What are the Best Practices for Historic House Museums?

Added to Medium, May 11, 2018

I thought about more recently about my past experiences in the museum field, specifically in historic house museums. Like all museums, historic house museums take a lot of time and resources to run. As museum professionals, we search through various resources and have discussions among colleagues to figure out the best practices for our museums. I am particularly going to discuss best practices in historic house museums.

Each historic house museum has their own unique stories and artifacts to share with its visitors. I worked at a number of historic house museums in the past, and each have not only their own stories and artifacts but they also have slightly different missions from one another. The historic house museums I was a museum educator for are Stanley-Whitman House, Noah Webster House, and Connecticut Landmarks’ Butler-McCook House and Isham-Terry House.

The Stanley-Whitman is a living history center and museum that teaches through the collection, preservation, research, and dynamic interpretation of the history and culture of early Farmington. This museum facility is centered on a ca. 1720 National Historical Landmark house, furnished with period antiques to reflect the everyday activities of Colonial life in Connecticut. In 2004, public service areas of the museum, including a modern classroom, a period tavern room, post-and-beam Welcome Center, research library, exhibit gallery, and collection storage area, were constructed to assist in fulfilling its mission.

The Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society is located in the restored 18th-century birthplace and childhood home of Noah Webster, the creator of the first American dictionary and “Blue-Backed Speller”, a teacher, lawyer and early abolitionist. Its mission is to engage citizens by preserving and sharing history, promoting literacy and advocating greater cultural understanding.

Connecticut Landmarks is a state-wide network of eleven significant historic properties that span four centuries of New England history. It’s mission is to inspire interest and encourage learning about the American past by preserving selected historic properties, collections and stories and presenting programs that meaningfully engage the public and our communities. The two historic house museums I worked at were the Butler-McCook House and the Isham-Terry House, located in Hartford.

The Butler-McCook House & Garden, the only 18th-century home still remaining on Hartford’s Main Street, is a time capsule of Hartford’s past and the history of one family. For 189 years the Butler-McCook House & Garden was home to four generations of a family who participated in, witnessed, and recorded the evolution of Main Street between the American Revolution and the mid-twentieth century.

Inside the house, Connecticut Landmarks preserves the house with all the changes that took place over time. The house has original furnishings ranging from Connecticut-crafted colonial furniture to Victorian-era toys and paintings to samurai armor acquired during a trip to Japan. These objects were accumulated over the course of almost two centuries by members of this extraordinary clan, which included physicians, industrialists, missionaries, artists, globetrotters and pioneering educators and social reformers.

The Isham-Terry House is a time capsule of the genteel lifestyle of turn-of-the century Hartford. Dr. Oliver Isham purchased the 1854 Italianate house for his medical practice and as a home for himself, his parents and his three sisters in 1896. The footprint of the house remains the same as it was when it was built in 1854 with the three-story rectangular tower added in 1883.

This mansion has 15 rooms that are adorned with crown moldings, ceiling medallions, lincrusta wall coverings, hand painted walls and ceilings, gilt mirrors and valances, stained glass windows, elaborate gas-light chandeliers and many original kitchen and bathroom appliances and fixtures. It is filled with objects of historical, artistic and family significance including but not limited to antique furnishings, decorative arts, rare books, and the Terry clocks made famous by their great uncle Eli Terry.

All of the historic house museums I have worked for and visited focus their missions on community and education. While I have not visited all historic house museums in the country, I know that each one not only has a unique narrative but all historic house museums have to consider many factors that effect how they are run.

For instance, historic house museum professionals have to discuss interpretive planning. Interpretive planning, according to the book Museum Administration 2.0, is about deciding which interpretive messages will be carried throughout the organization, via exhibits, educational programs, marketing, and other forms of communication. At the Butler-McCook House, I was part of the team that worked on interpretive planning projects to brainstorm ways we can draw more visitors in while aligning the interpretive plan with the mission.

There are a number of steps that need to be taken when museum professionals work on the interpretive plan. According to my experience and in Museum Administration 2.0, a number of museum leaders and educators must collaborate to develop an interpretive plan which allows policy, planning, and process to flow out of the themes and messages the plan presents. I met with other museum educators, the executive director, an interpretive specialist, and site administrator to discuss the framework of the plan as well as the interpretive themes. Also, we discussed geographic and audience demographics from previous years. Museum educators were then asked to pick an interpretive theme to brainstorm ideas of new exhibits and tours using the narrative and objects in the collection related to the chosen theme.

Other considerations include but not limited to house maintenance, accessioning and deaccessioning objects in the collections. Also, historic house museums especially ones I have worked in have to figure out what to do with dangerous objects in its collections. I came across an article written by Jessica Leigh Hester called “The Most Dangerous Things You Can See in Museums” which listed a number of museums from around the world with the specific dangerous objects described underneath each museum mentioned in the article.

When I was working at the Butler-McCook House and Isham-Terry House, there were a number of items in the collection that would be considered too dangerous and each one had a solution to be sure they are not exposed to museum professionals and visitors. For instance, both of the houses had medicines used by members of both families who were physicians. Each of these were placed out of arms reach either in a closet behind glass (at Butler-McCook House) or in a cabinet (at Isham-Terry House).

Museum professionals at historic house museums have numerous things to consider, and would need assistance from colleagues and other resources. Last week I discussed how museum professionals find resources and the significance of these resources to assist in running museums. I discovered a website called Sustaining Places which is a site that has resources for small museums and historic sites which cover everything from administration to collections, and from curatorial and exhibitions to education and programming. Also, in addition to other resources from books and museum organizations, there are professional networks especially through the American Alliance of Museums. The American Alliance of Museums has a historic houses and sites network which was organized to create and maintain a welcoming network of museum professionals dedicated to the interpretation and preservation of important public histories, architecture, and culture.

Not all historic house museums are alike, and it is important for all museum professionals to learn and decide what methods work best for their organizations.

If you work in a historic house museum, what resources have you come across on historic house museums?

Resources:
https://www.ctlandmarks.org/
http://www.stanleywhitman.org/
https://noahwebsterhouse.org/
Genoways, Hugh H., Lynne M. Ireland, Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, Museum Administration 2.0, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.
https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/most-dangerous-museum-objects
https://sustainingplaces.com/
https://www.aam-us.org/professional-networks/historic-houses-and-sites-network/

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