Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Are There Too Many House Museums?  

12-09-2015 17:35

For many people, the terms “historic preservation” and “house museum” are virtually synonymous. While this perception unquestionably represents a narrow and inaccurate view of what preservation today is all about, there can be no question that house museums constitute the bedrock of the American preservation movement.

The saga of the establishment of a typical house museum -- often involving a lengthy struggle to rescue the property from the threat of demolition or the neglect of insensitive owners, to restore and furnish it with some degree of authenticity and within the limitations of a tight budget, and finally to administer and interpret it as an icon of historical significance, patriotism, and good taste -- has been a staple of preservation history and folklore ever since Ann Pamela Cunningham led the national campaign to save George Washington’s Mount Vernon in the 1850s.

The successful Mount Vernon campaign established a pattern that has since been followed by hundreds of preservation groups. As a result of the dedicated labors of these grassroots activists, almost every American community of any size can boast at least one -- and quite often more than one -- house museum. Many of them serve as shrines to the memory of the Founding Fathers or other notable political and military leaders. Some are primarily showcases for impressive collections of furnishings and decorative arts. Others offer a tantalizing glimpse of the lifestyle of the very wealthy. Still others simply present a generalized (and often heavily romanticized) view of The Good Old Days.

At first glance, they are both diverse and diverting. On closer inspection, however, the distinctions among them may begin to blur, and the frequent visitor is often left with a single overwhelming impression: There are so many of them.

The situation in microcosm is prominently displayed in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Germantown, whose streets and lanes offer a vivid visual record of three centuries of architecture and history.

Founded in 1683, Germantown grew into a prosperous semi-rural suburb dotted with the summer homes of 18thcentury Philadelphians anxious to avoid the yellow fever epidemics that occasionally ravaged the nearby city. Later, the completion of a commuter rail line spurred a new wave of construction, lining the community’s streets with proud houses -- many of them built, like their Georgian-era predecessors, of handsome local stone -- in a range of Victorian styles.

Germantown’s fortunes, like those of many urban neighborhoods, suffered a sharp decline in the post-World War II decades. Today, despite sporadic revitalization efforts, a number of vacant, dilapidated storefronts mar once-proud Germantown Avenue. In residential areas, blocks of stately houses on well-kept lawns are interspersed with pockets of poverty and weedy vacant lots.

In some ways, Germantown is similar to many older neighborhoods in large eastern cities. In other respects, however -- such as the richness of its history and the extent to which tangible evidence of its past has survived -- this community is unique. Among the things that set it apart is this: Scattered throughout the relatively small confines of 21stcentury Germantown is a remarkably extensive collection of historic house museums.

Among the houses currently -- or until recently -- open to the public are:

  • Wyck, begun in 1690 (thereby earning the distinction of being the oldest building in Germantown) and “modernized” by famed architect William Strickland in 1824;
  • Stenton, the home of William Penn’s secretary James Logan, now maintained by the National Society of Colonial Dames of America;
  • Loudoun, which boasts a handsome Greek Revival portico and a fine interior described by a Frommer guidebook as being “full of Hepplewhite and Queen Anne chairs”;
  • Grumblethorpe, a rather plain 18th-century house that was occupied by generations of the Wister family;
  • the Deshler-Morris house, which served as a “summer White House” for George Washington and his family in 1793 and is now administered by the National Park Service as a unit of Independence National Historical Park;
  • Cliveden, centerpiece of the 1777 Battle of Germantown and home to the distinguished Chew family until 1972, when it was donated to the National Trust;
  • Upsala, whose elegant Federal design contrasts with the more robust Georgian style of Cliveden across the street;
  • the rambling Ebenezer Maxwell house, built in 1859 and recognized as a textbook example of the Victorian affinity for eclectic architecture; and
  • the 1796 Conyngham-Hacker house, headquarters of the Germantown Historical Society -- which also operates museums in the 1745 Clarkson-Watson house, the 1798 Baynton house, and the 1798 Howell house.

Make no mistake: Each of these houses has sufficient architectural and/or historical significance to qualify as a landmark in every sense of the word. Most are individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Over the years each has benefited from the expertise and dedication of numerous owners, artisans, preservation and museum professionals, volunteer docents, and supporters. Some are recognized as a genuine asset to the community, and each is a valued link to an important era in Germantown’s -- and America’s -- past.

Despite their impeccable pedigree, however, a number of Germantown’s house museums are struggling. Some are open only a few days a week, and attendance figures are far from impressive. Plagued by chronic underfunding, most have an extensive backlog of deferred maintenance needs and find it difficult to attract or retain qualified professional staff. Perhaps even more distressing, many of these handsome houses have only a limited connection to the community around them: As the economic, social, and ethnic makeup of the surrounding neighborhood has changed, these places have become anomalies, mere relics from a distant past that is perceived as having little relevance in the day-to-day lives of many of the people who now call Germantown home.

Sadly, the plight of Germantown’s museums is by no means unique. All over the United States, in cities, towns, and rural areas from Maine to Hawaii, scores of historic houses open to visitors -- whether administered by large public agencies or small volunteer groups -- are barely getting by.

The question, rarely spoken and perhaps heretical, is nonetheless obvious: Are there too many house museums?

While the question may seem simple, finding a valid answer involves asking additional questions.

How many are there, anyway?

To begin with, it’s difficult to get a handle on exactly how many house museums there are. Since they range from large, well-known cultural icons that welcome hordes of visitors annually to small, mom-and-pop operations that are open only sporadically and are not affiliated with any professional organization, merely enumerating them is a challenge. A 1988 state-by-state survey conducted by the National Trust estimated the number at close to 6,000 -- but of course that figure, even if it was reasonably accurate at the time, is now outdated.

The issue is sufficiently vexing that the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) has appointed a committee to document the number and condition of the nation’s house museums. For now, Jim Vaughan, vice president in charge of the National Trust’s own collection of historic sites, notes, with some amusement, that “popular wisdom” among many museum professionals holds that the number of house museums has doubled since 1976—a factoid that is neither definitive nor helpful, since no one knows precisely how many such institutions existed in 1976.

Are they too much the same?

Whatever their number, there can be little argument that the current crop of house museums suffers from a distressing sameness. The vast majority of historic sites open to the public represent a single building type: the house. Museums that interpret other aspects of American life -- industrial, commercial, and religious buildings, for instance -- are few and far between. Moreover, most house museums fall into a single category of historic resources that is often flippantly described as “the homes of dead rich white guys.” While many of these museums have great significance to the community and, in some cases, to the entire nation, their overwhelming dominance in the field leaves entire segments of the American population -- including women, ethnic groups such as African-Americans and Hispanics, and people who are neither rich nor famous, to mention only a few examples -- woefully underrepresented.

Recent additions to the National Trust’s collection of historic sites represent an attempt to address this issue. The Gaylord Building in Lockport, Ill., for example, is a 19th-century commercial building that now accommodates both income-producing tenants and interpretive exhibits that describe the building’s role in the development of the Illinois & Michigan Canal. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is a gateway to understanding the lives of the immigrants, most of them poor, who struggled to make a life for themselves in early 20th-century New York. And the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., added to the Trust’s collection just last year, functions as both a historic site open to the public and a place of worship for an active religious congregation.

While these and similar museums represent a long overdue step in the right direction, we are still a very long way from what should be our ultimate goal as preservationists: the establishment and operation of historic sites that truly represent the American experience in all its diversity.

Do they cost too much?

As every homeowner knows, it costs a great deal of money to keep a house -- particularly an older house -- in good condition. With the added expense of conserving and insuring a collection of furnishings and artifacts, dealing with the wear and tear caused by visitors, and providing salaries and benefits for staff, the cost of owning and running a house museum can represent an enormous and never-ending drain on the finances of any organization.

Some organizations are able to keep their heads above water only by postponing needed repairs or by making their museums available for special events such as weddings and banquets. The latter practice may lead to conflicts between the practical need to raise dollars and the professional obligation to maintain high curatorial standards, while the former is practically guaranteed to turn minor problems into major ones.

Perhaps even more alarming, the constant pursuit of funding for museum operations may force an organization to make tough (and often untenable) choices. Faced with the need to fix a leaky museum roof, the organization may have to skimp on the development and expansion of other outreach programs and services -- such as conducting a survey of historic resources, operating a revolving fund, rallying public support for preservation-friendly legislation, or sponsoring educational programs. The cause of preservation is not well served, to say the least, by an organization’s failure to support and strengthen the work of community residents who are working to save their heritage.

Is there a better way?

With the best of intentions, preservationists too often think of conversion to museum use as the best -- or even the only -- means of ensuring the preservation of a significant historic house. In fact, allowing the house to remain in, or return to, private residential use may be a better option.

The recent history of the Lee Boyhood Home offers an instructive example. Located on a quiet street in Alexandria, Va., just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., the house was where Robert E. Lee spent most of his childhood before entering West Point in 1824. Considered a “crown jewel” among the city’s historic sites, the property was open to the public for more than 30 years under the auspices of the Lee- Jackson Foundation. Then, early in 2000, the foundation startled the community by announcing that it was no longer able to care for the house adequately and had therefore sold it to a local couple, Mark and Ann Kington, who planned to restore it as their private residence.

Caught by surprise, the community initially reacted with alarm. Facing strong criticism from some members of the public and the Virginia attorney general, the Kingtons agreed to sell the property to a qualified nonprofit group, and an independent panel of prominent preservationists was appointed, under the auspices of the National Trust, to screen applicants. Only two organizations applied, and the panel determined that neither was able to handle the purchase and restoration of the house (which had an estimated price tag of $4 million) and its ongoing operation as a museum. The Kingtons were given the go-ahead to proceed with their plans, and restoration of the house is currently underway. Proceeds from the sale of the house’s furnishings will support programs of the Historic Alexandria Foundation.

During its years of ownership of the Lee Boyhood Home, the Lee-Jackson Foundation did its best to be a good steward but found itself financially unable to provide the care the property needed and deserved. The new owners, who have placed an easement on the house, will not only correct the current structural problems (which include, according to the Washington Post, “a leaky roof, cracking walls and an infestation of termites”) but, as residents, will also have a vested interest in ensuring that it is well maintained in the future. They have also agreed to open the house to the public from time to time -- perhaps during Alexandria’s annual garden week, on Robert E. Lee’s birthday, and on other occasions.

With what appears to be a “happily ever after” ending, the story of the Lee Boyhood Home refutes the fallacy that nonprofit management of a historic house is somehow superior to, and therefore preferable to, private stewardship. What really matters is finding a solution that best addresses the long-terminterests of the property and the community, and financial resources are almost always the biggest factor in that solution. Even though they operate with the noblest of intentions, nonprofits are often unable to stretch their budgets sufficiently to meet the property’s needs. Private ownership becomes a viable -- even preferable -- option when there is a sympathetic owner who is willing to commit resources to the stewardship of the house and to impose an easement to ensure that significant architectural features are protected.

That’s exactly what happened in Alexandria, and the result is a scenario in which everybody wins: Private owners have made a generous financial commitment to the restoration and maintenance of a significant historic building, preservationists have the assurance that the future of a treasured community landmark is secure, and a local preservation organization has received an infusion of cash to support its programs. It’s a model worth emulating elsewhere.

“Rethinking the Historic House Museum for the 21st Century” was the topic of a conference, cosponsored by the National Trust and AASLH, held in the spring of this year. In the following article, Gerald George summarizes the results of the conference, during which attendees addressed such issues as the importance of making house museums less isolated from, and irrelevant to, the needs of the surrounding community; the need for increased collaboration or actual mergers among separate museums operating in a single community; and the frequent problem of tension between professional museum standards and income-generating programs. Solutions and recommendations arising from these discussions will be disseminated through conferences and publications of the cosponsors and other organizations and should be of great interest to all segments of the preservation community.

Stepping across the threshold of a house museum has brought history alive for millions of people—and, in the process, given many of them their first introduction to the concept of historic preservation. These sites have served the public and the cause of preservation well. With careful thought about ways to broaden their appeal, improve their representation of the diversity of American life and culture, and maximize their effectiveness as educational venues, there is every reason to believe that they can continue to serve us well in the future.

Read an update to this article published in the Fall 2012 issue of Forum Journal (Vol. 27, No. 1).

Publication Date: Spring 2002

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Author(s):Richard Moe