The Great Debate and NC Insights
A few months ago we blogged here about the now-prominent view among historic preservation experts to shutter historic house museums with low visitation and/or revenue and shift them to private ownership with protective easements. Last month, in an article entitled, “The Great Historic House Museum Debate,” a Boston Globe journalist introduced these arguments to a broad audience and highlighted the contrary ideas of William Hosley, a New England-based museum professional. Hosley offers important cautions about privatization that add to our own about limiting access to the wealthy.
Hosley discusses small historic houses as grass-roots community history institutions. He argues that historic houses should be valued as specimens of cultural diversity in the same way that our society seeks to protect endangered species for the sake of biodiversity. Moreover, old buildings and the artifact collections they present work to preserve the distinctiveness of locales and express the idea that history-creation is a basic civic right. As other public history leaders have discussed, history-creating activities (although not a specific reference in the Bill of Rights) strongly relate to the 1st Amendment’s call for freedom of expression and the right to assemble. Telling stories of the past is an essential function in human society, and gathering places and objects enliven and enrich these histories.
Although most of the well attended and well funded house museums reflect the history of the elites, grass-roots organizations continue to found and struggle to sustain vestiges of humble circumstances. Two highlights from different parts of North Carolina are notable. In the Charlotte area, the Belmont Historical Association has restored a 1920s house inhabited by mill workers from Parkdale Mills. Like Belmont, a committed group of volunteers keeps the Penderlea Homestead Museum open one afternoon each weekend in Burgaw, north of Wilmington. Penderlea is a restored Depression-era farmstead, which the federal government made available to poor farmers who passed an approval process. Both sites stand as testaments to the trials and tribulations of the past. The volunteer staff opens their doors to help interested visitors learn more. No, they don’t have the same dazzling effect and popular following as the Biltmore, but they do offer insights into 20th-century textile mills and farm life.
An impressive group of folks from each of these communities has invested its time, passion, and often money to preserve these buildings, artifacts, and local history. If we subscribe to the view that “America does not need another house museum,” then we limit the possibilities of future lifestyle interpretation. Some of these micro-museums may not ever undertake the capacity-building initiatives that allow them to professionalize. Others have hired some professional staff but then cannot sustain activities that meet professional standards. The energy and support levels of the governing boards combine with market forces to determine which house museums will grow, stabilize, or falter. Leaders should regularly consider alternatives to current operations, but remaining a micro-museum may be the best possible service for some localities.
Read about another potential historic house in Tryon here. After the purchase of African-American singer, Nina Simone’s, modest childhood home, the buyer worked to restore it and turn it into a house museum. Costs have escalated beyond his means, however, and he’s hoping to sell the property with a subsequent buyer’s commitment to somehow continue efforts to preserve Simone’s history.
It’s worth pondering whether our communities would be the same without these tangible lessons in cultural heritage. Does having a space open to the public as a museum make the preserved past more meaningful than restoring a structure for private ownership?