How Do We Keep America’s Historic Houses Relevant?

Historic houses are great institutions. People can step into them, and for a while, feel as if they have stepped back in time to a moment in history long forgotten. It is always exciting to visit a new town or city and look to see if there is a popular historic house to visit. But what about all of the many historic houses that are not attracting visitors? According to The PEW Charitable Trust, as of 2008 there may have been as many as 15,000 historic house museums, or as many as four for every county in the country. Is America struggling to maintain and run too many historic houses? And if so, which ones do we keep open, and what do we do with the rest?

These are important questions to ask, because these houses are important to at least some number of people, hence why they are open in the first place. How can historic houses remain important and relevant? One option is to focus on how the historic house is presenting its content. In today’s world, people love to interact with objects to gain understanding and knowledge. So perhaps the tendency to have one docent overwhelming crowds with facts and information for an hour or more should be rethought. Historic homes should be more interaction with immersion or hands on opportunities with the site’s objects. This will enhance learning and interest.

Historic Houses should also reach out to schools. They should work to create school programs, which cover necessary state objectives so as to be purposeful and interesting to children. In doing so, historic houses will remain important and relevant in addition to raising a new generation of museum enthusiasts who will in turn bring their children to historic homes.

The historic houses that do not have access to regular visitors or school groups need to repurpose. The building can be saved and maintained and then rented out as a personal home. Additionally, old houses have been used successfully as office space, art centers or even venues for weddings. These homes do not always need, and often should not, be made into museums.

People go to museums and historic houses to see how these institutions connect to them and their families’ past. By involving visitors and actively including school groups, historic homes become more fun and interesting. If the historic house is simply not drawing in people the way it should, then it is perfectly acceptable, and wise, to repurpose the building. If historic homes all over the country follow one of these two paths then they will remain important institutions worth visiting for decades to come.

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5 Responses to How Do We Keep America’s Historic Houses Relevant?

  1. emilykp47 says:

    I think you have a good points about the need for historic houses to repurpose in order to survive. However, some people may not want the historic home to be changed, including the descendants of the people who first lived in the house or donors who feel it is important the home be preserved as a museum. Will these people be satisfied if a historic house is repurposed into office spaces or event venues? How can we meet the needs and wishes of all stakeholders? Tough questions….

  2. maolsen13 says:

    Great question Emily! I do think it is important to respect the home and find ways to make it accessible to the public. However, if there is no money to keep it up there is a concern that it will get torn down over time. This causes a new set of issues and I think it would be good to do what is needed to try and keep it a usable space. An art education space seems like a perfect way to bring in money to maintain the home but also allow the public and children to interact with the home. I think finding creative things like this is important in the overall conversation of preserving historic homes.

  3. wagnmw says:

    I wonder if when repurposing a home, how should the community be involved? Perhaps that could be alleviate concerns of losing the historic value and bridging a community.

    However, what about limiting the number of homes inserted into the National Registrar each year and removing some? More criterias could help. While it will be not be popular, it will could lower the number. My concern is that truly historical buildings could missed and removed. During class, Miranda made a good point how Europe have thousands of years history and they aren’t overcrowded with historic homes.

  4. gretchensorin says:

    What happens if a great and important historic house just happens to have terrible leadership at a particular time? Are they a lost cause forever?

    • caitlinmccaffrey11 says:

      I don’t believe they are. I feel that museums also go through periods of bad management and are very often not lost causes. It is unfortunate, but hopefully the community cares enough about the history and cultural importance of the home to keep it going until someone comes along who can breathe fresh air into the home. I think that historic homes can offer some of the best connections to their times, and foster amazing conversations and connections to current issues. That is why it is so important to maintain strong and passionate leadership from within.

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