anarchist guide to historic house museums, historic house museums, Historic House Trust of New York, historic houses, historic interiors, interpretation, living history, museum practice, Museums
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.
While I have enjoyed many of your posts over the years, this one was particularly inspiring for me. After the first of the year, I am taking on the somewhat daunting position of curator of a small house museum. While the house is early Victorian, the objects in the collection range from 1700-1830. As an historic costumer, I am also interested in bringing the museum to “life” through accurate interpretation of how the original owners of the objects would have used them and dressed. While I’m lucky that our museum is already fairly open — no velvet ropes — I have a feeling that I will still be facing some opposition from the “old guard” who feel that the objects should only be interpreted on their artistic merits, not their place in the lives of people in the past. Any advice you might have on ways to bring others around to a more inclusive view would be greatly appreciated.
I probably failed more than I should have in being inclusive– though we were going through a lot of institution change at the time I started making changes, so some reactions may have been not to me, but to the larger picture. The interpretation was obvious, and I was handy. What did I learn? Have conversations. Meetings can suck up a lot of time, so keep them brief (60 minutes, 90 max, have an agenda) but explain what you want to do, and why. Take the “old guard” to a place that you admire, and see how they like it, and what they don’t like. Ask them what they’d like changed: you might be surprised.
I think if you can make the process transparent, and inclusive, while retaining final authority to make changes even if they’re not fully supported, that you’ll have a rewarding experience. You won’t please everyone, and that’s OK. It’s not about you or your ideas, it’s about them.
But I would encourage you to get everyone looking and thinking about change, while admitting that it’s hard. A friend of mine who was a consultant for NASA always says, “Nobody likes change, but everybody likes new.” She also says, “Put your own mask on first,” and she’s right. If it gets hard, find allies in the field who can cross-check your thinking, and support you in your work. If you want to DM me, kittycalash (at) gmail (dot) com.
Thank you so much for this wonderful advice! It sounds like it will be just the trick for getting the process of change started. I will keep you posted with my progress.
“Guides who hissed ‘hedonism!’…” Brings to my mind the ladies of River City hissing “BAL-zac!” when filling in Harold Hill about the louche tastes of Marian the librarian. Of course, maybe the guides you mentioned were hissing tongue-in-cheek, if such a thing is possible?
They were not tongue in cheek, and one taught literature, so might have joined the Balzac mob.