entice another audience instead? If so, how should they entice that other audience? This is a question that many, if not all, museums face, but unfortunately it’s not a question the public history community can readily answer. Often times the question is much more complex than one of target audience—more often the question is why certain groups are not coming. All of these questions are important, however, and deserve the time and effort it takes to answer them.

In addition to the question of audience, Reber highlighted just how difficult it is to keep the doors of historic house museums open. Gate fees, which visitors pay to get into a site, cover only 20% of museums costs. This almost seems impossible, but it also presents an obvious problem. What can a site do to make up that 80% deficit? In addition to courting specific donors, sites like Stratford also have to host fundraisers or find other avenues of obtaining income. Most independent museums like Stratford host events outside their regular operating hours. These events are often special tours, gala dinners, or cocktail parties. Stratford even hosts an oyster festival, seemingly the perfect event for a home less than a mile from the Potomac River.

Reber brought up important questions about historic homes and independent museums in general. How do these museums bring people in? How can they keep their doors open? For the future of important historic structures like Stratford, these questions need to be addressed and Paul Reber is doing his best to do just that, but as Reber said, it is up to the next generation of public historians to continue the traditions of these historic structures and keep their doors open.

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