Week 6: House Museums

This week’s readings revolved around house museums and the current problems and opportunities they face. The first article was from the Boston Globe, in which the author, Ruth Graham, examined the current debate on the question of are there too many house museums. Graham demonstrated that a major problem is that the house museums are competing against each other for limited recourses and that many need to adapt new ways to attach visitors in order to stave off bankruptcy. While Graham does not fully come out to support one side or another, she did recognize that if some of these little visited museums were to close they may be used in new ways that may more effectively reach the communities then how they function currently.

The rest of the readings on house museums came from a special edition of the journal The Public Historian, which was devoted to the study of historic house museums.  By reading the entire journal, it was possible to gain a greater sense of the opinions of those historians in the field as the topics covered by the various authors covered a wide range of ideas and themes. While there were many different articles, there were common themes throughout them, with one of the main ones being the use of art and storytelling, and community involvement. The use of art was seen clearing in Lisa Stone’s  “Playing House/Museum,” and Patrick Grossi’s “Plan or Be Planned For: Temple Contemporary’s Funeral for a Home and the Politics of Engagement.” These two articles focused on the use of houses as means of art, with Stone stressing that the house museum must focus more on the sense of home, which can be achieved through the use of special collections (p. 35). Furthermore, Grossi used the house in a non-traditional manner by holding a funeral for it before destroying it , which he described as a collective art public history project, which revealed the deep connections between neighborhood and residents (p. 16). Both of these articles therefore demonstrated how the use of houses can be successfully expanded beyond the traditional historical interpretation and by doing so can uncover new aspects that would have gone unnoticed.

Storytelling and narratives were another overarching theme during these readings, especially in “Dwelling in Possibility: Revisiting Narrative in the Historic House Museum,” and “Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-first Century at a Post-Emancipation Site.” In “Dwelling in Possibility,” Hilary Lowe discussed literary house museums, such as the Emily Dickson or Mark Twain’s houses, to see how museums can use the context of the stories they narrate to make them matter more to the audience (p. 45). By looking at this literary houses, Lowe was able to demonstrate the need to include alternative versions, such Dicksons in love, and reflexive storytelling, such as at the House of the Seven Gables, in order to allow the visitors to claim the stories as their own. The importance of the story being told was also expressed in “Reimagining Freedom” as it relied on “the power of the narrative” to tell the stories that are often left out of history (p. 77). This article was also important because it tied in with the last major theme of community involvement as the executive director hoped to create a sense of four core values, such as celebration and normalcy, in order to engage the neighbors with remembering and partaking in the past. The other major articles that focused on community was “The Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums: Evaluation Methodology for Historic House Museums” by Franklin Vagnone, Deborah Ryan and Olivia Cothren, in which they created a system to judge house museums on community, communication and experience, amongst others. This method they hoped would aid in house museums in addressing areas of concern in order to eliminate the disconnect between the museums and the visitors so that they visitors can better engage with the house museum.

On a whole then, the readings demonstrate the need of house museums to adjust to the changing landscape of public hsitory in order to better serve the needs of the community and the visitors. Additionally, these readings are especially important for our project with the Powel House as it gives added direction in what is needed to be done with the self-guided tours in order for them to be useful to the public. Furthermore, based on our interactions with the Powel House, it is clear they are interested and dedicated to making use the house addresses many of the needs and concerns raised by the readings, such as expanding its use for weddings and plays as well as our tours since they hopefully will enable to telling of new narratives that have been sometimes overlooked. Indeed, the use and importance of narratives will likely be one of the major takeaways for me since the writing of an engaging and compelling history of the preservation of the Powel House seems like a daunting task. This week’s readings I believe, will give me the additional tools and ideas needed to understand how house museums currently function and how to approach my tour.

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