Brown University and National Trust Provide Recommendations for Historic House Museums

The financial sustainability and social relevance of historic house museums continue to intrigue scholars, preservationists, organizations, and even pundits on National Public Radio (I was recently interviewed by them about this topic) and adding to the conversation are two recent publications by the John Nicholas Brown Center at Brown University and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Bedroom at Liberty Hall Museum, Kean University, New Jersey.

Bedroom at Liberty Hall Museum, Kean University, New Jersey.

If historic house museums are historic sites that primarily educational (not commercial) in purpose, how would they be different if they were managed by educational institutions? “University-Affiliated Historic House Museums,” a report by the John Nicholas Brown Center at Brown University may provide some answers. Prepared for the 1772 Foundation by Hillary Brady, Steven Lubar, and Rebecca Soules, the report examines the issues facing historic house museums that are owned or operated by colleges and universities based on a survey of existing practices at ten sites.  Offering recommendations for “new ways to make these museums more useful to the university community,” it concludes with a half dozen alternatives for the Liberty Hall Museum at Kean University, which might be applicable to sites that are not affiliated with universities (swap “campus” and “students” with “community” and “residents”).  By the way, the Center is hosting an intriguing colloquium in May 2015 on “lost museums“.

Future of Historic Sites Forum Journal 2014In 1949, Congress created the National Trust for Historic Preservation to “receive donations of sites, buildings, and objects significant in American history and culture [and] to preserve and administer them for public benefit.”  In the 65 years that followed, its collection of historic sites grew to more than two dozen sites, most of which are owned by the National Trust and most are operated by other non-profit organizations.  The summer 2014 issue of Forum Journal is devoted to the future at some of these National Trust Historic Sites and includes six essays and articles:

  • “Stepping into the Future at Historic Sites” by Stephanie Meeks (president of the National Trust)
  • “Reflections on the Senses of Place” by Estevan Rael-Galvez (former vice president of historic sites) and Cindi Malinick (director of site stewardship)
  • “When Buildings and Landscapes are the Collection” by Tom Mayes (deputy general counsel) and Katherine Malone-France (former director of outreach, education, and support; now vice president of historic sites)
  • “Finding Our Compass: Lessons in Planning from National Trust Historic Sites” by Suzanne LaPorte (president of Compass).
  • “The Period of Significance is Now,” an interview with Erin Carlson Mast (President Lincoln’s Cottage, a National Trust Historic Site), Morris Vogel (Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a National Trust Historic Site), and Lisa Lopez (interim director at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum).

This issue is part of an unofficial series in Forum Journal on historic house museums starting in 2002 with, “Are There Too Many House Museums?” by Richard Moe and continuing in 2008 with a special issue on “America’s Historic Sites at a Crossroads.”

These challenges aren’t new.  In 1966, the National Trust for Historic Preservation published With Heritage So Rich, a path-breaking report to Congress that recommended “certain practical avenues of approach to the problem of conserving places and objects of value in our individual communities and in the nation as a whole.”  The solution wasn’t creating historic house museums, however:  “We already have on exhibition more historic houses and museums than we need, or are good for us as a nation.  Indeed, they multiply so fast that some form of institutional contraception must soon be invented.”  I wonder what the folks at Lower East Side Tenement Museum (opened 1992) and President’s Lincoln’s Cottage (opened 2008) think about this.  Did we need them? Are they good for us as a nation?  Why is your historic site needed?  Is it good for your community?

P.S.  More recommendations for historic sites are forthcoming.  Deborah Ryan and Frank Vagnone are publishing, “Shared Aspirations and Community Identity:  How Re-Imagined History Museums can Matter in a Post-Industrial City,” which is currently available as an unpublished proof (although I’m unsure of their evidence for stating that most historic house museums are in decline).

2 thoughts on “Brown University and National Trust Provide Recommendations for Historic House Museums

  1. Leslie Buhler

    The drumbeat about the decline of historic sites certainly creates a reality for donors, towns, cities, and the sites themselves that they cannot survive. How about showcasing the historic sites – large and small – that continue to thrive and do reach younger audiences? What about the experience and making that relevant? How about the museums that are failing and suffering from poor attendance i.e. the Corcoran. I’m not suggesting that all museums or sites can survive but those that are positioned to do so – geographic location, collections, etc., can. Do we only want “big box” museums in America?


  2. twistedpreservation

    Thanks Max for mentioning the paper that Deb Ryan and I wrote. That paper is actually for an International Conference on research that took place in Seoul. The book that we are writing”the Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums” is going to be published by Left Coast Press (Fall 2015) and it is primary observation and hands-on suggestions for house museums. For Deb and I, the issue is not so much if the historic house museums are in decline or if there are too many house museums, it is more about re-directing the focus of these important cultural sites from internal historic narrative TO external community-based engagement. I know that some people are strongly opposing the view that house museums are in decline (that it has been mostly a messaging point from the National Trust and not based in reality). For me, at least, I feel comfortable stating that house museums are in a great state of transition – and how we handle this period will determine if they stick around for the future,


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