The most popular historic home here in the Appalachian region is probably Biltmore House, the palatial Gilded Age mansion of George Washington Vanderbilt II in Asheville, NC. Some readers will be surprised that I qualified that statement with the word “probably.” In terms of visitation, no historic house museum in Appalachia comes close. In fact, few historic homes in the entire country could compete with Biltmore’s annual numbers, although offhand I’d guess that Mount Vernon and Monticello welcome more visitors. The reason I hedged is not because its popularity as a destination is in doubt, but because I’m not sure whether I’d consider it Biltmore a “historic house museum.” It’s difficult for me to associate Biltmore Estate with other historic sites.
Strictly speaking, I realize this seems a little ludicrous. It’s a house, it’s historic (or old, at least), and it’s a museum. What’s my problem here?
Consider the reasons why people visit Biltmore and what they get out of it. If we were to speak with guests as they stood in line to buy their tickets, how many of them would tell us that they’re about to shell out money to learn about the past? I’d say it would be very few indeed.
Or perhaps we might ask them if they came to Biltmore to learn about its first resident, the man responsible for its construction. Here, too, I think affirmative answers would be few and far between. People go to Mount Vernon, Monticello, the Hermitage, and the Lincoln Home because of their former occupants, but I don’t think this is the case with Biltmore. Quite a few Americans will probably recognize the name “Vanderbilt,” but not George Washington Vanderbilt II in particular.
In fact, I think most Biltmore visitors would be hard pressed to identify any salient facts about Biltmore’s first owner, or to name any notable accomplishments of his other than the fact that he built himself an awesome pad. An introverted younger sibling, George wasn’t responsible for running the family’s business affairs. Instead, he spent most of his free time (presumably he had a great deal of it) cultivating his own personal intellectual interests. A brief bio on Wikipedia notes that he was fluent in a number of foreign languages and managed some family property for a while; other than that, he “inherited $1 million from his grandfather and received another million on his 21st birthday from his father. Upon his father’s death, he inherited $5 million more, as well as the income from a $5 million trust fund.” Not a bad gig if you can get it, but it won’t lead generations of children to memorize your speeches for their second grade recitals.
My point here is not to belittle G.W. Vanderbilt II, but to point out that neither a regard for history nor a familiarity with Biltmore’s original occupant will explain the estate’s astronomical attendance numbers. Instead, I submit that the overwhelming majority of visitors to Biltmore are exercising the same impulse that makes people watch TV shows where opulent houses are exposed to the cameras and to buy magazines with photographs of lavish interiors. They go there because want to see how the fabulously rich once lived, to vicariously experience what it must have been like to enjoy untold wealth in an age of elegance and opulence, and to appreciate majesty and beauty. Having talked to people who enjoy visiting Biltmore, and having visited myself on a number of occasions, I think most people go there just because they want to ooh and aah.
In and of itself, this is no big deal. Historic sites aren’t necessarily any less historic just because visitors patronize them for reasons that have nothing to do with history. Lots of folks visit national historical parks for the fresh air, the hiking, and so on. The difference is this: What I’ve seen of interpretation during my visits to Biltmore, and what I’ve seen of the estate’s promotional material, leads me to believe that oohing and aahing is pretty much all you’re supposed to get out of the experience.
Now, before we rush to denounce this “lifestyles of the rich and famous” approach to historic interpretation, and to ask ourselves whether it constitutes historic interpretation at all, let me pose a consideration about historic house museums in general.
Perhaps historic house sites are inherently deceptive, in that they inadvertently perpetuate a very common and romanticized view of the past that I call the “frilly notion of history.” When people think about how great it must have been to live in an earlier age, it’s usually because they have a myopic view of what living in that earlier age was actually like. Many people have spoken to me about the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with a sort of wistful attitude, longing for the days when well-mannered ladies and gentlemen lived in gorgeous houses, wore frilly dresses, and danced the quadrille.
And yet the world of mansions, frilly gowns, and quadrilles wasn’t necessarily how “people lived back then.” That was how the affluent lived “back then.” It reflects only a slice of human experience from the period in question. In the pre-modern world, most people’s lives were anything but mannered and frilly.
Historic house museums, I think, can unwittingly perpetuate this notion of a comfy, genteel past, although it happens through no fault at all of the people who manage and interpret these sites. It’s simply a by-product of the differential vagaries of time. The houses that last 150 or 200 years and transform into museums are generally the homes of the wealthy or notable. Places where ordinary schmoes lived are harder to come by; they get torn down, renovated beyond recognition, or cannibalized for building materials to make the homes of later ordinary schmoes. Thus when you visit some historic house, it was probably the home of someone who was comparatively well off.
Lest you think I’m knocking historic house museums, let me note that I spent a year of my life running one. It was pretty small as far as historic house museums go—just three rooms, a garret, and a kitchen joined to the main residence by a dogtrot—but it was pretty nice for the time and place of its construction. The occupant had been an officer in the militia, a statesman, and one of the largest slaveholders in his county. When visitors remarked that the house seemed awfully small, I reminded them that contemporaries of its original owner would have found it quite comfortable.
At the really big house museums, the discrepancy between what visitors see and how most people of the period lived is even greater. Most Revolutionary Virginians didn’t live at places like Monticello, just as most Tennesseans of the Jacksonian era couldn’t dream of living at a mansion like the Hermitage. We cherish these places because we’re lucky that they’ve lasted to the present day and because of the remarkable men who inhabited them. They’re worthy of our appreciation not because they’re typical residences of typical people, but precisely because they and their owners were very special indeed.
So this brings us back to the question of whether visitors to historic house museums are getting a skewed view of the past. I suppose they are, but that’s also true of visitors to any public history institution. No site can ever hope to encompass an entire era or place. People who restrict their heritage tourism to one type of site or field of interest—battlefields, for instance—will invariably miss out on many other aspects of historical interpretation. Perhaps people who visit Biltmore in order to vicariously experience the life of a Gilded Age millionaire are not so different from those who visit battlegrounds to vicariously live the experiences of common men and boys who left their mark on history with bombs and bullets rather than bricks.