The Trouble with Historic House Museums

Historic house museums can be, in my opinion, the most moving museum experience you can have. You literally get to walk through the doors of people who lived long before and did something someone deemed worthy of remembering. The problem, though, is who deemed that memory worth remembering.

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I am an outspoken historic house museum anarchist. If you know what this means, kudos to you and if you don’t, check out this website to learn about the work of Franklin Vagnone and Deborah Ryan. One of the posts noted the politics inherent in preservation. A statement is being made when a house is deemed worthy of saving. And for a long time most historic house museum were the former homes of dead, rich, white guys. And it makes sense; this crew had the power to effect change, had the money to build aesthetically pleasing and architecturally interesting homes, and were recognized in their communities as being noteworthy. But what then, have preservationists left unspoken when advocating to save these homes and not small homes filled with the people who literally built the city. What have they said when they fixated on highlighting the activities of the male homeowner and not the life of the wife or the life of the house staff or slaves? What have they said when they saved another white home because it serves as a special architectural example and not the ethnic neighborhoods that could tell the stories of racism, struggle, survival, immigration and more. Preservation decisions are made consciously, but what they say to a community can, hopefully unconsciously, send messages of exclusion, disinterest, and outright snobbery.

This is not to say that these great houses aren’t important, but those who operate them need to be aware of these feelings. How does your house reflect the residents of your CURRENT neighborhood? What do you do for your neighborhood? Who actually frequents your house and from where does your support come?

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These are questions I’m currently asking about our house museum in Flint. A rich, white guy once lived there and, although I always try to include stories about the women of the house and the house staff, that still isn’t representative of the majority African American population of the city. I am working through plans to reach out to various stakeholders and members of the community to see what we, as a museum, can do for them. What would they come to the museum to do? What services could we provide? These are important questions to ask if we want to be an effective museum in the twenty-fist century.

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