What’s Your Pres-Ac Quotient?

Have you heard yet of the “Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums?”   It started several years ago as a series of presentations and a social media campaign and will soon be published as a book. We’ve recently learned that North Carolina is one of the two primary centers of the authors’ (Deb Ryan and Frank Vagnone) research (New York being the other). Professor Deborah E. Ryan teaches architecture and urban design at UNC Charlotte and has organized class and individual student visits to several NC historic house museums.

The core concept of the “Anarchist Guide” is that focusing on preservation, historical accuracy, and exclusivity can undermine the higher callings of museums to be welcoming and engaging spaces.  Such ideas, though justifiably controversial, are worth discussing and it is the mission of our NC branch of the Connecting to Collections program to encourage both preservation and access (pres-ac). We have written here before about new access approaches to historic houses, especially programs that depart from the traditional docent-led, roped-off-room tours and facilitate historical imagining with re-enactments and visitor role playing.

RosedaleChart2Vagnone and Ryan emphasize the importance of cultivating an understanding in visitors of what it was like to inhabit a space in earlier periods. In one class exercise, Ryan instructed students to graph their historic house museum experiences with “energy,” “imagination,” and “excitement” as variables. In the past several years, Ryan and Vagnone have repeatedly included the graph one student created about his visit to Rosedale Plantation in Charlotte as an example in their “Anarchist Guide” presentations.  Like most museum visitors, Kevin Schaffner’s energy level started out fairly high and continuously decreased over the course of the visit. His imagination and excitement peaked when he could feel like he was discovering traces of the past by encountering artifacts or century-old handwriting on a wall, but overall, he felt bored by the docent-led tour. This detailed visitor feedback, especially from a younger visitor—a demographic historic house museums often struggle to interest—is valuable, if challenging, and has led Ryan and Vagnone to advocate self-guided tours and allowing visitors to touch artifacts.

When visitors can sit down and enter typically closed-off spaces like bathrooms, Ryan and Vagnone believe historic house museums can sustain visitors’ energy and heighten their imaginations about what it was like to live in the house in the past. In houses with lower visitation levels and fewer safety and security concerns, this may be an option. If the site displays “expendifacts,” sitting on the furniture may be okay. But many historic house museums cannot allow unfettered access in general on a daily basis without compromising the artifacts that make them unique. Preservation and access is always a tough balance to manage.

What innovative approaches has your institution tried? How do you negotiate between these often-competing needs for both preservation and access?

Advertisements

About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on February 24, 2015, in collections access, historic houses, public programs and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I read this article a couple of the months ago, and it really energized me about making the historic house museum less “static”– for both visitors and museum staff. As a collections manager, I’m concerned with preservation, but all curators know the importance of relevance and imaginative access to the past.

    So how do we decide which museum objects would be appropriate for touching and/or sitting on?

    I think reproductions and period pieces could be those “sacrificial” items, but when you have a historic house full of original objects, how do you decide (if at all) which objects will potentially be damaged from visitor use? A “sliding scale” would be both unwieldy and philosophically unsound– museum professionals are trained to not impose the intangible values of “significance” on objects because none of us know what posterity will value decades from now.

    This is a real challenge, and one I hope the historic house museum community will figure out soon. Let’s talk!

    • I agree. When there’s a provenance linking the piece to the site, it’s definitely not an expendable artifact and preservation is paramount. Dale Pennington of Korner’s Folly will be guest posting about the situation at her site in light of the “Anarchist Guide” studies very soon, so stay tuned!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: