How Do We Keep America’s Historic Houses Relevant?

Historic houses are great institutions. People can step into them, and for a while, feel as if they have stepped back in time to a moment in history long forgotten. It is always exciting to visit a new town or city and look to see if there is a popular historic house to visit. But what about all of the many historic houses that are not attracting visitors? According to The PEW Charitable Trust, as of 2008 there may have been as many as 15,000 historic house museums, or as many as four for every county in the country. Is America struggling to maintain and run too many historic houses? And if so, which ones do we keep open, and what do we do with the rest?

These are important questions to ask, because these houses are important to at least some number of people, hence why they are open in the first place. How can historic houses remain important and relevant? One option is to focus on how the historic house is presenting its content. In today’s world, people love to interact with objects to gain understanding and knowledge. So perhaps the tendency to have one docent overwhelming crowds with facts and information for an hour or more should be rethought. Historic homes should be more interaction with immersion or hands on opportunities with the site’s objects. This will enhance learning and interest.

Historic Houses should also reach out to schools. They should work to create school programs, which cover necessary state objectives so as to be purposeful and interesting to children. In doing so, historic houses will remain important and relevant in addition to raising a new generation of museum enthusiasts who will in turn bring their children to historic homes.

The historic houses that do not have access to regular visitors or school groups need to repurpose. The building can be saved and maintained and then rented out as a personal home. Additionally, old houses have been used successfully as office space, art centers or even venues for weddings. These homes do not always need, and often should not, be made into museums.

People go to museums and historic houses to see how these institutions connect to them and their families’ past. By involving visitors and actively including school groups, historic homes become more fun and interesting. If the historic house is simply not drawing in people the way it should, then it is perfectly acceptable, and wise, to repurpose the building. If historic homes all over the country follow one of these two paths then they will remain important institutions worth visiting for decades to come.

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The Lasting Legacy of America’s Historic Houses

“The era of historic houses has passed. There are too many houses out there that are becoming stagnant or shrines to an old way of life or a disappearing family,” states Jonathan Maney of the Hyde Hall Mansion of Springfield Center, New York, “In order to stay relevant these museums must begin looking at what other contributions they can bring to their surrounding society.”

With this in mind, many of today’s historic house museums are turning to creative and unorthodox ways to not only bring in revenue, but to attract a completely new generation of visitors. John James Audobon’s Mills Grove estate in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania has been completely repurposed from a replication of the author’s home to an art center. The Olana Partnership in Hudson, New York has not completely changed their mission, but has decided to expand their interpretation into what was once a story about Frederick E. Church into a concentration on American painting as whole.

Museum professionals are making strides in their attempts to keep these historic houses relevant and exciting while still bringing in the revenue to maintain the historic value of the property. Does the prestige or value of a historic house plummet if it is converted into a Bed & Breakfast or taken up as a private residence? How do we decide what sites are more relevant than others, and which ones should be preserved solely as museums?

-Sammy Smithson

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The Value of Museums

How will my community be different/better in positive ways because this museum exists?

This is the central question for all museum professionals in the twenty-first century, according to John Falk and Lynn Dierking in The Museum Experience Revisited. Falk and Dierking argue that for museums to thrive in the present day, the field needs to reinvents its philosophy and practice. No longer can a museum claim it has value for simply existing; now it must document its value by proving it can meaningfully fulfill the needs of its community. They suggest every institution consider the above question when planning activities.

I posed this question to Gwen Miner, the Domestic Arts Manager at The Farmer’s Museum. She agreed that a museum must be relevant to its community, and said she often thinks about how The Farmer’s Museum can become more valuable to Cooperstown and the surrounding area. One method the museum has tried is holding workshops about topics such as raising chickens and composting. Through these workshops they hope to serve as an educational resource for local residents. Gwen also pointed out that the museum can teach people skills to survive without electricity (useful during power outages!). She believes The Farmer’s Museum can help people understand where they come from, in order to know where to go in the future.

What value do you think museums have to their communities? How can you measure that value? These are important questions to consider as we embark on museum careers.

-Emily Koehler-Platten

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A Talk about Museum Audience with Sonnet Takahisa

Sonnet Takahisa, Deputy Director for Engagement and Innovation at the Newark Museum, talked with me today about the museum’s audience and her position as an advocate for audience engagement. The museum has a lot of programs for their audience- Public Programs , Family Programs, School Programs, Youth Programs, Summer Camp. The museum also hosts multi-generational family days on special topics. The Newark Museum is the only licensed institution in New Jersey to host Maker’s Fairs. A Maker’s Fair is an event where people practice their art in the museum. This reinforces the opportunity to do-it-yourself. STEM is infused with arts, creativity, craft and design.

The museum is free and it is the largest museum in New Jersey. it has a large collection of American Art, Nepalese Art, African Art, Asian Art, and a Historic House. They have old footage of the Dalai Lama visiting the Newark Museum which is also really cool!She states, it is an “unsung, underutilized resource.”

When I asked her if she has an agenda for the concepts she wanted the visitor to experience, she said she wouldn’t use to word agenda but that she uses a major philosophical approach to make the visitor feel comfortable, constantly discover, revisit old friends(pieces in the permanent collection). Her other philosophies relate to experiencing different time periods, different cultures and different people.

When I asked how she does marketing she stated that she works closely with the marketing department and that they are redesigning the website currently, and that to market, she goes out to other events and offers resources. Since she is in a new position, she is still getting to know who the museum’s visitors are.

To fulfill their mission the museum is also playing around with media, recently installing a video game in the Science exhibit. The museum is looking to completely overhaul it’s media plan which is really exciting.

When I asked her if visits are socially driven, she said yes. People come with families, friends, spouses.

Takahisa wants people to make great memories of their time in the galleries, with a specific objective:  to feel welcomed and come back again and again.

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How can museums be more inclusive?

In our Introduction to Museums course we are learning about how museums can better embrace diversity. I had the opportunity to interview Maria Vann, Director of the Iroquois Indian Museum in Howes Cave, N.Y. My discussion with Maria enlightened me about a variety of issues relating to incorporating the history of diverse populations in museums, and creating exhibits and programs that honor the history of the Haudenosaunee people.
Maria believes museums need to work towards bringing in visitors from different backgrounds. Her staff is working with the BOCES program and with schools in the capital region to welcome school groups from different ethnic and socioeconomic groups. It is also crucial that museum exhibits and programs attract diverse populations and incorporate issues of diversity. Vann believes that if there is some controversy museums are doing a good job of creating dialogue because visitors deserve to know different perspectives.

In order to achieve broader museum exhibits staff members should also bring different backgrounds to exhibits and discussions. The staff needs to work on making exhibits reflective of the cultures they are presenting. To avoid offending the group you are presenting and to have exhibits that reflect the group’s perspective you need to engage community representatives, and have open discussion about why an exhibit could be offensive. What are some other ways museums can include people from diverse backgrounds, and create an environment for dialogue about diversity?

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