Resource or burden? Historic house museums confront the 21st century.

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Jones House in the Snow by l. hutton

Jones House in the Snow.  Photo credit: L. Hutton

In 2002, Richard Moe, then president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), asked a troubling question in the Forum Journal: “Are There Too Many House Museums?”[1] Subsequent publications, conferences, and other forums have debated and reiterated Moe’s concerns that house museums are–besides facing dismal financial straits–too often “tired, antiquated, and disconnected from their communities.”[2]

Although many historic houses have been saved from the wrecking ball because preservation-minded community members transformed them into museums, Moe argued that the sustainability of these museums over the long term remained in grave doubt. Part of this sustainability problem comes from the fact that nearly every town, large or small, has at least one house museum. As of 2013, according to NTHP president Stephanie Meeks, there are an estimated 13,000 house museums in the United States. Nearly 65% of these museums have no full-time paid staff members, and 80% have annual budgets no larger than $50,000–a drop in the bucket when one considers expenses needed for furnishings, artifacts, salaries, and house maintenance.[3] As Donna Harris maintains, while historic house museums can function as “icons of local identity,” the flip side of this is that “familiarity can breed oblivion among many house museum neighbors and locals.”[4]

The town of Boone,North Carolina, (two hours from Asheville, the home of perhaps one of the most famous house museums in the United States,the Biltmore Estate), claims the Jones House Community Center as its own “house museum.” Built in 1908 by Dr. John Walter Jones, the three-story, Queen Anne colonial revival style house was sold to the town in 1982 by Jones’s daughter, Mazie Jones Levenson (1914-1999). Located just above the main thoroughfare in downtown Boone, the house features an early 20th-century style parlor room, with a piano and other artifacts connected to the history of the house. There, however, similarities with traditional house museums begin to fade.

With the exception of the parlor, all of the Jones House rooms have been converted into flexible spaces for community use–which is what Mazie Levenson wanted when she sold the house to the town. As such, the Jones House serves as a meeting space for various local government organizations, hosts weekly music “jam sessions,” and stages exhibitions by local artists. During the summer, music festivals draw tourists and residents alike, while indoor concerts and holiday decorations attract winter crowds. Some historic house museums on a far grander scale, such as the James J. Hill House in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Drayton Hall in Charleston, South Carolina, have also made the decision to furnish their rooms only with pieces original to the homes–thus leaving rooms sparsely furnished, if at all, and thereby open to greater use.

The ability of the Jones House staff to adaptively reuse the house’s interior rooms–no archetypal “velvet ropes” or period rooms to maintain–allowed them to engage my graduate-level Museum Interpretation class to design an exhibition on the life of Mazie Jones Levenson. What resulted was Windows Through Time: The Changing Landscape of King Street (December-January 2013). The exhibition theme gave the students license to explore crucial social and historical issues, including the ongoing threat to other historic buildings in Boone that have either been saved from, or fallen victim to, demolition.

One technique the students used to provoke audiences was to create large transparencies of historic local photographs and tape them onto Jones House windows. Students wanted to visually suggest what audiences would have once seen looking out these same windows 50 or 100 years ago. One such photo transparency was made of a former downtown landmark, the Daniel Boone Hotel. Built in 1925 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Hotel was located just across the street from the Jones House. It was demolished in the early 1980s to make way for condominiums. While the Jones House had once looked out onto the hotel, now, all that remained to suggest its presence was this ghostly transparency.

Admittedly, many historic house museums might find it difficult, for a variety of legal and emotional reasons, to de-emphasize the period rooms that have long defined their identity and purpose. And, those house museums that are not bound to displaying artifacts or maintaining period rooms may risk a detachment from their own histories–particularly if the staff does not engage in other methods of historical interpretation. An example of this type of potential disconnection resulted, unfortunately, in my students’ difficulties with their own exhibit. For example, they were unable to access and display any physical artifacts related to Jones House history, other than photographs, maps, and similar (two dimensional) documents.

In his 2008 article “The End of History Museums: What’s Plan B?” Cary Carson laments the fate of public historians who end up running crowd-pleasing “sideshows” at historic houses and museums. “We public historians,” Carson argues, “were not put on Earth to run dog shows or referee Easter egg races, however much revenue they raise for preservation.”[5] I find this quote striking because the Jones House staff holds a popular annual Easter egg hunt for local children (though they haven’t yet considered any dog shows). While I understand Carson’s plea, how many people would otherwise visit an old historic house without this kind of invitation? There must be a middle ground that historic house museums can achieve–a ground that allows public historians to engage in the hard work of interpretation, but one that also challenges and engages diverse audiences–and even, perhaps, offers them the chance to have fun.

One such way of “thinking differently” about historic house museums is on display at the Dennis Severs House in London. Mary Teeling writes that the home, built in 1723, was restored by artist Dennis Severs in the 1970s to suggest the possibility that the Severs family (or, perhaps, generations of previous residents) would return at any minute.[6] The Severs House contains a dizzying array of 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century smells, sounds, and artifacts–real and reconstructed, whimsical and traditional. The mix of artifacts allows for a creative kind of storytelling that complicates the “authenticity” of the traditional house museum but in a way that, for Teeling, is vital and engaging.

Teeling does wonder about the questions that could be raised by such an approach. “Playing with historical facts” in order to draw audiences and preserve a house may, for some historians, verge on the unethical. She concludes, however, that the intersection between imagination and history embodied by the Severs House signifies that “sometimes the evocative has more power and lasts longer than that which is merely informative.”[7] While my students may not be able (or allowed) to re-imagine the Jones House (or the Biltmore or Monticello) in quite this same manner, rethinking and reinterpreting how traditional historic house museums can reach new audiences will surely support their continued historical power. Hopefully, public historians will soon view these 13,000 plus museums as representative of an abundance of riches, rather than a burden.

~ Andrea Burns is an associate professor of public history at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.

[1] Richard Moe, “Are There Too Many House Museums?” Forum Journal 16, no. 30 (Spring 2002): 4-11.

[2] Cary Carson, “The End of History Museums: What’s Plan B?” The Public Historian 30, no. 4 (Fall 2008): 13.

[3] Donna Harris, New Solutions for Historic House Museums: Ensuring the Long-Term Preservation of America’s Historic Houses (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2007).

[4] Ibid., 75.

[5] Carson, 15.

[6] Mary Teeling, “A London Travelogue: Visiting Dennis Severs’ House,” in Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, eds. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski (Philadelphia, PA: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011), 310.

[7] Teeling, 319, 321.

  1. Thanks for the informative blog and shout-out for the James J. Hill House. The balancing act between appropriate restoration and the range of adaptive reuse continues here. Remembering that our site was built with an art gallery, theater, music room, library, and a reception hall leads us to attract new and repeat audiences by hosting or creating exhibits, plays, concerts, book events, and parties–usually followed by a house tour. Stone, brick, and I-beam construction allows us to do more programming and on a larger scale than older, smaller, and more collections-packed, wood frame houses cannot.

    1. Andrea Burns says:

      Thanks for your comments! The James J. Hill House is such an imposing structure–beautiful, but its size could easily overwhelm an audience. I will be honest and say that when I first toured the house, I was startled by the lack of furnishings. In retrospect–and quite a few years later–I realize how this can actually make a space much more flexible for 21st century purposes!

  2. Margo Shea says:

    Wonderful, thoughtful post, thank you! The Easter egg hunt observation actually made me laugh out loud. Extra thanks.

    1. Andrea Burns says:

      Thanks, Margo! Yes, that Cary Carson quote is great. I assign his article to my students every year, and every time I have to laugh about that observation.

  3. Paul Reber says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful article.

    I hope the terms of debate about the relevance and importance of historic house museums will soon run its course. The National Trust has been beating on historic houses for nearly two decades, primarily because of the financial challenges running their own sites. But I question to what extent the “problems” with historic house museums are recent developments, or simply the historic reality of their operation. Save for a handful a major house museums (Mount Vernon, Monticello, Biltmore, Graceland, etc.) I would suggest slim visitation, inadequate revenue and limited staff have been a condition that has afflicted nearly every historic house museum since its creation. Rather than continuing to allow the historic house critics to set the agenda for discussion, it would be far better to focus on their educational potential and the ways we can manage the reality. There are plenty of thoughtful people who are doing just that, some of which are described in this article. Let’s commit to making sure we see more of it.

  4. Jan M. Lorys says:

    The Polish Museum of America (PMA) is located in the century old headquarters of the Polish Roman Catholic Union (PRCUA), a fraternal insurance company which was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2013. We redid the original museum room as the Paderewski room. One of the improvements was the addition of blow ups of historic photographs on the interior of the large window panes. This cut down the amount of harmful lighting coming in as well gave us additional display area. The photos were scenes that Ignace Jan Paderewski would have seen in Chicago and New York during his stays in the US.

  5. Thanks for this thoughtful article. I have been talking about this very topic with our board of directors for months and we just completed the first phase of a new interpretation process at the historic house museum we manage in Mobile. We are converting it from a sleepy, antebellum home that was interpreted as a plantation (which it was not), to a story on 100 years of preservation. It is one of the oldest homes in Alabama, so we have many time periods to talk about and how they have all contributed to preservation and Mobile’s history.

  6. Richard Josey says:

    Great article. Made me go back and look at Cary Carson’s full article. I was at Williamsburg with him and recall talking to him about this. I always found it interesting that there is no one size fits all approach. Can an Easter Egg Hunt coexist at a site where lynchings took place that still affect the local minority community? I don’t have the answer, but it does pose an interesting conundrum especially when we explore the purpose of museums (as varied as they may be) with the financial realities and the public need. I believe there is a middle ground, but it isn’t doing what we’ve always done…in my humble opinion! By the way…the James J. Hill House is great and everyone should visit (shameless plug!) Again, great post!

  7. Edward Bosley says:

    Thanks for this engaging article on an important subject, especially to those of us who teach grad students who aspire to careers in the interpretation and administration of historic sites. The quote from Mary Teeling’s article caught my attention since she apparently fell into the trap of seeing the Dennis Severs house in London as a historic house museum. While it does occupy a historic building, the interior is a complete, albeit scholarly, fantasy. There was never a historic “Severs family” living there. Mr. Severs (who was from San Diego, California) bought the building in the 1970s and began decorating it to resemble his idea of a mythical migrant Huguenot family’s 17th century home. This puts the site, in my view, outside of the historic house museum rubric and into the realm of intensely interesting and evocative tourist attraction. It is also a for-profit business, charging a tidy sum for tours of the house. As fascinating as its migrant family interpretation may be, the Dennis Severs house is more authentically about the late Mr Severs himself, an idiosyncratic decorator from California who set out to create a very engaging fantasy set piece.

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