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.