Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Historic House Museums: An Embarrassment of Riches? 

12-09-2015 17:35

In 2002 Richard Moe wrote an article for this journal titled “Are There Too Many House Museums?” Back then some historic preservation experts thought the answer was “yes,” but most were too polite to say so. The question was an urgent one for The Pew Charitable Trusts, which has a longstanding commitment to the preservation of historically and aesthetically important buildings and sites in the Philadelphia region, and has provided more than $17 million in funds for preservation-related projects over the past ten years alone. In 1998 Pew created the Heritage Investment Program (now the Heritage Philadelphia Program — HPP) with the objective of directing our investments in a more focused and effective manner. HPP, under the leadership of then program director Barbara Warnick Silberman, took a systematic look at historic preservation needs in the Philadelphia region, particularly with regard to historic house museums. What HPP learned is that many of these museums are in peril, and the situation in Philadelphia is representative of a looming national crisis.

There are approximately 300 historic house museums and sites in the Philadelphia area. They are a vital part of our community. They are the tangible reminders of our history, where we came from, and who we once were. Spanning centuries, these buildings help us understand the people who made Philadelphia and our country great, how they lived and how they experienced many of the same challenges and triumphs we face today. They are a legacy of the commitment of earlier generations of community-proud citizens who banded together to save old homes, farms, and country estates from the wrecking ball. And their success in preserving the physical fabric of our region's history has enriched the landscape and enhanced Philadelphia's reputation as a place where residents and visitors alike can connect their present to their country's past.

But today most local house museums confront enormous challenges that threaten their sustainability. Few have professional staff, and most of the volunteers who govern and operate them are at or over retirement age, with no new leadership in sight. Only a small fraction have annual visitation of more than 1,000; for many, holiday tours or tours by appointment are their only public programming. At least 80 percent are faced with $1 million or more in preservation and deferred maintenance needs, yet their operating budgets are typically $100,000 or less. How will choices be made about which of these organizations survive into the future, and who will make those decisions?

No question, historic homes are worth saving. Preservation is vitally important if we as a nation hope to retain authentic examples of history, culture, and place. But until now, most historic houses have been preserved strictly for the buildings' sake. This has led to a troubling surplus of sites that are under-used and hopelessly disconnected from the beating hearts of their communities. Attendance is dwindling, operating costs are soaring, and devoted stewards are leaving without being replaced. These structures need to be re-purposed in order to be revitalized. It is time to create alternatives to the museum model for preserving at least some of our important but endangered historic houses, and to transform them into productive buildings that truly serve their communities. But how to go about this transformation?


It is important to note that the difficulties faced by many historic house museums are due in large part to a rapidly changing arts and cultural environment. Consider, for example, how much greater the opportunities for cultural engagement are today than they were in the era when most historic house museums and many other types of history organizations were formed. Digital technologies are creating new cultural frontiers. Today members of the first generation of "digital natives," born in 1985 or later, develop their own creative content and distribute it online through social networks (see the Pew Internet and American Life Project,, for data on how teens and others use the internet). These "millennials," as market research has dubbed them, expect to have significant involvement with and capacity to shape cultural content.

Demographic shifts are also changing the environment for cultural programming. They are exacerbating the already problematic lack of alignment between available cultural offerings and the heritages and interests of growing and diverse minority populations (which will no longer be in the minority in the United States by 2050 or sooner). In the city of Philadelphia, for example, few house museums interpret the history of African Americans, who make up 45 percent of our population. Their hunger for stories about Philadelphia's past with which they can identify fueled a huge outcry over Independence National Historical Park's refusal to memorialize the first president's house, originally occupied by George Washington and a household that included nine enslaved persons, and subsequently by the anti-slavery president John Adams. (The house was torn down in 1832.) After five years of organized effort on the part of local activists, the site has been excavated and plans are now being developed for a memorial.

Many philanthropies and public charities, including Pew, are concerned about the accelerating pace of change in the environment for arts and culture, and are searching for answers about what philanthropy's role should be in assisting cultural organizations to respond to these turbulent times.


Undercapitalization of nonprofit cultural organizations of all kinds is a pervasive problem. In Philadelphia, the cultural sector has grown exponentially in recent years. In 2004 alone, 1,000 organizations received 12 million visits. But also in that year, almost half of Philadelphia organizations had operating deficits, and more than a quarter had deficits of more than 10 percent of operating revenues. Many house museums and other organizations are in crisis, unable to do the very thing most important to their ability to serve their community: to respond to the changing environment by reinventing themselves programmatically.

Supporters and advocates who want to make a positive difference face few options. They can make significantly more aggressive investments in capitalizing the subset of organizations deemed truly essential to a given community. They can encourage organizations to consider partial or complete mergers, or assist some in going out of business. Some combination of the two approaches would be optimal. The Darwinian alternative — changing nothing — will keep many struggling organizations on their current drip feed of small gifts and grants, insufficient to allow them to thrive yet often binding them to untenable promises to deliver programming. But for transformational change to be successful, communitywide efforts would need to be made to identify the interventions most likely to be successful, to form collaborative partnerships, and to aggregate the necessary resources.


Perhaps most troubling of all, agreement about what we value in our culture has eroded. (See "Cultural Value and the Crisis of Legitimacy," by John Holden, © 2006 at for useful discussion of this topic.) The arguments in favor of providing access for all Americans to arts and cultural experiences, which led to the creation of a system of public agency subsidies for the arts and humanities in the 1960s and 1970s, have ceased to be effective. The cultural boom of the past 40 years has created a glut of both commercial and nonprofit cultural offerings that now reach into every corner of our communities (though what is on offer is not necessarily what any given community most desires). Furthermore, beginning in 1980, the "Reagan Revolution" has driven our society toward an ever more market-based definition of cultural value. Until cultural organizations get better at listening and responding to the needs and desires of audiences and the general public, we will be unlikely to argue effectively that what we are providing to them has true value and should be supported.


Through its Heritage Philadelphia Program (HPP) The Pew Charitable Trusts has undertaken two initiatives to help historic house museums and other history organizations respond to the challenges and opportunities of the 21st-century environment. Former HPP director Barbara Silberman developed and led the Living Legacy Alternative Stewardship Project, jointly funded by HPP and the William Penn Foundation. As Ms. Silberman points out, stewardship of historic house museums and sites is no longer simply a matter of saving them from the wrecking ball. Today their supporters and the general public expect regular access and a robust calendar of events and educational programs.

Clearly it is time to find alternative stewardship arrangements for many of these houses, uses that will allow them to continue contributing to the visual, architectural, and historic fabric of their surroundings. Since these houses were originally built to be lived in by families, for many the most productive use is likely to be a return to private ownership and residential use, with exterior easements to protect the quality of life of the surrounding community, along with exterior interpretive panels that can capture their stories. Such solutions allow historic house museums to return to the care of owners who are more invested both emotionally and financially in stewardship and preservation of these properties.

HPP also worked closely with preservation consultant Donna Ann Harris, whose new book New Solutions for House Museums (Alta Mira Press, 2007) chronicles how a dozen sites in the U.S. and Canada converted into community-centered spaces while keeping preservation a top priority. Trustees of both rural and urban sites refitted and reopened them as art galleries, bed and breakfasts, and conference centers, used and appreciated by the public daily.

In Philadelphia, the Living Legacy Project worked with six house museums to develop and implement strategies for reinvention. The most successful example is the Mill Grove estate, the first American home of famed artist and conservationist John James Audubon. Owned by Philadelphia's suburban Montgomery County government and managed by the National Audubon Society, Mill Grove is an 18th-century fieldstone farmhouse perched on a leafy bluff overlooking Perkiomen Creek. The 175-acre estate includes the main house, a barn, and five miles of walking trails. But the house's interior has not been historically accurate for at least 40 years, and the cost of meticulously restoring the 1765 structure would be astronomical.

As part of the HPP project, Mill Grove's director, Jean Bochnowski, and board members spent about five months visiting other historic house museums learning the administrative details of alternative stewardship and weighing their options. "The tours convinced us we didn't want to be a museum any more, where people just walk in and stand passively," Bochnowski says. "We agreed that, given John Audubon's role as a conservationist, the interior of the house wasn't as important as the exterior. Especially since there's something about how Mill Grove sits in this environment that touches people; there's a majesty about it."

One part of the historic Mill Grove home that visitors insist on seeing, she says, is the re-creation of Audubon's bedroom. After that, their attention wanes. "So we decided to keep the bedroom as it is and turn the rest of the house into an art center," she says. "We want it to be a vibrant place with art classes, visiting exhibits, and an artist in residence. We think it speaks to Audubon's legacy — learning about nature through art." Plans call for the original Audubon drawings and paintings owned by the center, and currently displayed inside the house, to be permanently moved next door to a three-story barn that will be remodeled into a climate-controlled museum, tying the art into a larger story of nature conservancy. Mill Grove's transformation from a house museum to a hybrid organization including exhibition space and a community cultural center is an inspiring example of how thoughtful consideration of an organization's curatorial and educational potential can result in positive transformation. In 2006 Paula Marincola, the current director of Pew's Heritage Philadelphia Program, seeking guidance on how Pew could support history organizations in the region to bring their stories alive for today's visitors, commissioned Barbara Schaffer Bacon and Pam Korza of Americans for the Arts' Animating Democracy project to study the interpretive practice of history organizations, including historic house museums, in Philadelphia and nationally.

It turns out that Philadelphia is reflective of the national picture: We have a small number of exemplary organizations along with the many that struggle. In an internal report prepared for the Heritage Philadelphia Program, "Interpretive Practice in History Organizations: Philadelphia in a National Context," Schaffer Bacon and Korza conclude that exemplary practices aim to build relationships and situate history organizations genuinely as civic and community institutions by relating history to personal experience and contemporary issues; include multiple viewpoints and truths; and share authority with community members as advisors and co-developers of programming.

Some history organizations are integrating art and artists into their programming, and they have discovered that art is a potent entry point for connecting personal experience with historic events and contemporary issues. Others have focused on institutional reinvention, pursuing alliances and mergers when there is congruence of mission, compatibility of collections, and political will within their governing bodies. HPP has now significantly revised its program strategy and guidelines to assist historic house museums and other history organizations to identify and pursue the innovative interpretive practices and institutional reinventions most appropriate to their situation and mission.

Extreme makeover? Or just a correction in vision? Whichever path is followed, thoughtful, honest consideration about what constitutes appropriate stewardship of our historic legacy in the 21st century will be the key to successful preservation efforts. The result will be the creation of productive facilities that once again work as vibrant components of their communities, and are places that people want to see and be.

Publication Date: Spring 2008



Author(s):Marian A. Godfrey