Even before the most recent economic slump, house museums throughout the country have been experiencing declining visitation and working with dwindling financial resources. The question of relevance and reevaluation is key, but what if the answer to “Is this house museum relevant to its community?” is “No”? And what if redeveloping a relevant experience simply isn’t feasible, practical, or affordable–as in the case of a “redundant” house museum, one that offers an experience found in one or more nearby house museums? What then?
Above all, the historic house requires responsible stewardship. While it may turn out that using a historic house as a house museum is not its best use, there are other adaptive options that can preserve the house–and the sense of place that its presence gives its community–for generations to come, even if visitors are no longer able to tour its period rooms. Some of these houses may be able to even continue to serve the community, just in different ways.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Spring 2008 Forum Journal, America’s Historic Sites at a Crossroads, presents a few hopeful suggestions for house museums in this situation. One example is the merger of Cliveden, a National Trust property in Philadelphia, with neighboring Upsala, a former house museum that is now used as Cliveden’s education center. Apart, Cliveden and Upsala told essentially the same stories. Together, the sites champion preservation, education, and economic revitalization in Philadelphia’s Germantown community. “While museum visitation has remained consistent at 3,000,” David W. Young, Cliveden’s executive director, wrote in 2008, “the number of people served has increased by over 40 percent in the last two years.”
Another example presented in the Forum Journal is the revision of the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove in Montgomery County, PA. Originally a house museum, Mill Grove has been adapted as an exhibition space and community center, with a new museum that uses Audubon’s art as a jumping off point in the larger picture of nature conservation. The old house museum’s biggest draw, Audubon’s bedroom, has been recreated, but otherwise the space has been completely reworked to suit its new mission: to learn about nature through art.
Finally, where a house museum may not be suitably adapted into a community or welcome center, perhaps it could be adapted into an office space–or even returned to its original use as a home. By placing an easement–a legally restrictive contract to maintain at least the exterior appearance of the house–on a former house museum, it is possible to protect the house’s historic character and to continue to contribute to its community’s individual charm. Historic New England’s Stewardship Program is one example of an organization that holds easements on historic properties, allowing them to be cared for by private owners while ensuring that their character and integrity remain intact.
Few dispute the values of historic preservation, or the importance of historic buildings in the fabric of a historic community. Being a good steward for a house museum is of paramount importance. An honest evaluation of whether or not the building is best used as a museum may be difficult to undertake, but the outcome can be positive for the house and the community alike.