Historic Houses as Sources of Empowerment

Although historic house museums are experiencing a decline in foot traffic as compared to other types of museums, it may be argued that these institutions hold a unique potential for empowerment. Empowerment for whom? And how can empowerment be cultivated when fewer and fewer people enter these buildings?

Historical house museums are a source of power if they are adapted to serve the communities in which they exist. If historic sites make connections between the original homeowner (regardless of time period) and present groups, the common humans experience will be evocative.

Most people understand the concept of “home,” and historic sites can uniquely adapt to become a home to a community. By developing programs which include and edify area communities, historic houses can serve as refuge and voice for the underprivileged, the down trodden and displaced. For example, many historic house museums are located in areas with newer immigrant populations. These newcomers are no different from the droves of people who have flocked to America throughout its history. Museum programs for consideration could include exhibitions and events representing these new immigrant communities. Programs as these help to establish concrete connections between modern populations earlier immigrant people. For example, similarities could be explored between a 19th century German immigrants and a 21st century Somalians. Common experiences such as immigration, language barriers, and prejudice could create organic and profound dialogs. Allowing locals an opportunity to see their culture in a museum will reap a feeling at home, establish trust and build pride in the site.

Events geared toward the community, recruiting volunteers from the neighborhood and utilizing shared authority will solidify a museum’s relevance. Some museums are incorporating farmers’ markets, music festivals, WIC programs, free days, and the list continues. These types of programs can make a historic house a haven within a community. Yes, it is a fine line between this type of historic house museum and a community center, so museums should always remember that service to their community is only one part of their mission. With that said, these adaptive measures can work to enhance historic sites and fuel departments such a collections and/or education to grow in strength by expanding their focuses.

It must be added, that indeed not all houses were created equal! Due to the over abundance of historic house museums many people view historic sites as unnecessary and outdated. An honest analysis based on criteria should be established to decide whether a house is worth saving. If the museum is empowering a community, serving the public and making historical connections that transcend time and space, it is worth saving. If a historic house is consuming federal or private funding and they do not serve the community, these houses should be considered for easement programs to maintain their historic value. Historic preservation of buildings is important, but not every historic site is worthy of being a museum!

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2 Responses to Historic Houses as Sources of Empowerment

  1. Brooke Steinhauser says:

    Historic House Museums do, indeed, have a certain power to them: a transportive power and a power for teaching through personal experience. Clearly, these wonderful institutions also have their problems.
    When ‘Excellence and Equity’ came out in ’92, as we all know, it emphasized the necessity of a central role played by education in museums.
    Fifteen years later, at the Kykuit Conference in April 2007 the idea of education and serving a community’s needs was the ‘it’ topic in the hopes of revitalizing America’s historic sites. Why does it seem that historic house museums, on the whole, have been so very slow to catch up to an idea that has already been reshaping museums as institutions for YEARS???

  2. amersfoort7 says:

    I fully agree with the fact that historic sites have more than lagged behind other museums in regard the the central role of education. It seems that because of the preservation perspective of historic sites in their missions, education has yet to be realized by many. Preservation takes precedence over education simply because historic sites view structures as the primary importance as opposed to the community. For the historic site, safeguarding a place seems more important that time. We must also remember who and what philisophies are in control of historic sites. I must add, that this ofcourse is not true of all historic sites…many are wonderful and making efforts to thinking educationally. Historic sites are slowly moving from preservation soley to education…change is hard. Those with education backgrounds need to take active roles in these institutions to utilize their untapped and unque potential. It will take trained museum leaders to bring change, one house at a time.

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