There’s a lot of buzz within the public history and museum fields about Franklin Vagnone and Deborah Ryan’s new book, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. I’d been waiting for a while to have a chance to read the book, and I finally got around to it this week. Overall the book aims to challenge standard practices at historic house museums in regards to interpretation, education, and preservation at these places, and it will definitely provoke new conversations within the field about how and why historic house museums are important for understanding and appreciating the past.
I finished Anarchist’s Guide feeling underwhelmed. While I found the book’s appendices useful for researching visitor feedback and evaluating a given site’s standard practices, I felt like most of Anarchist’s Guide’s conclusions were neither revolutionary, radical, nor original. I might expand upon these thoughts in a future blog post. Nevertheless, I do agree with one central argument made by Vagnone and Ryan that should be repeated to all house museum professionals, however: historic house museums are first and foremost about the people, past AND present, who occupy the house’s space. As Vagnone argues, “the breath of a house is the living that takes place within it, not the structure or its contents” (21). Hear! Hear!
With the National Park Service–at least among those of us who work at historic homes–there is a running joke about the dreaded “furniture tour.” You arrive for the tour and the guide that accompanies the group room-by-room focuses almost exclusively on the furniture pieces of the room and the minute details of each piece that no one will remember when the tour concludes: what year this chair was produced, what state this table came from, how thankful we tourists should be for the good museum professionals who’ve preserved all this furniture for us today. What often goes missing from these tours is the humanity of it all. Why is any of this furniture important? Who are the people who owned this furniture, and why did they buy it? What is so important about this house and why should we continue preserving it? Why should we care about this place today?
To be sure, there is an important place for material culture analyses at historic homes. A gifted interpreter can take a historic artifact and tell nuanced stories about the people who owned it and that artifact’s cultural, economic, and political history. Who built this artifact? Why was this artifact valuable at the time and why did the owner purchase it in the first place? What can this artifact tell us about the times in which its owner lived? When historical artifacts act as tools towards the end goal of better understanding and appreciating the past and the people who lived in it, visitors leave with a better sense of empathy and the humanity of the past. Conversely, tours end up becoming boring and stale when historical artifacts become ends within themselves, reinforcing the idea that the study of history is primarily one of rote memorization and filling the “empty” minds of visitors with dates and facts.
The situation at my own workplace is somewhat unique in regard to historic artifacts. At the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site we have no original furniture inside the historic White Haven estate. While the structure itself is still mostly original today, the lack of original furniture disappoints some visitors. This feeling is understandable, and by no means do I consider such a sentiment misplaced or silly. We all visit historic homes partly because we are curious to see what they look like inside, and at first blush an empty room is nothing to be too excited about. But I take pains to point out to visitors that the National Park Service didn’t choose to preserve this particular house because it was old or because of the way it was designed, but because of the people who lived in it. The house, to paraphrase Vagnone, breathes life because of the people who were there during its 170-year existence as a private residence and the people who still visit it as a National Historic Site today. If the house and its original structural elements were to be completely destroyed tomorrow, the National Park Service would continue to oversee the site and tell the stories of the people who lived there, even if there was nothing original to actually see. But if people stopped coming to the site and the house became an empty hole of nothing beyond a historic structure, what would be the point of the NPS staying to preserve the site? It wouldn’t matter if each room had an abundance of historic artifacts – no one would be there to see it.
A historic house without any people in it breathes no life. Anyone who holds a leadership position at a historic house museum ought to remember that when designing interpretive programs or explaining to stakeholders why their particular site is important and worth preserving.