Creating a Niche: Finding a Purpose for Historic Homes in Modern America

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.

 

Sources:

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.  

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4 Responses to Creating a Niche: Finding a Purpose for Historic Homes in Modern America

  1. Cyndi T. says:

    At the historic house museum I used to work at, we had two programs that were really successful – our afterschool OPMAD program and our monthly garden parties. The afterschool program was successful because students were able to learn about history and really seemed to connect to the city of Hartford and have a better understanding of why the city looks the way it does. Our monthly garden parties were always successful because it was an opportunity for people to use the garden in a fun way.

    • cnluthy says:

      That sounds really neat! The historic house museum I work at back home also hosts garden parties and those are incredibly popular. Could you tell me more about the afterschool program for students? What age group is your museum reaching? How are they presenting history in a way that engaged the students and made ties back to the community?

  2. walks95 says:

    Being active and attentive to the community’s needs is definitely the way to go. Back in Wayne’s World they had a historic house museum that no one ever went to. Nothing changed on the inside. It was one of those “I saw it once and now I don’t ever have to see it again” museums. It’d be nice if it incorporated some events for the community–which was small. People are always complaining there’s nothing to do. Perfect opportunity.

    • cnluthy says:

      Great pop culture reference, Stephenie! Your comment really made me think about one of the huge problems that historic house museums face: the current impressions and stereotypes that the public at large applies to all historic house museums. A historic house that is branching off from the norm and attempting to reach the community must really promote and advertise their efforts so that the community no longer sees them as “just another house museum.”

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