Honoring James M. Vaughan: Leader in Re-Inventing Historic House Museums and Historic Sites

By Tom Mayes posted 05-01-2020 18:02


The National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the preservation and historic house museum fields, remember and honor the life and career of James M. Vaughan, who served as vice president for Historic Sites at the National Trust from 2000-2011 and executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission from 2011 until his retirement in 2017. Previously executive director of The Hermitage, home of President Andrew Jackson in Tennessee, and the head of the San Diego Historical Society in California, Jim was named to the American Alliance of Museums’ Centennial Honor Roll as one of the 100 American museum leaders who worked to innovate, improve, and expand how museums in the United States serve the public.

Courtesy of Janet Vaughan

During his tenure at the National Trust, the portfolio of National Trust Historic Sites became more broadly inclusive through the use of innovative agreements, which incorporated sites such as Touro Synagogue, in Newport, Rhode Island (2001); the Hotel de Paris in Georgetown, Colorado (2003); Museum of African American History in Boston and Nantucket, Massachusetts (2003); and the Acoma Sky City, in New Mexico (2006).  Others opened to the public for the first time featuring sensitive and engaging visitor experiences, including Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut and Villa Finale in San Antonio, Texas. 

As his obituary notes, Jim served on the board for the American Association for State and Local History, as a peer reviewer for the American Alliance of Museums, and as a grant reviewer for the National Endowment for Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Yet these credentials, and the positions he held, do not fully capture his outsize influence on the museum and historic sites field. 

As Carrie Villar, acting vice president for Historic Sites at the National Trust says, “his leadership, including his pragmatic (yet radical at the time) ideas around rethinking historic sites and their collections, continues to resonate and influence the way we do our work today.” Deeply committed to historic sites both personally and professionally, Jim initiated a re-thinking of historic house museums to be more engaging and to better serve visitors. 

With the support of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the National Trust, Jim planned and facilitated two critical gatherings to discuss the future of historic house museums.  Widely referred to as Kykuit I and Kykuit II, the gatherings opened a once almost forbidden conversation in the field about historic sites, their relevance, practices, and the way they engage visitors. John Durel, who ran the Seminar for Historical Administration said that the ideas from Kykuit II “…led to a significant shift in thinking. Instead of the importance of history, we started to think about the power of place. This simple shift in focus unleashed a wealth of fresh thinking, innovation, new programming, and community involvement at historic sites around the nation.” That visitors to historic house museums can now hear and play music, make and eat food, play games, and have fully visceral and memorable experiences is due in no small part to Jim’s thoughtful and deeply felt questioning of the field.

Yet perhaps his influence will be most long-lasting in his generous mentoring of other museum and preservation professionals. An entire generation of influential museum directors and professionals were encouraged and guided by Jim Vaughan. Erin Carlson Mast, CEO of President Lincoln’s Cottage recalls, “I vividly remember sitting in Jim’s office and him asking me ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ which was a question he’d ask anyone regardless of where they were in their career.  When I answered that I wanted to be a site director, he said, “Then let’s put you in positions to test that.’ From that point on, he was a thoughtful mentor. Jim might not have an academic family tree, but he leaves behind a towering museum family tree.”  John Dichtl, president and CEO of the American Association for State and Local History, described it this way: “Jim was a connector, a warm, generous, incredibly experienced leader in the historical community who brought people in from the cold of being new and shared the wisdom and joy that he had found in museums and historic sites. He was a mentor to many in this field, including me, helping us move forward, time and again.”

Katherine Malone-France, chief preservation officer at the National Trust reflected on this legacy, “Jim Vaughan set the bar incredibly high for gracious, thoughtful, inspiring leadership in the world of historic sites and house museums.  He cared deeply not only about preserving these remarkable places but also about the people—staff members, board members, volunteers, and community partners--who steward them, who tell their stories, and who work to carry their legacies forward into the future.”

Jim and his wife Janet were inveterate museum goers, organizing travel around historic sites in the United States and Europe. While not missing the iconic National Parks or UNESCO World Heritage Sites, they were always on the lookout for small and unknown museums for the chance of an unexpected experience.  Our own experiences will be forever enriched by the legacy of re-invention of historic sites and mentoring of professional staff that Jim Vaughan brought to the preservation and museum fields. 

I worked with Jim throughout his time at the National Trust and spoke or visited with him often afterwards. I will forever hope to recapture some of his irrepressible enthusiasm for the old places we visited together, whether a masterpiece of modern architecture like the Farnsworth House, or the oldest continuously inhabited place in the United States – Acoma Sky City. He helped us see why these places matter.

Tom Mayes is the chief legal officer of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the author of Why Old Places Matter.


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