House Museums: A 20th Century Paradigm

Posted on: October 30th, 2013 by Stephanie K. Meeks 4 Comments

National Trust President Stephanie Meeks originally delivered this opening plenary speech on October 30, 2013 at the National Preservation Conference in Indianapolis.

Slide1 Hello and welcome to Indianapolis.  It’s great to be here with all of you, and it’s great to be in the Hoosier State.  I came to Indiana earlier this week to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long time; visit the village of New Harmony.  You may know of this Utopian village established in 1814, which is also known for its advances in science and education.  As I said, it’s a place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time, and I’m really glad I did.  Not only was it a fantastic way to spend my birthday – a whole lot better than standing in line at the DMV -- but it’s also a fantastic example of what I want to talk about today:  what’s next for preservation in the face of a failing house museum model, which New Harmony manages to get right.

Now, I have to tell you that I’ve always had a soft spot for house museums.  Give me a crisp fall day, and I’ll be the first in line to tromp among the log cabins at Land Between the Lakes in Tennessee.  Or to take my kids to buy freshly ground flour at Colvin Run Mill in Great Falls, Virginia.  Or to admire the painstaking detail of the Gamble House in Pasadena, CA.

New Harmony, IndianaI can still recall vividly the first time I visited the Woodrow Wilson House, one of the National Trust’s sites, more than twenty years ago.  There was something about walking through that front door – a threshold that Wilson himself had crossed again and again, and being transported back in time.  The Woodrow Wilson House is a jewel box in our nation’s capital, and I’m honored to now run the organization which has the privilege of stewarding such an incredible cultural asset, and many others like it.

And from where I sit, I see many other successful, vibrant historic house museums.  Take Mount Vernon – where the house museum concept was conceived in our nation – and you will find a place teeming with life, scholarship, interpretation and roughly one million visitors each year.

But just as often – dare I say more often?  – I see house museums which are not thriving.  Which are barely scraping by.  Which are deferring critical maintenance.  Which are cutting back on programs.  Which have eliminated many of their professional staff.

Go to StrategyAnd it leads me to a conversation that has been going on for many years in the preservation movement:  is it time to move away from the house museum as our “go to” strategy for preservation?

Now… before you say “here we go again…” let me hasten to add that I think the time for talk has ended, and the time for action is upon us.  The National Trust is taking action, and we’re walking the talk.

# # #

Over the past three years, I’ve used my annual address at this conference to talk about our opportunity to engage many more people in the preservation movement. You may remember our research:  15 million people who are actively doing preservation but who are completely disconnected from our organizations.  They are a subset, of course, of a much larger group of Americans who say they care about our cultural and historic resources.

And it’s a very attractive group.  These folks are younger than our members – by a lot.  They’re more racially diverse – by a whole lot.  Their education and income levels are lower, but, interestingly, they are more likely to volunteer and raise money in the preservation world.

And while they’re actively engaged in preservation, they may not call themselves “Preservationists.”  Why is that?

15 millionI would submit that we are not meeting them where they are.  But we have the opportunity to do that if we are brave enough to re-think our approach to house museums.

I maintain that too often preservationists are seen as stuffy, against change, and not offering the kinds of experiences in the kinds of spaces these Local Preservationists want.  Now, we know we’re not stuffy and boring – and there’ll be ample evidence of that tonight at the opening reception!  But out in public, we make a different impression altogether.

The irony is, these local preservationists love going to brew pubs in historic buildings.  They will go out of their way to eat dinner in a historic district – just like we will.  But they associate our movement with doilies and velvet ropes, which, in the words of my eleven year old son, John, “just isn’t how they roll.”

We know this millennial generation loves old buildings.  Press reports abound of companies moving back into cities because their younger employees want things like windows that open!  Exposed brick!   Charm! They use words like “authenticity” to describe the kinds of neighborhoods where they want to work and live.

Superior Baths//CharmAnd we know from our experience with tax credits that old buildings can be magnificently restored and adaptively re-used for business, dining, shopping, and entertainment.

But somehow, to the general public, this isn’t seen as preservation. It’s seen as inspired, progressive development.

# # #

So why is “How do I start a house museum?” still the number one question that our colleagues at the American Association of State and Local History entertain every week?

Why, when, in so many instances, the house museum is a fundamentally unsustainable model?

Now wait just a minute, you may be thinking. What about Monticello? What about Mount Vernon?  You just said it was a shining example of success.  And it is.  George Washington’s  home is a national landmark and a preservation success.  But I submit it’s a beguiling exception, because it established and forever legitimized a model that just doesn’t work very often.

vince michael quoteA vast tide of historic house museums followed over the next century, basking in Mt. Vernon’s glory because house museums were the only way we knew to save historic places at the time.  Thousands of dedications took place, doors flung open, and our movement beamed with pride.  Somewhere around15,000 times. That’s the best guess of the number of house museums in the country today.   That’s five for every county in the country if they were evenly distributed.

15,000 places – most of which are examples of a dilemma best expressed by our preservation colleague and Trustee of the National Trust, Vince Michael, who was at this podium a few minutes ago, who said, there’s “a disconnect between the impulse of wanting to save an old house and the economic reality of running a house museum.”

It’s like the difference between going to the gym a few times a week and trying out for the Olympics.  There’s a dis-connect.  The proper impulse of wanting to be in shape does not mean pole vaulting is in your immediate future.  Well… maybe in yours, but definitely not in mine!

The economic reality of running a house museum is, unrealistic too.  We all know about rising maintenance needs, shrinking municipal budgets, and smaller donor bases.  But nothing underscores the fact better than this: in 2002, the average house museum incurred a cost of $40 per visitor but only took in $8 per visitor.  That is the definition of unsustainable, and no amount of creativity in the gift shop is likely to bridge that gap.

possibilitiesI’d like to suggest today that we stop debating whether house museums are a flawed model, and instead channel that energy into the original impulse:  the desire to preserve the houses where our history was made.  That is a magnificent impulse and one of the richest traditions in American culture.  But to preserve these properties – to sustain their place in history and advance their meaning – we need to think in new ways, and act accordingly.

In considering this challenge, I am reminded of the people who made the history we seek to preserve.  They were acutely aware of their times and the circumstances around them.  They had a keen sense of reality.  They saw what needed changing, conceived of new possibilities, and looked around the corner when few others would.

We must emulate their example.  We must enthusiastically ask ourselves, “What is possible?”

# # #

Donna Harris, in her wonderful book, New Solutions for House Museums, does just that.  As she tackles the tough challenges, Donna establishes two critical foundations: number one, there are several good options.  We aren’t trapped.  If we stay grounded in reality, and look ahead with optimism and creativity, there’s almost nothing we can’t do to preserve historic houses.

And two, she shows us that it is already being done.  These are not theories; they are positive experiences, full of lessons for us, applicable in many situations.  These approaches may be born of necessity, and difficult to realize, but they are literally happening all around us.

Donna offers eight specific solutions, along a wide-ranging continuum, each meritorious in the right circumstance.  Today, I want to focus on three particular avenues she outlines, and then I want to introduce a new one.

Tryon PlaceThe first, and perhaps least controversial thing I will propose today is what Donna calls Reprogramming for Mission-Related Use. In many cases, when we take this approach, we can both maintain the house museum and significantly improve it.  This is exactly what the leadership at Tryon (TRY-ON) Palace in North Carolina has done for many years.

Tryon opened in 1959, following a 30 year campaign to completely rebuild the site that was constructed in 1770 as North Carolina’s first permanent capitol.  Though it has its share of struggles, like many house museums, its leadership and supporters did not rest on their – or its - laurels.

Tryon’s story is a lesson in the ongoing process of re-discovery.  In the last half century, this historic site has undertaken several adaptations.  It has created a decorative arts program; emphasized hands on participation in its interpretation; developed performing arts and rotating exhibit spaces; and constructed an 1835 village that allows visitors to physically interact with the lifestyle of people who lived then. It routinely showcases North Carolina history by hosting weddings, receptions, corporate events and other social gatherings.

Throughout this process, Tryon’s leadership has kept two principles firmly in mind: one, always think about the audiences who might never visit a static house museum; and two, maintain the vigorous involvement of as many stakeholders as possible in order to cement Tryon as an anchor in the community.

Lincoln's CottageThe Trust is taking this same approach with President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C., where the President and his family spent one quarter of his presidency and where he wrote much of the Emancipation Proclamation.  When we opened in 2008, the Trust looked to such cutting edge historic sites and monuments as the FDR Memorial for inspiration.  This memorial focuses on the ideas and words of the man.  And similarly, we wanted to craft an experience that emphasized Lincoln’s ideas and the momentous achievements born in the cottage.

We’ve pushed boundaries from the beginning.  Rather than simply showcasing Lincoln’s brilliance and courage, we’re applying it to the modern fight against human trafficking throughout the world.

Just this summer, we launched The Students Opposing Slavery Summit, bringing 35 students from six countries to the Cottage to develop ways they could be active in ending modern slavery.

Go to them-Lincolns CottageAnd we’re constantly developing new tools for interpreting the Cottage, exploring for example the use of tablet technology to offer a more responsive, customized, resource-rich tour for visitors.

As I look at experiences like Tryon’s, and our team’s work at President Lincoln’s Cottage, I keep in mind something I suggested two years ago with respect to Local Preservationists: we must be willing to go to them, rather than expecting them to come to us.

To me, this means moving outside our long-standing preservation world.  New ideas.  New partnerships.  And  especially, new people.

Let me turn now to a much more provocative idea:  the outright sale or donation of the property.  This is a difficult option for us as preservationists to face, but we need to confront it head on.

I understand first-hand why it’s difficult.  You may know that the Trust sold its headquarters building this summer – a National Historic Landmark which has been our home for more than thirty years.  But in our case, we believe this is the best preservation outcome for the building.

We sold it to a buyer who’s investing $30 million in renovations which we will approve and which are guided by a permanent preservation easement that covers the exterior and significant interior spaces.

1785 LobbyAs you might imagine, we didn’t come to this decision lightly.  But when we focus on our ultimate purpose -- saving the place -- tools such as easements and transfer to new ownership, can be a very effective option.  And with the legal easements that guarantee protection, access, and integrity, we have a solid foundation from which to start.

A similar approach was taken, several years ago, at the Robert E. Lee Boyhood home in Alexandria, Virginia.  As the new millennium approached, this 18th century house museum was attracting fewer and fewer visitors and faced mounting restoration needs.  The non-profit foundation that owned the home felt its best option was to return it to its first use -- as a private residence.

Not everyone agreed with this approach.  Other proposals were suggested and two alternate plans were developed. But ultimately, neither was deemed feasible.

Finally, the property was sold, and the buyers undertook a meticulous two-year restoration. Today, it once again serves its original purpose as a home.

Seeking alternate paths to preservation is what I think history invites us to do; to tap the same impulses that created our wonderful house museums in the first place. Listening.  Learning. Adapting.  Innovating.  Acting.

# # #

It is in that spirit I turn to the third avenue that is open before us – the option of a long-term lease for adaptive re-use.  This is the option that requires the most of us, meshing devotion to our houses with the entrepreneurial spirit I just described.  And not only can it be done, it is being done.

Let me start with Ottinger Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Built in 1900, Ottinger was used continuously by the Veteran Volunteer Firemen’s Association as a meeting house and museum for 100 years.

When that use was no longer feasible and the building became vacant, the City, to whom ownership had reverted, sought out the local Rotary Club.  Together, these partners invested $150,000 into rehabilitation, and converted the site into a youth center.  Through a city-sponsored initiative called Youth City, the site now houses an after school program for neighborhood kids ages 9 to13.

Check out Youth City’s Facebook page, and you’ll see some cool stuff from the kids – stop motion videos, guitar lessons, cooking class, and career exploration tours.  A pretty good use of a museum, don’t you think?

Shared Use AdditionOttinger demonstrates beautifully the adaptive evolution of a property over time: from meeting place and museum to community center, and I find it very freeing to begin to contemplate other uses and other ways of protecting historic structures.

From here, let me pivot to what might be considered a ninth option in Donna Harris’ analysis:  “Shared Use.”

This is a model we are exploring ourselves. We call it “shared use” because it mixes traditional interpretation and programming with for-profit commercial uses – in the same spaces.  It’s a conversation currently underway at the Cooper-Molera Adobe, a Trust property in Monterey, California --  a site that interprets an era of early California life in the 1800’s.  Our partner, the California State Parks, has operated the site as a house museum since 1972.  But, quite simply, Cooper-Molera is no longer working.  Due to budget challenges in California, the site is now open by appointment only.  And with low visitation revenues and no endowment, the status quo is simply not a future.

Cooper-Molera cries out for adaptive re-use.  This is a property that has seen a lot of commercial uses over time: everything from a horse stable to a beauty salon.  It’s served as the meeting place for the Boys Club of Monterey, and as a tavern – though it’s important to note: NOT AT THE SAME TIME.  In fact, it’s been a museum for only 28 of its 178 years.

Cooper MoleraWhich is why I think it’s a missed opportunity for its beautiful buildings and grounds to sit idle, barely seen and rarely visited.  I’d like to see the site open seven days a week: marveled at, explored, blogged about photographed for everything from holiday cards to Instagram posts.  Cooper-Molera Adobe should be a central part of the revitalization of Monterey’s Main Street, rather than a mostly shuttered relic of a bygone day.

That’s the vision that is motivating us to examine alternatives to Cooper-Molera’s current use.  We’re exploring a long-term lease arrangement with a preservation-sensitive developer who would bring new commercial and retail uses to the site, operating side-by-side with interpretation and education.  The new vision includes installing restaurants, re-purposing the barns as event space, and reopening long-closed gates to better allow the public to enjoy the gardens and orchards.

We’re excited about the possibilities, but proceeding very carefully.  Throughout all this, we’re guided by the Secretary’s Standards for preservation -- as well as our own high standards -- to ensure that any new uses not only protect the site’s historic character and communicate its cultural and historic significance, but also that they make Cooper-Molera more available to the public; ensure its financial stability; and elevate the site as an important part of Monterey’s downtown revitalization.

But the most important thing is, Cooper-Molera will be preserved.  It will be open to many more people.  Its deferred maintenance will be addressed. Its story more broadly told.  Its historic character imprinted on a new generation who will be responsible for its care long after we’re gone.

# # #

This is what we must tell groups who want to start new house museums, just as we must embrace it ourselves: a historic house museum may not be the right model for every important place we wish to protect.  But if  we think inventively, and look to our colleagues for examples, our new innovations can become models so that more places can be saved and enjoyed for generations to come.

What If? Which brings me back to New Harmony.  Today this community of almost 800 people makes the best of living in a historic district.  There are house museums for sure, but there are many more examples of historic buildings being actively re-purposed.  The Town’s preservation plan emphasizes this, and I quote: “A community such as New Harmony is more readily characterized by the confident innovation that is apparent in old buildings adapted to modern usage…”  This place is an example of living with history.

I know we face complicated choices ahead, choices that will evoke strong emotions.  This is how it should be.  But as we forge ahead, let’s face these choices honestly, boldly, and with a zest for the possible.  I challenge us to constantly be in service to that simple, but wonderful question, “What if? “

Thank you.

About Stephanie Meeks

Stephanie K. Meeks is the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

4 Responses

  1. William Hosley

    November 1, 2013

    No sensible person disputes that there are too many house museums, that repurposing to save buildings sometimes makes sense or that innovation and the pursuit and engagement of new audiences using new technologies and interpretative strategies is essential. My problem with the whole “too many house museums” mantra and with Donna Harris’ book (which I prefer to title “The Final Solution for House Museums”) is that it does not acknowledge or advocate for the extraordinary civic impact and results that – against all odds and with very little help from funding agencies with their overt, if inadvertent, bias in favor of the rich and the large – that characterize so many of our community-based historical orgs – many housed in historic buildings. As we challenge this edifice of civic aspiration let us also double down on the call for public and private foundations to do a little more affirmative action by supporting the small, the local and the needy. Community historical orgs – among other things – preserve and present perhaps half of our nation’s cultural patrimony. In many places they are the only museum in town and the first and only opportunity students have to discover the power of local history, public history, material culture and local art. Too often these orgs feel friendless and alone. This short video goes further. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RzH1RbsdX2c

  2. Sr. Maureen

    November 3, 2013

    Thank you to both Stephanie Meeks and to William Hosley. I live and work in a house museum located on a preservation site of three miles on the James River. Built by enslaved people, commissioned by a confederate general and designed by a prominent architect (AJ Davis) It was repurposed 30 years after the civil war and fulfilled its next life educating 15,000 African American children.. And is now visioning and adapting the crunbling site as a center for education, commerce, spirituality and peace.
    Stephanie has spoken before about the need for a new profile and expansion and diversity in membership in the preservation culture
    William Hosley very well articulates the the challenge of smaller ventures with hugely significant historical and natural preservation “what if’s”

    Society needs historic and natural preservation. Nonprofits provide human services and have for many years. Programs and adaptive reuse is much easier than preserving magnificent, significant and historically unique stories.

    The investment of time, talent and funding required become enormous and the challenge of accessing expertise overwhelming. As the roof collapses and the funders require programs predefined and already established and operative. Beautiful and historically rich and significant buildings are very expensive and beyond the skills of nonpreservation experts.

    Professional assistance at strategic times would go a long way towards advancing diversity, new populations of preservationists, new community involvement from among less affluent populations who do not have the finances or the luxury to dream the “what if’s..”
    Vision, dreams and passion repurpose significant sites..
    The Belmead Mansion on the James has demonstrated success, diversity, and new involvement or historic and natural preservation that attracts stakeholders. A new slate roof on Belmead Mansion at FrancisEmma.org is significant achievement, but it is just first required step. FrancisEmma is a new nonprofit.. unique in the preservation story.
    National Trust has helped. But significant sites demand significant investment. Inspiration and challenge from both Stephanie and William drive nonprofits to hang in with the vision…FrancisEmma is big enough and unique enough to realize NTHP’s new vision, focused enough to create a new model for a “house museum” located on 2250 acres of natural preservation. Green space and unique story create passion and drive. We ask you both to come to Powhatan County, VA and lend your expertise to the Sisters and the Board who sometimes stumble like Sisyphus up the mountain.
    Come and lend us your experience and help us with our $7M cap campaign at a critical time.. (We have close to $2M.. and a brand new slate roof on the Mansion.)
    We understand and live Mr. Hosley’s “civic impact and results that – against all odds and with very little help from funding agencies with their overt, if inadvertent, bias in favor of the rich and the large.”
    Come and see.

    Sr. Maureen T. Carroll, SBS, CFRE

  3. Mary Ellen Hern

    November 7, 2013

    I am dismayed that my colleague Bill Hosley has attacked Donna Ann Harris’ book New Solutions for House Museums, published in 2007, as quoted by National Trust President Stephanie Meeks in her opening plenary speech to the National Preservation Conference. The issue is not Ms. Harris’ book, which appropriately suggests that new solutions, and sometimes new uses, must be found for some historic sites. Ms. Harris has an M.A. in Historic Preservation from Columbia University, and an M.P.A. in Public Administration from University of Pennsylvania. She received a James Marston Fitch Mid-Career Fellowship to do the research for this book. She is a lifelong preservationist, former National Parks Service Ranger and managed the Historic House Museum Challenge Grant for Greater Philadelphia. Ms. Harris had the intelligence and the guts to articulate what many of us in the historic house community could not say—all historic house museums are not equal and some may not make it without altering their operations.
    I object to Stephanie Meeks using the book to justify the National Trust’s stepping away from their historic sites, while partnering with others which are more politically correct. It is shameful that to see A.J. Davis’ Gothic Revival Lyndhurst you have to be a wedding guest, as it is shuttered for individual visitation.
    My personal opinion is that historic house museums need to serve their communities to be viable, whether those are neighborhood, decorative arts, education, history or other types of specialty communities. At a recent lecture I gave to a SUNY Albany MA in Public History class, I told the tale of two sites: Scarsdale Historical Society attempting to change zoning to sell their 1734 Cudner-Hyatt House and 1828 Quaker Meeting House for private homes, while the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn prospers with a wide range of history, education, cultural and other activities. Its not just about money: historic house management needs creativity, community engagement and multi-age leadership. Successful house museums s meet audience needs.

    Mary Ellen W. Hern
    Founding Executive Director
    Historic House Trust of New York City

  4. William Hosley

    November 7, 2013

    Alas, Donna Harris’ book is being used by boards and staff (and at least one private foundation) to justify withdrawing from amazing sites I’d be doubling down to promote, program and present more creatively. Its a lack of imagination. There are always circumstances – bad locations, bad content, etc. But now we’re seeing perfectly viable situations where those charged with stewardship are giving up. Hopefully we mostly agree that the “too many house museums” mantra and the persistent assumption that preservation is about caring for buildings not managing museums – needs to be challenged creatively and persuasively.

    I loved Donovan Rypkema’s essay a couple years ago imagining HP 50 years out and the point about honoring the leadership of women in the HP tradition. The way to do that is to seriously look at what the pioneering preservation orgs in Charleston – or the DAR or Colonial Dames – what they were about. It sure wasn’t tax credits and developers and real estate deals. HP must never loose the sense that this work is about reverence for historic things and places. We are teachers and evangelists who’s effectiveness corresponds with the degree of our passion and care.

    None of it is easy. But one thing I hope we ALL agree on is that it is outrageous how unscalable even the public money earmarked for heritage and the arts is for most museums that aren’t big enough to have development staff -which is 80%+ and perhaps 90% of historical orgs that care for and operate within historic houses. We need – in my view – a serious movement in arts and the humanities to make resources available to small museums on terms they can access and that work for them. The miracle to me is how many of these places soldier on with almost no help from anywhere