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Sprucing Up the Historic House – No Renovations Required

March 22, 2016

As funding models and populations change, we become more removed in time from the periods many historic house museums represent. This raises an important question: what can the museum sector do to bring visitors, funding, and vitality to these iconic house museums?

Franklin Vagnone, of the Historic House Trust of New York City, loves historic house museums. Yet, even he struggled to pay attention during certain tours. He started thinking about what made the historic house museum experience challenging for visitors, and what could be done to improve it. The result? A book – and a recent panel discussion at the Museum of the City of New York.

The book argues that historic house museums, like any of us, should focus on being good hosts when inviting visitors in. That means museums must make people feel welcome, pay attention to their needs, and cater to them. It might mean providing chairs that don’t have ribbons across the seats, or removing a few “Do not touch!” signs from artifacts. Sometimes, it means creating a space where people can safely drink a glass of water on a hot day. And it often means providing multiple ways for people to engage with the site, rather than just an hour-long didactic tour. Remember, the goal is to be a good host.

During the panel discussion, professionals from various museums discussed the ways they’ve experimented with being more welcoming to all visitors, including the people living in the neighborhoods where house museums are located. Neighborhoods change all the time; the people who are currently living in a neighborhood might not be able to relate to the stories of the people who lived in a historic house. However, they usually care about their neighborhood and are curious about the history of it. The key is for historic house museums to figure out how to connect with people.

By focusing on providing a welcoming visitor experience, these house museums may find new audiences and supporters. Panelists suggested reaching out to “reverse affinity groups” – people who are interested in things other than historic houses – to use the museum’s space to gather informally. By offering unique programming, such as reframing Edgar Allen Poe in the light of modern rap and hip hop traditions or opening a tinkering lab in a house museum where African American inventor Lewis Latimer lived, these institutions can remain loyal to the identity of their sites and be exciting and intriguing to future generations. Paraphrasing panelist Angel Hernandez, “All of our historic houses need to do is talk, and it’s our job to figure out the language.”


Link to panel info: http://www.mcny.org/event/politics-money-and-anarchy-historic-house-museums

Link to book on amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Anarchists-Guide-Historic-House-Museums/dp/1629581712



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Shaelyn Amaio

About The Author

Shaelyn Amaio is a consultant in the Lord Cultural Resources New York office, where she applies her experience in museum education, project management, and research in support of cultural and strategic planning projects.

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1 Comment

Ngaire / March 22, 2016

Hi- interesting blog and an important question. I love the rap Edgar Allen Poe and the Lewis Latimer tinkering lab. Anyone have other examples? Tips to reach out to ‘affinity’ groups?

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