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?
Thanks to Dale Pennington, Executive Director of Körner’s Folly, for this guest post.
Preservation vs. access is a tricky balance that we all have to deal with in the museum field . In “The Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums,” Vagnone and Ryan continually assert that visitors really want a tactile and authentic experience while touring house museums. But just because visitors want to touch, should we let them? And to what degree?
I recently had the opportunity to work through Vagnone and Ryan’s self-evaluation to see how my institution measured up to their anarchist guidelines. They sent students as “undercover visitors” to Körner’s Folly and had them graph their experience with “energy,” “imagination,” and “excitement” as variables. Vagnone and Ryan contacted me, excited by some high student marks in these categories. We do not actually allow visitors to touch our artifacts at Körner’s Folly. We do, however, offer self-guided tours, rather than a traditional guided tour. According to Vagnone and Ryan this freedom of movement really helps improve the visitor experience. The self-guided option was also something their students found particularly enjoyable. So let me start with a little background on Körner’s Folly and how we evolved into our current level of preservation vs. access…
The 22-room Victorian house was built in 1880 by Jule Körner, a local artist, interior designer, and furniture designer. After Jule and his wife died, the family removed all heirlooms and personal artifacts, boarded up the doors and windows, and the house sat largely untouched, aside from occasional vandals, until the 1970s. In 1971, the Town of Kernersville wanted to have the house demolished as it was rapidly falling into disrepair. Fortunately, a group of town residents came together and purchased Korner’s Folly. Their goal was to eventually restore Körner’s Folly and open it for tours. They operated as an all-volunteer run organization for nearly three decades, hiring their first professional staff in 1999. Most of original furniture remained in Korner’s Folly because it was too large to move; much of it was literally built in the room it still inhabits to this day.
While many pieces of original furniture remained, there were virtually no surviving small artifacts, valuables, or heirlooms. With a lack of “pocketable” artifacts, an unrestored house, and surviving largely on volunteers, Körner’s Folly was set-up for self-guided tours, with an orientation by a docent, and then a few velvet ropes and signs here and there to help visitors navigate. Today, while we have grown in staff size, we still largely offer self-guided tours. We have added a security camera system, “do not touch signs,” and more interpretive signs, but by-and-large, what grew of out of lack of resources is now an active choice our institution makes, guided by visitor feedback.
When I first started as executive director at Körner’s Folly, I was really unsure of this self-guided stuff. After all, I am very comfortable with rules, policies, and procedures – that’s why I got into this field, right? I thought: “They won’t read anything and they’ll touch everything!” So I started conducting visitor exit surveys, and monitoring how visitors acted on their tours. Of course, we always have visitors who do just as I suspected, but the majority of our visitors are actually respectful. Overall, our visitors report to spend approximately 1.2 hours touring the house on their own, rate their experience as a 4.8 out of 5, and 2/3 report they read “all” of the interpretive signs where 1/3 report they read “some” of the signs. Our visitors appreciate being able to wander, take selfies, and spend as much time or as little time as they like in each room. Additionally, with so many different rooms and architectural features, no spaces in Körner’s Folly were ever closed off from tours. We don’t offer a “behind the scenes” tour because all 22 rooms are open to the public. Since we lack many small original, artifacts, visitors get to walk into all of the rooms, not just do a “hallway tour.”
I have always been really interested in interactive exhibit elements and ways of making audiences more engaged. So we are brainstorming ways to make the self-guided experience more interesting. For example, last year we created a scavenger hunt for children to do as they toured the house. The scavenger hunt is so basic and cost us nothing, and we always get lots of compliments on it (it’s rated 4.7 out of 5). Coming up for next year, we are experimenting with “Please Touch” baskets for a few rooms in the house. These interactive baskets will include (reproduction) items for touch or activities that visitors are encouraged to do.
Challenging the lines between preservation vs. access is not a new concept. Ryan and Vagnone just suggest some different approaches, some that we are already implementing in my institution and some that would not work here. While I like creative ways of engaging visitors, I still can’t grapple with encouraging visitors to outright touch artifacts or sit on the original furniture. But I do appreciate Ryan and Vagnone’s out-of-the-box thinking. What works here would not work at every institution – we all have our own unique circumstances and limitations. I think what’s important about “The Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums” is that it challenges us to imagine and test new ideas to enhance access, while continuing to preserve responsibly.
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?