Tag Archives: Stonewall Jackson House

Looks like Stonewall Jackson’s house will be under new management

The organization that runs Stonewall Jackson’s house as a Lexington, VA museum is in the process of turning it over to Virginia Military Institute, according to the Post. As you might have guessed, this lousy economy has a lot to do with it:

In May, the foundation approached VMI about acquiring the historic house as a way to protect the building and its collections, which the foundation purchased in 1994. Foundation executive director Michael Lynn said the Jackson House, as well as other small museums, are facing difficult times with the downturn in the economy and fewer visitors.

“This is the best possible solution for the long-term viability of the museum,” she said. “Surveys always show a high level of visitor satisfaction with the museum but there just are not enough of them coming.”

I’d imagine this is a difficult decision, but it’s also a sensible one.  I’ve worked at two museums which were parts of much larger entities, a university in one case and a county government in the other.  For all the frustrations that can come with operating a museum as a department of a bigger entity, it has definite advantages.

I’ve always compared it to the difference between living on your own and being a younger child in a big family.  If you’ve got your own place, you don’t have to wait in line for the bathroom and you can crank the TV up as loud as you please…but you also have to keep yourself in the black, or you’ll be out on the street.  The third child in a big family has to learn to play nice with his siblings, but he’s pretty sure there will be food on the table tomorrow.

Since this economic mess has so many independent museums closing their doors, entity-within-an-entity museums can sometimes have a sort of relative security that free-standing museums don’t.  I emphasize relative, of course, because plenty of entity-with-an-entity museums are facing an uncertain feature these days, too.

I hate to learn that the Stonewall Jackson Foundation is in a bind, since they’ve done a fantastic job of interpreting the site, but it’s good to know that VMI is willing to step in.  The house is a wonderful place to see.  Here’s a review that I posted last summer, in case you’re interested.

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Stonewall slept here

Historic house museums are tricky places to manage.  You’re not just dealing with the conservation and interpretation of a collection of artifacts within a controlled environment—the whole building is an artifact that has to be maintained and interpreted.  This presents some considerable challenges.  The Stonewall Jackson House in Lexington, VA is a first-rate example of how to overcome them successfully.

The first thing I noticed on my visit is that the house has been impeccably restored.  In fact, of all the historic house museums I’ve visited, the restoration job at the Stonewall Jackson House is one of the absolute best.  You’d never believe that it’s 150 years old, or that it was converted into a hospital after Jackson lived there.

Equally impressive in presentation are the visitor areas.  This museum is a first-class operation from the moment you step in the door.  The lower floor entrance opens into a small but beautifully-furnished reception/gift shop area.  In addition to the usual souvenirs, you’ll find a great selection of scholarly books on sale, from Robertson’s definitive Stonewall bio to studies of his campaigns and more general works on the war and the Confederacy.

An orientation theater offers a brief film that discusses Jackson’s life in Lexington, and there’s also a small exhibit in this room that covers his life and career.  Where this museum really shines, though, is on the actual house tour.  Our guide was a very gracious, very southern, and extremely knowledgeable lady whose delivery was smooth and extraordinarily professional.  The whole tour was expertly paced, bristling with content and detail but not so long as to be tiresome. 

I should point out here that historic house guides are some of the unsung heroes of the museum world.  They’re the equivalent of the enlisted infantrymen and NCOs in the army—the ones at the actual point of contact who get the job done, though they rarely get the lion’s share of the glory.  They’re the single most important factor in determining the visitor’s experience at historic homes, and if the tour I took is any indication, then the guides at Stonewall Jackson House are some of the best in the business.

One of the things that a tour of any house museum belonging to a significant historical figure should do is to strike the right balance between the interpretation of the rooms and interpretation of the individual who lived there.  The tours at the Jackson house do this very well.  You’ll learn quite a bit about life in a comfortable, nineteenth-century household, but the focus is on Jackson himself.  In this case, I think that’s the right approach.  Jackson’s impact on southern history is undeniable; futhermore, he was a fascinating and enigmatic man in his own right.  I think the interpreters at this museum are correct in devoting much of the tour to his personality and character.

That’s not to say that the tour is one long sermon on Jackson’s virtues, or that the guides are trying to make him out to seem more than human.  I’m simply saying that the tour is rich with the sort of personal insight that you’d find in a good biography.  The emphasis is more on Jackson the human being than Jackson the commander, which I think is the sensible track to follow for a house museum.

I was extremely impressed with this site because it takes all the necessary elements of a historic house museum and handles them all very well—preservation, interpretation, visitor services, you name it.  Every Civil War buff should make an effort to visit this place, every casual tourist would find it a worthwhile stop, and every museum professional should take a tour in order to see a model of historic house management done right.  Of all the sites I visited over the course of last weekend’s trip, this was probably the highlight.

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