This blog has been fairly sparse this past year because Ken Turino and I were editing and assembling two dozens essays for Reimagining Historic House Museums: New Approaches and Proven Solutions, an anthology to be published by Rowman and Littlefield as part of the AASLH series. I’m delighted to announce that it is now off my desk and in the hands of the publisher; we expect it will be released in fall 2019.
One of the biggest consequences of the under-resourced and over-stretched community of house museums is that it is difficult for them to share their successes with others—they just don’t have time. The field doesn’t learn about them except through publications, blog posts, or conference sessions—that’s one of the major reasons we assembled this anthology. There’s lots of good work happening in house museums but we’re simply not aware of it. Our hope is that this book is a good place to grab a hold of the current thinking about reinventing house museums so that they are more relevant, sustainable, diverse, inclusive, equitable, and accessible, hopefully broadening and deepening the current conversations in the field.
The book is a result of a 2014 conference, How are Historic House Museums Adapting for the Future? sponsored by the Historic House Museum Consortium of Washington, DC and the Virginia Association of Museums at Gunston Hall Plantation in Virginia. They invited to give presentations to the 120 participants and noticed that while historic site practitioners and their boards recognized that the world of historic houses has changed dramatically, they weren’t sure how to go about reimagining or reinventing themselves.
With the support of the American Association for State and Local History and local funders, we embarked on a series of workshops in subsequent years to lay out a “reinventing process” that has taken us to Missouri, New Hampshire, Vermont, Kansas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Illinois with more to come (Washington, DC in June; New York City in October). The one-day workshop, Reinventing the Historic House Museum includes an analysis of the most important opportunities and threats facing historic sites in America based on the latest social and economic research, with a discussion on how they may relate to the participants’ house museum. We share a series of field-tested tools and techniques drawn from such wide-ranging sources as non-profit management, business strategy, and software development. Drawing from innovative organizations, we profile historic sites that are using new models to engage with their communities to become more relevant, are adopting creative forms of interpretation and programming, and earning income to become more financially sustainable.
The workshop is so packed with information that we quickly run out of time before we’ve reached the end of the agenda. So many house museums provide excellent examples of reinvigoration and so many useful techniques are available that we can touch on only a few of them in a day. Despite our ongoing efforts to take this workshop across the country, it is often sold-out and many small sites cannot afford to attend. This book helps fill these gaps.
The book is a combination of a museum conference, a hands-on workshop, and toolbox filled with ideas that tips the scales at more than 100,000 words. It’s a guide for house museum boards, directors, and staff seeking a path forward in rapidly changing times. Graduate programs in public history, museum studies, curatorial studies, and historic preservation will discover chapters that will provoke lively discussions about the issues facing the field. We initially planned on a shorter book, but the issues we wanted to explore and number of contributors grew. For a peek, here’s the table of contents:
Section 1. Fundamentals and Essentials
- Chapter 1 Imagining a Reimagining Process for House Museums by Max A. van Balgooy
- Chapter 2 Enterprising House Museums by Lawrence J. Yerdon
- Chapter 3 Evaluation is Not Just Nice, It is Necessary by Conny C. Graft
- Chapter 4 The Essential Role of Boards in Reimagining House Museums by Donna Ann Harris
- Chapter 5 Reaching New Heights with Volunteers in Historic House Museums by Alexandra Rasic
- Chapter 6 Surviving a Capital Campaign: A Slightly Irreverent Guide to Fundraising by Nina Zannieri
- Chapter 7 Success Factors for Small Historic House Museums by Monta Lee Dakin and Steve Friesen
- Chapter 8 Reimagine House Museums: Loosen Up but Don’t Let Go! By Thomas A. Woods
- Chapter 9 Value of History Statement by History Relevance
Section 2. Audiences
- Chapter 10 Using Historic House Museum Audiences to Drive Change by Katherine Kane
- Chapter 11 Cultural Heritage Travelers and Historic House Museums by Amy Jordan Webb
- Chapter 12 Finding Numen at Historical Sites by Ron M. Potvin
- Chapter 13 Community Engagement: Radical Renewal for Historic House Museums by Dawn DiPrince
Section 3. Different Approaches to Familiar Topics
- Chapter 14 “Do Something Transformative” by Callie Hawkins and Erin Carlson Mast
- Chapter 15 Listening for the Silences: Stories of Enslaved and Free Domestic Workers by Jennifer Pustz
- Chapter 16 Interpreting Women’s Lives at Historic House Museums by Mary A. van Balgooy
- Chapter 17 Where the Magic Happened by Susan Ferentinos
- Chapter 18 Reflecting Race and Ethnicity in House Museums by Jane M. Eliasof and Claudia Ocello
- Chapter 19 Why Do Furnishings Matter?: The Power of Furnishings in Historic House Museums by Laura C. Keim
- Chapter 20 Rethinking Architecture in the Realm of House Museum Interpretation by Cheryl A. Bachand
- Chapter 21 Looking Beyond the Front Door to Find Spirit of Place by Lucinda A. Brockway
Section 4. Methods
- Chapter 22 The Historic House Museum Tour: A Matter of Life and Death by Patricia West
- Chapter 23 Everyone’s History Matters: School Programs at Historic New England by Carolin Collins
- Chapter 24 Creating Minds-On Exhibitions in Historic House Museums by Robert Kiihne
Section 5. Imagining New Kinds of House Museums
- Chapter 25 Reinventing the Historic House Museum: Three Potential Futures by Elizabeth Merritt with responses by Carol B. Stapp, Susie Wilkening, Brian Joyner, Jorge A. Hernandez, Emiliano ‘Nano’ Calderon, Nathan Ritchie, Barbara Silberman, and Joe McGill
- Chapter 26 Yes, America, You Need Another House Museum (But Read This Book First) by Kenneth Turino
Our thanks to Bill Adair, director of exhibitions and public interpretation at the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage in Philadelphia, and Bob Beatty, formerly vice president of programs at AASLH and now president of the Lyndhurst Group, who were involved in the initial planning of this book. We are grateful to the contributors who made the time to provide the chapters in this book and we also appreciate the extra behind-the-scenes ideas and support from Melissa Bingham, Gretchen Bulova, Dorothy Clark, Laura Johnson, Mimi Quintanilla, Alexandra Rasic, Nathan Richie, Barbara Silberman, Carol B. Stapp, Sarah Jaworski, Mary van Balgooy, Jay D. Vogt, Larry Yerdon, and Michelle Zupan for reviewing draft chapters and suggesting contributors.
We also acknowledge the many colleagues who have explored and discussed the challenges and opportunities facing house museums, many of whom are represented in the extensive reference bibliography included at the end of the book. Michael Maler deserves a big thanks for assembling the bibliography, who gladly undertook this herculean task during his internship at Historic New England.
Finally, much appreciation to the American Association for State and Local History, Atlanta History Center, Campbell House, Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area, Hawks Inn Historical Society, Historic New England, History Colorado, National Park Service, New England Museum Association, Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, Southeastern Museums Conference, Strawbery Banke, Watson-Brown Foundation, and Wisconsin Historical Society. Their support for the “Reinventing the Historic House Museum” workshops both informed our thinking for this book as well as improved and enhanced the impact and sustainability of historic sites and house museums across the country.