Stewardship and historic houses

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.

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6 Responses to Stewardship and historic houses

  1. Jill says:

    I completely agree, but want to pose the question: has the definition of stewardship has changed over the years as the focus of museums has changed? Whereas once museums were intended to collect, preserve and interpret things, the focus has shifted “from being about something to being about somebody,” as Stephen Weil termed it. I would argue that the meaning “stewardship” has shifted as well to include relevancy to community and the general public. Are some house museums still clutching to the older definition of preserving the place above all else?

  2. emiliearnold says:

    I suppose I am using the word “stewardship” to refer almost exclusively to making sure that historic resources are looked after responsibly. I would argue that stewardship of a collection is very much the same as stewardship of a historic house; you want to be sure that both the collection and the house are adequately cared for, in perpetuity, if possible. The house is indeed the shell, and the nature of stewardship is to make sure that it remains and continues to contribute to the historic character of its surroundings.

    I do agree that the most responsible stewardship should not only maintain the house’s walls, but find a sensitive and meaningful use for the space within it. This is where many house museums may be wrapped up in ONLY maintaining the building. But it’s also true that common maintenance, unless absolutely necessary, is often deferred in an underutilized house museum. If a house museum cannot even preserve the place above all else, I don’t feel that it is acting as a good steward.

    Resolving these issues can be very difficult and even emotional; it’s hard to let go of entrenched concepts of what a house museum should and shouldn’t be, and it’s also difficult to face tough financial realities.

  3. Amanda says:

    Reading through this again, something else popped into my mind. To me stewardship and preservation seem to imply that at some point the house or building is expected to either return to the hands of the public or serve some educational/research purpose. Why would we preserve a place, if no one who was interested in it was ever going to see it again? Does stewardship, mean that in part researchers should have access to the house in some way. If the house is sold and the museum does not want to re-buy, how long should the easements remain, if it all? It seems to me easements on a house that might likely never return to owners that will use it for the public well being are pretty worthless, because no one will ever get to see what is preserved. Instead, it would seem that the place would be much more difficult to sell and maintain for whoever took over it.

    Just some questions I have been pondering.

  4. emiliearnold says:

    I think overall we might have a misunderstanding over what easements do. The idea behind an easement is to protect the exterior of the building so that its appearance is preserved in perpetuity–not the inside. Nothing about an easement suggests that the house will ever return to public hands, or that a house will ever be accessible to the general public–it is there to make sure that the house still stands, regardless of its intended use. Easements are a major tool wielded by historic preservationists, who are concerned with extant buildings and the way they contribute to the visual character of a neighborhood–not their interpretations or their accesibility to the public.

    In sum, easements protect what everybody sees about a historic house: the outside. And they protect the outside in perpetuity. You are quite right in that it takes a special buyer to take on a historic property with an easement, but it does happen.

    I should mention that the easements that Historic New England holds over its properties are somewhat unique in the preservation world. Most easements preserve only the exterior; HNE’s easements protect both the interior and the exterior. Generally, easements leave the new owners free to do whatever they wish with the interior of a historic building while requiring the owners to be vigilant about upkeep on the facade.

  5. Kelsey says:

    While stewardship might still imply the basic “preserve and protect” philosophy, I think more and more museums are adopting a sustainable stewardship model. Meaning, not only will they protect a historic property, but they must also plan for sustainably protecting it for the future. For many, this involves developing programming to generate funds that allow the institution to continue to open the building to the public.

    Seconding what has already been said, properties with easements are resold fairly frequently. In many instances, the easements are so slight or easy to accommodate, they don’t discourage current owners or deter potential buyers.

  6. Sabra Smith says:

    There’s a thread that begins to be touched on above that I just want to chime in on — relating to house museums, collections, building fabric and the stewardship of those as a commitment to preserving something for the public good.

    Yes — of primary importance is “preserving” tangible materials, whether a collection or a building or even a landscape. However, I’d suggest that stewardship of a public asset fails when the goods or site fails to connect with its visitors or the community in a meaningful way. For far too long, museums “played house” and held an attitude that the importance of the history was evident and would make people come. Carl Nold of Historic New England chastizes places that cling to the outmoded “architecture and artifact” tour. This kind of presentation distances a visitor rather than creates an emotional bond that will lead to long-term support of a site.

    There’s a certain type of public relations and marketing element that really needs to become part of the preservation and stewardship discussion sooner rather than later. We need to start looking at who we’re trying to reach, how best to reach them, and employ new and creative methods to do so.

    I’d propose that failure to communicate and connect with a visitor in a meaningful way is bad stewardship, even if your building is immaculate and your collections pristine. I’ve been on too many tours where the mob-capped docent points to a doorknob to tell me it was made in the 18th century, invoking yawns instead of imagination. Without meaning and connection, what’s the point?

    I wrote a post on a sort of related thread (the power of objects to connect us to the past or show us something about ourselves) that’s here:

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