Remove the Ropes!

Historic house museums are dying. They don’t suffer from decreasing visitation; they suffer from having no visitation. Why? Well, Frank Vagnone, the Executive Director of the Historic House Trust of New York City says that currently, “as a genre, historic house museums [provide] anti-tactile, text-heavy, docent-led experiences.”

I don’t mean to disparage historic houses, because they often tie into important historical narratives. As museum professionals, we simply must try to save them. The first thing we need to do is make historic houses more participatory. They should be a place where visitors can engage in creating their own narratives. The best way to let visitors do that in an historic house is to let them explore history through the objects.

I know, I know…if you let people explore in an historic house then they’ll actually sit on the furniture. They might open some doors, or maybe even touch the objects on a desk. How horrific, right? Get over it. The point of a museum is to educate, and the best way to educate is through participatory engagement. Remove those ropes and let people wander.

The underlying question here is not whether participation of this kind will endanger the house’s collection. The question is whether or not letting the community have a co-creative museum experience (i.e., one in which they craft a narrative in conjunction with museum staff) will educate them better and make them want to return. You will always find the answer is yes.



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3 Responses to Remove the Ropes!

  1. cnluthy says:

    I agree with your point, Fred, that historic house museums must endeavor to make more participatory experiences in order to increase visitation. However, I think that in order for a house museum to be truly participatory it needs to do more than just remove the ropes. For example, in Stratford-upon-Avon you can visit Anne Hathaway’s house and touch the furniture. You can even sit on the same seat that William Shakespeare sat on when he proposed to Hathaway—but I would not say that that it was a participatory experience. It was certainly really neat and unique, but I did not evolve my ‘me’ experience to a ‘we’ experience. I think that creating that stage 5 social engagement between visitors is incredibly difficult to achieve in every museum, and is rarely seen in a historic home. Historic house museums have an interesting ability to serve the community because of what they are—a home. If a historic house can keep the community of which they were part of in mind when developing public programs, I think they can really bring together their visitors in positive and inspiring ways that could continue to exist outside of the walls of the house museum.


  2. Rick says:

    I think there always has to be a balance. Many museums turn conservation into their end rather than a means for sustainable education, which negates the value of their collection and their value to the public. Visitors should be allowed to interact with an environment, especially because some learn best by doing things and touching objects. At the same time, objects which are delicate and have a considerable significance to them should have some restricted access. One of the goals of the museum field is to conserve historical memories and objects for as long as they can feasibly be conserved. The more they are handled by visitors now, the poorer the shape they will be in for future visitors. Educating people in the present by letting them handle objects in the present can negate the education of people in the future. The balance between conservation and more interactive experiences is very circumstantial; it is different for each house museum. This is why I personally am a fan of reproductions: people can do whatever they want to those without risking any provenance.

  3. My Thoughts: There are some cultures (I.E. Asian Countries) that have no historic house museums as a cultural type. Most sites are large, grand, political and symbolic places of National importance. Historic House Museums as we know of them in the USA were founded during a period of intense immigration, and at times bigotry. The houses were seen as places to educate newly transplanted immigrants into the culture of America. To a great degree – this dominate, male, top-down educational mentality still exists in these types of sites.

    The notion of investigating the community around an historic site/house is a new one. You see, the houses were to educate the communities surrounding them NOT be educated BY the community. Ask yourself – where do most historic house museums reside? In areas that have seen economic, social, and political power ebbs and flows (downtown, urban centers). I would dare to guess that most Historic House Museums are surrounded by communities that are not populated by that community which the historic narrative is expressing I.E Wealthy owners – now in a middle class or poor area; Anglo heritage- now surrounded by a growing minority population, Southern Plantation Owner – now surrounded by working African Americans. When I was in Birmingham, AL I wanted to seek out some great examples of Plantation estates that expressed slavery openly and fully. When I asked the tourism board greeter (A wonderfully smart and conversational African-American Woman) – she replied that there were none and that she couldn’t even tell me where the Plantation sites were because she never wanted to see one.

    If anyone is paying attention – and we must – it is clear that in order for these sites to continue to exist it is fundamental that we shift our focus away from the traditional, centralized, fact-based, male dominated, top-down education system AND quickly become adept at a de-centralized, experiential, poetic, grass roots dialogue.

    Whenever I hear museum professionals speaking about the “objects” and the “collections” I cringe. Historic House Museums have for way too long been driven to the cliff by the unyielding best practices of collections managers. The Emperor has no clothes! And if his clothes are that important – place them in a MUSEUM – not an historic house site. They are not museums, they are real, tangible, domestic sites that real, tangible people lived/worked/died within.

    Just my thoughts
    Museum Anarchist

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