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!