For almost ten years, I’ve been working on the re-interpretation and re-presentation of the HHM that is part of my employer’s stable of properties. We’ve had mixed results: guides who refuse to look me in the face, guides who quit because a piano got moved, guides who hissed “hedonism!” at the site of a lounging mannequin, and guides who were made incredibly sad by the representation of a sick (dying) child.
Me, I consider all those things successes.
The people who had to deal directly with that fall out, maybe not so much.
Change is hard and scary, and every one has a different tolerance for risk. As you have probably guessed, mine’s fairly high. I blog, I go out into the world in some pretty funny clothes, and inhabit characters I am not. I expect to fail regularly: it’s a reliable way of learning.
Change is hard to maintain, it’s hard to continually evolve and push an interpretation forward. It takes time, focus, and money; it takes cross-disciplinary collaboration and communication between curators, educators, and docents or guides.
Taking risks in spaces full of very expensive furniture is particularly daunting, but especially rewarding when you see how a house looks, inhabited and, to a degree, used.
The job of museums is to preserve, but we sometimes seem determined to petrify, to freeze a perfect moment in amber, to freeze our visitors with fear of touching, photographing, asking, and to freeze and understanding, all in a fluid world.
If we reject the beautiful and untouchable past to embrace the messy human past, we can juxtapose the fine mahogany-furnished rooms of the merchant elite with the work to create those rooms and make the picture more whole by including slaves, servants, workmen and tradesmen.
Most of us would not have lived the way the merchants did: to a degree, our historic house visits are backwardly aspirational, as we wish for nostalgia that is more false than most nostalgia.
I am not advocating favoring the smelly past, or descriptions of unpleasantness, over exultations about carvings and upholstery—except that I am—because I see these pendulum swings as a part of the process of creating more complete and honest representations and recreations of the past, in museums, at historic sites, and in living history presentations.
It’s past time for me to work again on re-imagining the house under my care: I acknowledge that. Synthesizing what I learn in living history with the work I do in museums, and vice-versa, will improve and enhance the public experience of history inside and out.