House Museums and the Pressures of Preserving the Past
The weekend "Ideas" section of the Boston Globe featured an article by Ruth Graham titled "The Great Historic House Museum Debate," with a subtitle that asked, "Do we have too many?"
Graham touches on a lot of vexing questions about historic properties and how best to preserve and utilize them. I thought immediately of the recent dotCommonweal posts about archdiocesan bishops' residences (by Peter Steinfels) and the new Catholic cultural center in the Bowery (by Dominic Preziosi).
In the CNN "expose" that Peter linked to, a professor was quoted suggesting that archbishops who inherit historic residences "should convert the mansions to museums and move into rectories." That idea is not obviously a wise one, from a stewardship point of view -- which is, after all, the point of view a bishop is obliged to adopt when it comes to diocesan assets. There is undeniable value in preserving history on a local scale. But maintaining a museum isn't cheap.
As Graham writes in the Globe, the country (and especially New England) is dotted with "house museums," the former residences of noteworthy people (or, in some cases, noteworthy residences of wealthy people) now open to the public as repositories of the past. She cites Mount Vernon as a famous, and unusually successful, example of a house museum dedicated to the memory of a prominent historical figure, but you can probably think of something smaller close to you, wherever you might be. Such museums, as Graham writes, serve many purposes beyond memorializing the person or people who lived there: they are windows into past eras, and often into the domestic habits and concerns of those who lived in those eras -- people and ways of life that may be overlooked in standard great-men-and-great-deeds accounts of American history.
But they are also pricey to keep up, and in most cases the tourist traffic is light. (I am all for turning notable homes into museums, but when was the last time I visited one?) Graham explains the case for scaling back, which requires weighing sentimental attachments against practical concerns:
What’s the harm in letting a house museum limp along indefinitely, and even fail? Critics point out that this often means deferring critical maintenance that actually works against the aims of preservation, for one. But the larger issue is that if a house museum attracts only a trickle of visitors—some are open by appointment only—it isn’t serving its community as robustly as the building could in another capacity. Turning a historically significant property from a near-empty museum into a bustling community center isn’t a failure, they say, but a success.
Reading this I thought of a recent article in my own local paper, the Journal News, by Bill Cary about the financial strain that gifts of property can put on Westchester County, to the point where it has started saying "Thanks, but no thanks" to offers of estates that it cannot afford to maintain as public parks. Cary, like Graham, reported on the move toward new uses for old properties, given the challenges of preservation:
Many experts in historic preservation, as well as experienced local officials, say that the best way to maintain and save these historic parks and properties is to form public-private partnerships around the properties. These "friends of" groups raise community interest and much-needed cold cash to pay for educational programs and basic maintenance that municipalities can no longer afford....
There is just not enough foot traffic at these sites and parks to generate enough income, says [county legislator Peter] Harckham. "While these properties are incredibly important as historical artifacts, they are quite cost prohibitive."
Adaptive reuse of these historic properties is the way to go, he says. "We want to honor the intent of the gift, while finding a modern use."
As always, it's very easy to say that something valuable should be preserved and honored; it's harder when you have to find the money to make that happen. I am reminded also of the emotional struggle whenever a diocese closes a parish or a religious order sells an underused property. Identifying the greatest good in such cases is always a tough call.
Do you have a favorite "house museum" or other local-history artifact in your area? Somewhere you direct visitors, or take your kids, or donate money, or stop into now and then? Tell us about it in the comments.
About the Author
Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.