We’ve previously reported on Historic House Museum Anarchist activity here in NC, centering on UNC-Charlotte, where co-anarchist Deborah Ryan is a professor, and Körner’s Folly, one of two primary sites of the Anarchists’ recent study. The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums will be published soon (this fall) by Left Coast Press and this spring Ryan and co-authors published a preview article in the Public Historian. That article concentrates Körner’s Folly and another historic house museum in New York. The authors studied both sites according to an assessment chart they’ve developed. Although the anarchists cited room for improvement, they generally gave Körner’s Folly impressive scores in the 5 categories of assessment: community, communication, experience, environment, shelter. Given the anarchists’ fairly radical ambitions for historic house museums to transform themselves and engage audiences, Körner’s Folly’s overall score of 3.02 out of 5 seems pretty good. (Executive Director, Dale Pennington, posted her thoughts on being part of the study several months ago in this forum.)
Recently, the anarchists have orchestrated a controversial project in New York that highlights a collection object from an historic house museum as well as using an historic building in a new way. (left) This makes an even bigger splash than previous projects incorporating artist interpretations of collection objects and is, at least, a creative attempt to connect a wider community with an institution’s collections. Might this be replicated on/ for one of NC’s cultural heritage institutions? What do you think about bright murals on 18th-century wood siding?
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.
Vagnone 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?