Review: Historic House Museums in the US and UK by Linda Young (2017)

Young House MuseumsHistoric House Museums in the United States and the United Kingdom: A History by Linda Young. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. v + 299 pp.; bibliography, index; clothbound, $85.00; eBook, $80.00.

Historic house museums are one of the most popular ways that the public experiences history in the United States, although we only have a fragmentary understanding of their history. Linda Young tackles this topic not only for the United States but also the United Kingdom, with occasional examples from her homeland in Australia.

Linda Young is a senior lecturer in cultural heritage and museum studies at Deakin University in Melbourne, trained as a historian focused on nineteenth-century Britain. She has also worked as a curator at several house museums. After completing a survey of house museums in Australia, she expanded her scope to include the United Kingdom and United States in order to develop transnational comparisons that would reveal patterns in the motivations for transforming private houses into public museums (a process she calls ‘‘museumization’’). Furthermore, she wanted to distinguish house museums from other types of museums, giving them a distinctiveness and prominence that the museum field rarely considers. In a sense, she is giving house museums their own history and identity.

Her research into guidebooks, directories, Wikipedia entries, articles, and books, as well as field trips, convinced her that there are five ‘‘species of house museums’’ based on the motivation of their founders: hero houses, artwork houses, collectors’ houses, social history houses, and country houses (10–11). The author organizes the book according to this typology, with a couple of chapters devoted to each type. For example, one chapter is devoted to houses associated with national heroes, such as Sir Walter Scott, William Shakespeare, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Herbert Hoover, and another on literary heroes, such as Lord Byron, Robert Burns, John Greenleaf Whitter, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Each historic site is treated as a small case study outlining its significance, founding, and evolution. Together they form the basis to discuss specific aspects of ‘‘museumization,’’ such as the role of ‘‘heroes, authenticity, and magic’’ (35). These chapters are provocative, rather than comprehensive, making connections and exploring topics that the museum profession seldom discusses. At times, she makes claims that are certain to attract debate, such as the statement that house museums represent ‘‘10–15 percent of all museums’’ (2) and ‘‘the largest proportion of hero house museums is dedicated to writers’’ (59), especially when there are no sources cited and no agreement that a complete inventory of US museums exists.

The author’s typology of house museums aligns closely with the criteria for significance in the National Register of Historic Places (i.e., events/broad patterns of history, person/people, design or construction, and research potential) and the categories of interpretive purpose developed by William Alderson and Shirley Payne Low (i.e., documentary, representative, aesthetic) in Interpretation of Historic Sites (1976). We can debate how to best slice up the pie of house museums; however, Young’s fifth category of country house is not convincing. Rather than describing a founder’s motivation, it instead defines a particular style of house in England and seems better incorporated into the hero, artwork, collector, or social history categories.

Not-Very-Important Houses seems to be an implicit sixth category, but it is unclear. The author states that she sometimes lacks ‘‘the fortitude to mention this large rump,’’ yet admits they represent a large portion of museums that have ‘‘haunted the industry’’ (237). She argues they are historically and culturally insignificant but then complicates matters by addressing community relevance and institutional capacity. It is a refrain the public history field anxiously sings at regular intervals, but keeping these ideas separate would have revealed how these sites fit within her typology, and also clarified the challenges and solutions. On the other hand, all of this hand-wringing about Not-Very-Important Houses ‘‘is more an embarrassment than a disaster’’ because the alternative—demolition—would have been far worse for the commonweal (259).

While this book is focused on museumization, various definitions of ‘‘museum’’ appear throughout the book without consistency or clarity. It seems Young’s thinking about museums evolves as the book progresses, and in the closing chapter, the author discusses successful historic house museums that mix educational, social, and commercial activities that ‘‘stretch the concept of a house museum, reducing the degree to which ‘museum’ can be said to be their core business’’ (258). Indeed, it may reflect the field’s growing concern that ‘‘museum’’ is an inappropriate term to apply to a historic house—it often creates unreasonable expectations for programming, conservation, and operations that may threaten the preservation of the building or undermine sustainability of the organization.

Young’s effort to examine house museums at an international level is ambitious, yet unfortunately fails to achieve a coherent history. As she admits,‘‘the topic is too big to do it justice’’ (viii). Our field needs to better understand this popular form of historical interpretation in order to move away from the anecdotal stories that typically inform our work. Young has gathered an incredible amount of information about house museums in one place but seems to have confused the forest for the trees—because we do not have many trees. This book demonstrates there is a rich history in the preservation and interpretation of historic sites, but we need more thematic and regional studies to knit together a national perspective on house museums. Although her chapter on the English country house conflicts with her theory of museum typologies (a description of the forest), it provides a useful model for the study of house museums (a description of the trees) that should encourage others to follow her in this ambitious undertaking.

Published in The Public Historian 39, no. 4 (November 2017): 187-189.