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.