America is struck by historic house museum fever. More than 15,000 historic homes dot the country, many of which (some would argue) are repetitious, archaic, and irrelevant. While they might present their individual histories well, house museums often fail to connect to contemporary issues or society. So, what should become of them?
In “Houses, Histories and the Future,” author Tanya Barrientos proposes: “sometimes a resurrection doesn’t require an extreme makeover, just a correction in vision.” It is by focusing on the present that these museums are able to become healthy forces in their communities whilst preserving the history they wish to share. During an interview with Chris Dobbs, the Executive Director of the Noah Webster House (NWH) and the West Hartford Historical Society, he suggested that historic houses should promote a cause. House museums need to determine how their history correlates with the present, and then use that connection to facilitate discussion. For example, at NWH, at-risk children may stage vignettes based on events that occurred in West Hartford during the American Revolution era, and then consider what they learned within the context of modern discrimination. The mission of house museums should be to advocate cultural understanding and serve their communities in the process.
Historic house museums have a great opportunity to be places where the past can meet the present in a thought-provoking way. By championing a cause that reflects their own history and recognizes the needs of their community, house museums may become more valuable and sustainable.
Barrientos, Tanya. “Houses, Histories and the Future.” In “What To Do With These Old Houses,” at a National Trust Magazine briefing (Spring 2008): 2, http://www.pewtrusts.org/our_work_report_detail.aspx?id=38618.
Dobbs, Christopher. Interview by Christine Luthy. Phone Interview. 30 September 2013.