Challenges and Opportunities Facing Historic Sites and House Museums

This fall I’ll be teaching the historic site and house museum interpretation class in the Museum Studies Program at George Washington University.  Department Chair Kym Rice graciously offered me this opportunity earlier this summer and I couldn’t resist.  I’ve been impressed by the caliber of GW students and I count many of their graduates among my friends and colleagues.  Today is the first class and participating are fifteen graduate students, mostly in museum studies with a handful from history and anthropology.  We will  have some fun discussions!

During the next few months, I’ll share my experiences with you and I thought I’d start by laying out the initial readings for the course, which focus on the opportunities and challenges in interpreting historic sites.  It was hard to pick and choose among the literature available, but I wanted to be sure the students had a variety of perspectives, became familiar with the current discussions, and were introduced to some classics–and of course, find something provocative!  Everyone will read:

  • “Are There Too Many Historic House Museums?” by Richard Moe in Forum Journal (2002)
  • “A Call for a National Conversation” by James Vaughan in Forum Journal (Spring 2008)
  • “Visiting the Past: History Museums in the United States” by Michael Wallace in Radical History Review (1981), 25: 63-96.
  • “Past, Present, and Future” by Patrick Butler in Jessica Donnelly’s Interpreting Historic House Museums (2002)
  • Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service by the Organization of American Historians (2011)

They are each assigned two articles from among the following (they’re also reading several chapters in a book, so I don’t want to overwhelm them):

  • “Interpreting the Whole House” by Rex Ellis in Donnelly (2002)
  • “Making Gender Matter” by Debra Reid in Donnelly (2002)
  • “Balancing Our Commitments” by Valerie McAllister in Donnelly (2002)
  • “Social History on the Ground”, chapter 5 in The New History in an Old Museum: Creating the Past at Colonial Williamsburg by Richard Handler and Eric Gable (Duke University Press, 1997), pp. 102-124.
  • “Treasures of Home,” chapter 5 in The Social Work of Museums by Lois Silverman (Routledge, 2010)
  • “A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time,” chapter 11 in A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time by John Brinkerhoff Jackson (Yale University Press, 1994), pp. 149-162.
  • “Uncovering and Interpreting Women’s History at Historic House Museums” by Patricia West in Restoring Women’s History through Historic Preservation, edited by Gail Dubrow and Jennifer Goodman (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), pp. 83-95.
  • “Pioneer Museums” by David Lowenthal in History Museums in the United States, edited by Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig, (University of Illinois Press, 1989), pp. 115-127.
  • “Why Historical Thinking Matters” at
  • Trends Watch 2012 by the American Association of Museums.

Along with Jessica Donnelly’s book, the class is reading throughout the semester:

  1. The Gifts of Interpretation, Third Edition by Larry Beck and Ted Cable (Sagamore Publishing, 2011)
  2. Interpretive Planning by Lisa Brochu (InterpPress, 2007)
  3. Invitation to Vernacular Architecture by Thomas Carter and Elizabeth Collins Cromley (University of Tennessee Press, 2005)

Anything I missed?  Any articles or books that influenced your thinking and should be included?  Please share them in the comments below.

8 thoughts on “Challenges and Opportunities Facing Historic Sites and House Museums

  1. Monta Lee Dakin

    You are the perfect choice! That Kym is sooo smart.
    Here’s a question I’ve been mulling: As we move more into the participatory museum era of our museum industry’s history, how can historic houses join this era? With period rooms that contain precious objects and are costly to change, historic house museums grapple daily with the issue of how to engage visitors with these unchanging places. I’m talking more about the problems associated with static rooms rather than what goes on outside because historic house museums were some of the first participatory museums when they started doing outside events to bring in more visitors.


    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      I’ve become more and more convinced that good interpretation needs to incorporate elements of challenge or surprise. Years (actually decades) ago when I was an intern at the Strong Museum, publications editor Kathryn Grover started this ball rolling by suggesting that there needs to be a balance between familiarity and novelty: if it’s too familiar, it’s boring; if it’s too new and different; it’s overwhelming. Since then I’ve been reading heavily in communication theory, cognitive psychology, storytelling, and visitor research studies, as well as talking with and observing interpreters and visitors, and “cognitive dissonance” or “surprise” is a key factor that grabs attention and engages people. Somehow, we have to include the unexpected in a tour or period room (for example, all dining rooms pretty much look the same, so can you use an object, event, or person that’s surprising or unusual to interpret an important idea–Ken Ames does this in, “Death in the Dining Room”). The second area I’m exploring is “relevance”–making a connection between the past and the present to give a glimpse of the future. I’m still puzzling this out (“there is a lot of evidence that this is true, but is there a theory?” 🙂 ).


  2. wordspicturesstories

    Monta, you posed exactly the question I have. Our family visited a historic house and a museum in Sandwich, MA, last week. Our kids, aged 10 and 14, are not big on museums in general, but they voted the Sandwich Glass Museum one of the best museums they’d ever been to (my husband and I wholeheartedly agreed), and the historic Hoxie House (circa 1640) as “deadly boring!” even though it was a great small house full of interesting artifacts described by the two docents. The somewhat slow delivery of the interpretation was some of the problem, but we all agreed that first-person narration and personality would have made the information more interesting for them — which were some of the reasons we loved the Sandwich Glass Museum.


  3. Bob Beatty

    Am thinking your list is missing some key History News articles over the past several years. 🙂 Here are some that come to mind:

    David Donath “Exploring Connections Between People and Place” (Summer 2012)
    Benjamin Filene “Letting Go?…” (Autumn 2011)
    Rainey Tisdale “Do History Museums Still Need Objects?” (Summer 2011)
    David Janssen, et al “The Power and Predicament of Historic Sites” (Spring 2010)
    Linda Norris “Who Are Museums For?” (Autumn 2010)

    I’ll stop there, but I do think that all of these offer some food for thought–at least that’s what we sought to do.


  4. Amanda Gustin

    I have nothing to add to the list but wanted to say that I like it a great deal, and will be following this post to see what others have to suggest in order to expand my own reading list. Thank you for sharing your planning with us!


  5. Maggie Stockel

    I’m a recent graduate of a Museum Studies Program currently working in an historic house museum. Although most of my courses touched on historic houses in some way, I did not have the opportunity to take an entire course devoted to the subject. I’ll be following your posts closely to expand my reading list and awareness of current issues. Thanks for sharing your teaching course details and teaching experiences with us!


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