Why we need plenty of historic house museums

A Boston Globe article on the precarious state of historic house museums has been making the rounds:

Although some well-known house museums are thriving, many smaller and more obscure places are struggling. Their plight is so drastic that some preservationists are now making an argument that sounds downright blasphemous to defenders of these charming repositories of local history: There are simply too many house museums, and many of them would be better off closing.

The argument has reached a surpisingly fevered pitch. Since the turn of the millennium, high-profile preservationists have published articles in scholarly journals and professional publications with incendiary titles like “Are There Too Many House Museums?” and “America Doesn’t Need Another House Museum.” They have held conferences and panel discussions on the so-called crisis with titles like “After the House Museum.” Stephanie Meeks, the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is among the critics, even though her own organization maintains 20 house museums of its own. Turning old homes into museums has long been “the go-to preservation strategy,” she said. “But there are only a handful I can think of that are really thriving with that model.” Last fall, Meeks delivered a pointed keynote speech at the National Preservation Conference titled “House Museums: A 20th-Century Paradigm,” in which she argued that the traditional house museum model is often financially unsustainable and has been drastically overused, and preservationists must look beyond it. “The time for talk has ended,” she announced, “and the time for action is upon us.”

I’m probably not the most impartial observer here, because I used to run a historic house museum and now I’m on the board of another one.  But I think we need plenty of small HHMs, and here are a few reasons why.

  • HHMs give small communities access to the museum experience.  People in urban areas shouldn’t be the only ones whose lives are enriched by having a cultural institution in the neighborhood.
  • They help instill a sense of local pride in small communities, a feeling of ownership of one’s past and one’s own place in the world.
  • Small HHMs help nurture a well-rounded view of the past by reminding us that history isn’t always about great men, grand buildings, and dramatic battles.  Critics who wonder why anybody would spend money maintaining the home of Joe Schmoe, an ordinary nineteenth-century lawyer from Podunk, are missing an important point.  HHMs of that sort are important precisely because Joe Schmoe’s life was ordinary and unexceptional.  The palatial homes of the rich and famous tend to be the ones that endure, but most of our ancestors weren’t living at Tara.  It’s the mundane aspects of the past that tend to get lost in the shuffle.
  • HHMs are still one of the beast means to keep historic structures intact.  The Globe article notes that you can keep a historic house standing even if it’s no longer functioning as a museum.  That’s true, but I can’t think of many alternate uses where the integrity of these buildings is such a priority, and where preservation is done so well.
  • HHMs are training grounds for the employees of other cultural institutions.  A lot of the people who are running the bigger museums, historical societies, and preservation organizations first got their start in some small HHM.  When young folks looking for a career in public history ask me for advice, I always tell them to find some small institution in their own neck of the woods and start volunteering or doing part-time work there.  Just about every public history job posting is going to require one thing of applicants, and that’s experience.  There’s no better place to get your feet wet than at a small site where you can wear a lot of hats.

A lot of small historic house museums are teetering on the brink of closure, and no doubt many of them are beyond saving.  But the answer to the precarious state of small HHMs isn’t to cull the herd.  What we need is to foster close cooperation among smaller house museums, to make sure that historical and museum organizations keep these smaller sites on their radar, and to encourage professionalism and dedication among the people who oversee small HHMs so that the directors, curators, and site managers have what they need to do their jobs and keep the doors open.

When a historic home closes and a community loses access to a piece of its own past, it’s not a Darwinian winnowing out of the public history profession.  It’s a small tragedy.

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Is the Stockbridge Massacre site a good place for a dog run?

No, it isn’t.  But they might put one there anyway.

The proximity of a proposed dog run in Van Cortlandt Park to the site of a Revolutionary War massacre has sparked criticism from a group of Bronx historians.

The dog run — set to be built in the park’s Northeast Forest section — will replace the current makeshift dog run that occupies a space approximately 50 feet to the north of a memorial commemorating the site of the Stockbridge Indian Massacre of 1778. Wording on the memorial states that during the battle, British troops killed 17 Stockbridge Native Americans allied with Revolutionary soldiers, though historians say that enlistment records and reports from those who fled put the number closer to 40.

Members of the Kingsbridge Historical Society (KHS) liken the placement to putting a dog run next to the Vietnam Memorial or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

As if this whole proposal wasn’t cringe-worthy enough already, let me add that the bodies of the men killed that day were scavenged by dogs before being buried in a common grave.  Yeah.  Really not the most appropriate place for a canine playground, is it?

On a side note, a Hessian officer who saw the bodies of the Stockbridge militiamen killed in the attack produced this image of their clothing and arms, giving us a firsthand glimpse of these Patriot-allied Indians.  Note that he’s carrying a bow and arrows as well as a musket.

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John Ferling is right on

When asked to name the Rev War’s most underrated battle and participant, Ferling put in a good word for King’s Mountain and Nathanael Greene.  My kind of guy…and also a darn good historian.

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Battle of the Smithsonian superstars

What’s the most iconic item in the whole Smithsonian Institution?  Here’s your chance to help decide:

This is it: the ultimate competition. We’re looking for the one item that says “SMITHSONIAN” like nothing else — and you get to decide the winner.

Our museums, research centers, and zoo have picked one iconic item each as its champion in the Smithsonian Summer Showdown. These titans of the Smithsonian will battle head-to-head through three rounds until there is ONE winner! Voting for Round One ends August 4. Vote now!

My first round picks are the T. rex in the science category (natch), the issue of Wonder Woman #1 in culture, the Star-Spangled Banner in history, and the Landsdowne portrait of Washington in art.  I’ll be very surprised if the flag doesn’t emerge as the last artifact standing when the final round of voting closes.

You know, I think it’s the iconic “superstar” objects that really make the Smithsonian what it is as far as most people are concerned, especially when it comes to the National Museum of American History.  Despite the comprehensiveness of the collections, and despite all the work that goes into researching, writing, and installing exhibitions on particular aspects of the American experience, what most people really want to see at the Smithsonian are these one-of-a-kind treasures, the kinds of things you can see at the NMAH and nowhere else: the Star-Spangled Banner, Washington’s uniform, the ruby slippers, and so on.

Museums have changed a lot in the past few decades, but I think what still draws in most visitors is the opportunity to stand in the presence of extraordinary objects.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.

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‘Liberty Mountain’ playwright on the history behind the show

Robert Inman, who wrote the script for the new King’s Mountain play I mentioned a few days ago, has a guest post about the campaign over at Appalachian History.

The play has its premiere this October, and after that it’s going to be an annual summer production.  Inman has evidently done quite a bit of writing for both theater and TV.  I’m hoping I get a chance to see the show.

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Bat-birthday

In case you haven’t heard, it’s Batman Day.  I’ve been a fan since I was about eight; the Tim Burton film was probably the first major movie that I went nuts over, and I accumulated a pretty good stash of Bat-collectibles over the course of my childhood.  I still think Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns is one of the greatest works of modern fiction.  Seriously, if you’ve never read it, get yourself a copy.

It’s an unlikely concept for an enduring cultural icon, when you think about it—a vigilante who dresses like a flying rodent.  What accounts for a career that’s lasted more than seven decades?  I think it’s a combination of factors.  The character has attracted good writers and artists, and he has the best rogue’s gallery in comics.  Most important of all, I think, is the fact that underneath that cowl is a man of flesh and blood instead of steel.

Anyway, happy 75th, Mr. Wayne.  Here’s to another three quarters of a century.

 

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Revolutionary backwoodsmen ride onto the stage again

I’m obliged to Gordon Belt for passing this along.  In North Carolina there’s a new play in the works about the Battle of King’s Mountain and the men who fought there.  Here’s how the play’s author describes the backcountry settlers:

“They had a bone to pick with the British government even when they lived there,” he said “They lived a hard life under landlords that were very hard to deal with. They had famine and drought, and they were seeking a new life in the New World where they could make a living, raise their families and worship as they please.”
The settlers came to the backcountry of North and South Carolina and quickly adapted to the frontier area.
“They had to be rugged, independent people. They endured hardships, they had to fight Indians. They persevered,” Inman said.
When the war began, the backcountry patriots just wanted the British to leave them alone.
“The British said, ‘You have to support the crown.’ They said, ‘No, that’s not the way we operate.’ And so, they took up arms against the British and won,” Inman said.

The backcountry settlers who fought in the Southern Campaign have been the subject of dramatic works before, especially in the 1950s, when Pat Alderman‘s outdoor drama The Overmountain Men premiered in Erwin, TN.  It told the settlers’ story from the genesis of the settlements west of the mountains through the Battle of King’s Mountain.

Alderman eventually turned his research into a book, and if you compare the description of the settlers in its pages to the news item quoted above, you’ll see that the characterization of the backwoodsmen hasn’t changed much over the decades:

These frontiersmen were sons of frontiersmen, accustomed to the rugged life of the new country.…This unhampered wilderness freedom, far removed from royal rulers and their taxes, was to their liking.  These bold, resolute men were self-reliant.  They were independent, individualistic, and not always inclined to respect or observe the niceties of the soft life.  Living on the outskirts of civilization, their law was to have and to hold.

In fact, you could quote lengthy passages from books on the backwoodsmen written in the late 1800s and find many of the same sentiments.  It’s fascinating to see how popular notions about the eighteenth-century frontiersmen have remained so steady.

For more information about Revolutionary-era settlers on the stage, check out Gordon’s book on John Sevier in myth and memory.  (Sevier was the subject of his own biographical play about sixty years ago.)  And if you’d like to see an outdoor drama about the eighteenth-century settlers for yourself, Sycamore Shoals hosts a very popular and long-running show every year.

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