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.