Why Historic Houses Suck: An Anarchist’s Guide to the Unorthodox Museum

By Alex Andrioli ’18

Picture in your head a historic house museum that you have visited.

Did you picture Mt. Vernon or Monticello? How about the historic house that you grew up down the road from? Did images of antiques and display cases flash through your mind, or was it the velvet rope barriers, musty smell, creaky floorboards, and dusty signs? I bet a majority of these things popped into your head because that’s what many people remember after they leave a historic house museum. I know that I have! The historical value of the museum is short term, but the memory of a musty old home you visited once as a kid will last you a lifetime. But it doesn’t have to be this way!

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The Dyckman Farmhouse is a Dutch Colonial style farmhouse that was built around 1784 and still resides in the same location that is now Broadway & 204th Street on Manhattan Island in New York City. It opened as a museum in 1916 and is the last farmhouse in Manhattan. Photograph by the Historic American Buildings Survey, via the Library of Congress.

When historic house museums started popping up in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries their purpose was to educate immigrants about “American values and patriotic duties.” As the years went by and the surrounding communities changed, the museums stayed the same. As a result, historic house museums have been experiencing a steady decline in visitors and funding over the years. However, people like Franklin D. Vagnone and Deborah Ryan are on a mission to revive interest and relevance in these museums.

Vagnone, the executive director of New York City’s Historic House Trust and co-author of Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums (published in October 2015), explained a core issue pertaining to historic house museums’ decline through the years: too many of them are offering a “beige experience,” he told interviewer Carol Bossert on September 18, 2015. Many museums are too similar in presentation, and the public possess a “you’ve-seen-one-you’ve-seen-them-all” mentality towards the museums. “One of the problems with house museums is you keep kind of circling back to the same people who come . . . Eventually they are going to die and there’s going to be no one coming to your parties,” Vagnone stated.

Vagnone’s co-author, Deborah Ryan, explained in the same interview with Vagnone and Bossert that, “Historic house museums tend to be inward focusing particularly on their collections, and what we have suggested is that the houses need to turn themselves inside-out. So, rather than expecting people to come to them, they need to make the community aware of who they are and make the community feel welcome.” Ryan also advised that historic house museums need to grow into “place-making” because places hold meaning for people. Museums should not just be “biometric space” that contain objects. Museums are places where activities happen; where families do things together, watch demonstrations, and get involved.

Some of the most memorable house museums that I have seen let me participate in the house’s history; a lot of the historical participation that I have taken part in was not even traditionally exciting scenarios. I love feeling included in the household and in the everyday rituals that would normally take place, like milking a cow, making soap, stoking the fireplace, or baking bread. I love learning about the clothing people in certain eras wore and how they would make or acquire these clothes. The little routines like that are what have stuck like glue in my mind.

It is vital to the survival of historic house museums to revamp their approach to presenting themselves to the public. The museums also need to learn how to engage with the surrounding community and fit in with the culture of the people. By reflecting not only the history of the historic house but the modern community it now resides in is how these museums will stay relevant. Adding the flavor of the community to the museum’s story will also help the museums to rid themselves of the “beige experience” and provide visitors with a more unique exposure to history.

In my home town, there is a village of about five historic houses and buildings that hosts a myriad of events to bring the community together. Civil War reenactments, classic car shows, Halloween and Christmas tours, chili cook-offs, and community yard sales are just a handful of the events provided. I am not saying that every community needs a house museum that provides these exact events, but my personal community benefits from these events. The historic village has turned its houses “inside-out” to attract the community members and make itself a social hub.

In Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, Vagnone and Ryan provide 160 questions to help museum managers evaluate their historic houses. The questions pertain to the relationship between the museum and surrounding community, fact-based narratives versus emotional experiences, etc. Emotional experiences are important for historic house museums because visitors should feel a personal connection to the history and see the life that the former residents lived. Better yet, visitors should experience the homes in the way the residents lived it rather than just learn about it. However, the historic houses do not have to be limited by the biographies of the former residents, no matter how well or little they are known.

A perfect example is of the Lewis Latimer Home, which was the residence of the black inventor that worked with Thomas Edison. Vagnone is taking different approaches to open up the house to the surrounding community of Flushing, NY. He has created a “tinkering studio” that allows kids to work on crafts and mini science projects and a “social justice salon” where political conversations can be held. Local organizations hold meetings and seminars “in line with Latimer’s legacy as a community leader.” Other examples include biweekly yoga classes in the former residence of a British loyalist, introducing interpretive signs in Spanish, and having graduate students from a local university collaborate with the staff at the Dyckman Farmhouse on Manhattan Island in New York. Having these homes act not only as museums but as social hubs for the community is another way to make them more intriguing to newer and younger audiences.

Though not everyone agrees with Anarchist’s Guide, and Vagnone has been called a “menace,” “nuts,” and an “idiot” for his work, he is still working hard to save historic house museums from the abyss. Vagnone’s vision for the perfect historic house museum is not only a relevant, engaging, social hub that has lots of visitors and funding. To him, the perfect museum has a special feeling: “Treat me like the way you would treat me if you invited me over for dinner. That’s what I want . . . in a house. I mean I want to experience your life and want it to be meaningful . . . It’s not cerebral. Just let me feel it.”


Sources:

Vagnone, Franklin D. and Deborah E. Ryan. Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. London:  Routledge, 2015.

Bossert, Carol. Host. “More Anarchist Guide.” MP3 Podcast. Voice America. Last Modified September 18, 2015. Accessed November 10, 2015.

Burrows, Edwin. “About.” Dyckman Farmhouse Museum Alliance. Accessed November 10, 2015.

Lee, Susan. “An ‘Anarchist’s’ Plan to Reinvent the Historic House Museum.” Curbed. Last modified October 21, 2015. Accessed November 10, 2015.

4 thoughts on “Why Historic Houses Suck: An Anarchist’s Guide to the Unorthodox Museum”

  1. Alex, I’m curious… if you could transform any historic house in Gettysburg into the best possible kind of museum, which would you choose and why? It can already be a museum, or not.

  2. Well, off the top of my head, I would say that the Dobbin House has a lot of potential. It already has a lot of activity because it is a restaurant and it provides tours of the historic home. However, their tours are very limited and I feel if there was more interpretation involved in the restaurant and store, that would add to its value. I am also a huge supporter of getting the local schools involved more. The Dobbin House was a school in the 1700’s and having local students experience what it would have been like to go to school in colonial America would be an amazing educational opportunity!

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