Speech | Indianapolis, Indiana | October 30, 2013

House Museums: A 20th Century Paradigm

Stephanie K. Meeks

Hello and welcome to Indianapolis. It’s great to be here with all of you, and it’s great to be in the Hoosier State. I came to Indiana earlier this week to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long time; visit the village of New Harmony. You may know of this Utopian village established in 1814, which is also known for its advances in science and education. As I said, it’s a place I’ve wanted to visit for a long time, and I’m really glad I did. Not only was it a fantastic way to spend my birthday – a whole lot better than standing in line at the DMV -- but it’s also a fantastic example of what I want to talk about today: what’s next for preservation in the face of a failing house museum model, which New Harmony manages to get right.

Now, I have to tell you that I’ve always had a soft spot for house museums. Give me a crisp fall day, and I’ll be the first in line to tromp among the log cabins at Land Between the Lakes in Tennessee. Or to take my kids to buy freshly ground flour at Colvin Run Mill in Great Falls, Virginia. Or to admire the painstaking detail of the Gamble House in Pasadena, CA.

I can still recall vividly the first time I visited the Woodrow Wilson House, one of the National Trust’s sites, more than twenty years ago. There was something about walking through that front door – a threshold that Wilson himself had crossed again and again, and being transported back in time. The Woodrow Wilson House is a jewel box in our nation’s capital, and I’m honored to now run the organization which has the privilege of stewarding such an incredible cultural asset, and many others like it.

And from where I sit, I see many other successful, vibrant historic house museums. Take Mount Vernon – where the house museum concept was conceived in our nation – and you will find a place teeming with life, scholarship, interpretation and roughly one million visitors each year.

But just as often – dare I say more often? – I see house museums which are not thriving. Which are barely scraping by. Which are deferring critical maintenance. Which are cutting back on programs. Which have eliminated many of their professional staff.

And it leads me to a conversation that has been going on for many years in the preservation movement: is it time to move away from the house museum as our “go to” strategy for preservation?

Now… before you say “here we go again…” let me hasten to add that I think the time for talk has ended, and the time for action is upon us. The National Trust is taking action, and we’re walking the talk.

Over the past three years, I’ve used my annual address at this conference to talk about our opportunity to engage many more people in the preservation movement. You may remember our research: 15 million people who are actively doing preservation but who are completely disconnected from our organizations. They are a subset, of course, of a much larger group of Americans who say they care about our cultural and historic resources.

And it’s a very attractive group. These folks are younger than our members – by a lot. They’re more racially diverse – by a whole lot. Their education and income levels are lower, but, interestingly, they are more likely to volunteer and raise money in the preservation world.

And while they’re actively engaged in preservation, they may not call themselves “Preservationists.” Why is that?

I would submit that we are not meeting them where they are. But we have the opportunity to do that if we are brave enough to re-think our approach to house museums.

I maintain that too often preservationists are seen as stuffy, against change, and not offering the kinds of experiences in the kinds of spaces these Local Preservationists want. Now, we know we’re not stuffy and boring – and there’ll be ample evidence of that tonight at the opening reception! But out in public, we make a different impression altogether.

The irony is, these local preservationists love going to brew pubs in historic buildings. They will go out of their way to eat dinner in a historic district – just like we will. But they associate our movement with doilies and velvet ropes, which, in the words of my eleven year old son, John, “just isn’t how they roll.”

We know this millennial generation loves old buildings. Press reports abound of companies moving back into cities because their younger employees want things like windows that open! Exposed brick! Charm! They use words like “authenticity” to describe the kinds of neighborhoods where they want to work and live.

And we know from our experience with tax credits that old buildings can be magnificently restored and adaptively re-used for business, dining, shopping, and entertainment.

But somehow, to the general public, this isn’t seen as preservation. It’s seen as inspired, progressive development.

So why is “How do I start a house museum?” still the number one question that our colleagues at the American Association of State and Local History entertain every week?

Why, when, in so many instances, the house museum is a fundamentally unsustainable model?

Now wait just a minute, you may be thinking. What about Monticello? What about Mount Vernon? You just said it was a shining example of success. And it is. George Washington’s home is a national landmark and a preservation success. But I submit it’s a beguiling exception, because it established and forever legitimized a model that just doesn’t work very often.

A vast tide of historic house museums followed over the next century, basking in Mt. Vernon’s glory because house museums were the only way we knew to save historic places at the time. Thousands of dedications took place, doors flung open, and our movement beamed with pride. ** Somewhere around15,000 times.** That’s the best guess of the number of house museums in the country today. That’s five for every county in the country if they were evenly distributed.

15,000 places – most of which are examples of a dilemma best expressed by our preservation colleague and Trustee of the National Trust, Vince Michael, who was at this podium a few minutes ago, who said, there’s “a disconnect between the impulse of wanting to save an old house and the economic reality of running a house museum.”

It’s like the difference between going to the gym a few times a week and trying out for the Olympics. There’s a dis-connect. The proper impulse of wanting to be in shape does not mean pole vaulting is in your immediate future. Well… maybe in yours, but definitely not in mine!

The economic reality of running a house museum is, unrealistic too. We all know about rising maintenance needs, shrinking municipal budgets, and smaller donor bases. But nothing underscores the fact better than this: in 2002, the average house museum incurred a cost of $40 per visitor but only took in $8 per visitor. That is the definition of unsustainable, and no amount of creativity in the gift shop is likely to bridge that gap.

I’d like to suggest today that we stop debating whether house museums are a flawed model, and instead channel that energy into the original impulse: the desire to preserve the houses where our history was made. That is a magnificent impulse and one of the richest traditions in American culture. But to preserve these properties – to sustain their place in history and advance their meaning – we need to think in new ways, and act accordingly.

In considering this challenge, I am reminded of the people who made the history we seek to preserve. They were acutely aware of their times and the circumstances around them. They had a keen sense of reality. They saw what needed changing, conceived of new possibilities, and looked around the corner when few others would.

We must emulate their example. We must enthusiastically ask ourselves, “What is possible?”

Donna Harris, in her wonderful book, New Solutions for House Museums, does just that. As she tackles the tough challenges, Donna establishes two critical foundations: number one, there are several good options. We aren’t trapped. If we stay grounded in reality, and look ahead with optimism and creativity, there’s almost nothing we can’t do to preserve historic houses.

And two, she shows us that it is already being done. These are not theories; they are positive experiences, full of lessons for us, applicable in many situations. These approaches may be born of necessity, and difficult to realize, but they are literally happening all around us.

Donna offers eight specific solutions, along a wide-ranging continuum, each meritorious in the right circumstance. Today, I want to focus on three particular avenues she outlines, and then I want to introduce a new one.

The first, and perhaps least controversial thing I will propose today is what Donna calls Reprogramming for Mission-Related Use. In many cases, when we take this approach, we can both maintain the house museum and significantly improve it. This is exactly what the leadership at Tryon (TRY-ON) Palace in North Carolina has done for many years.

Tryon opened in 1959, following a 30 year campaign to completely rebuild the site that was constructed in 1770 as North Carolina’s first permanent capitol. Though it has its share of struggles, like many house museums, its leadership and supporters did not rest on their – or its - laurels.

Tryon’s story is a lesson in the ongoing process of re-discovery. In the last half century, this historic site has undertaken several adaptations. It has created a decorative arts program; emphasized hands on participation in its interpretation; developed performing arts and rotating exhibit spaces; and constructed an 1835 village that allows visitors to physically interact with the lifestyle of people who lived then. It routinely showcases North Carolina history by hosting weddings, receptions, corporate events and other social gatherings.

Throughout this process, Tryon’s leadership has kept two principles firmly in mind: one, always think about the audiences who might never visit a static house museum; and two, maintain the vigorous involvement of as many stakeholders as possible in order to cement Tryon as an anchor in the community.

The Trust is taking this same approach with President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C., where the President and his family spent one quarter of his presidency and where he wrote much of the Emancipation Proclamation. When we opened in 2008, the Trust looked to such cutting edge historic sites and monuments as the FDR Memorial for inspiration. This memorial focuses on the ideas and words of the man. And similarly, we wanted to craft an experience that emphasized Lincoln’s ideas and the momentous achievements born in the cottage.

We’ve pushed boundaries from the beginning. Rather than simply showcasing Lincoln’s brilliance and courage, we’re applying it to the modern fight against human trafficking throughout the world. Just this summer, we launched The Students Opposing Slavery Summit, bringing 35 students from six countries to the Cottage to develop ways they could be active in ending modern slavery.

And we’re constantly developing new tools for interpreting the Cottage, exploring for example the use of tablet technology to offer a more responsive, customized, resource-rich tour for visitors.

As I look at experiences like Tryon’s, and our team’s work at President Lincoln’s Cottage, I keep in mind something I suggested two years ago with respect to Local Preservationists: we must be willing to go to them, rather than expecting them to come to us.

To me, this means moving outside our long-standing preservation world. New ideas. New partnerships. And especially, new people.

Let me turn now to a much more provocative idea: the outright sale or donation of the property. This is a difficult option for us as preservationists to face, but we need to confront it head on.

I understand first-hand why it’s difficult. You may know that the Trust sold its headquarters building this summer – a National Historic Landmark which has been our home for more than thirty years. But in our case, we believe this is the best preservation outcome for the building. We sold it to a buyer who’s investing $30 million in renovations which we will approve and which are guided by a permanent preservation easement that covers the exterior and significant interior spaces.

As you might imagine, we didn’t come to this decision lightly. But when we focus on our ultimate purpose -- saving the place -- tools such as easements and transfer to new ownership, can be a very effective option. And with the legal easements that guarantee protection, access, and integrity, we have a solid foundation from which to start.

A similar approach was taken, several years ago, at the Robert E. Lee Boyhood home in Alexandria, Virginia. As the new millennium approached, this 18th century house museum was attracting fewer and fewer visitors and faced mounting restoration needs. The non-profit foundation that owned the home felt its best option was to return it to its first use -- as a private residence.

Not everyone agreed with this approach. Other proposals were suggested and two alternate plans were developed. But ultimately, neither was deemed feasible.

Finally, the property was sold, and the buyers undertook a meticulous two-year restoration. Today, it once again serves its original purpose as a home.

Seeking alternate paths to preservation is what I think history invites us to do; to tap the same impulses that created our wonderful house museums in the first place. Listening. Learning. Adapting. Innovating. Acting.

It is in that spirit I turn to the third avenue that is open before us – the option of a long-term lease for adaptive re-use. This is the option that requires the most of us, meshing devotion to our houses with the entrepreneurial spirit I just described. And not only can it be done, it is being done.

Let me start with Ottinger Hall in Salt Lake City, Utah. Built in 1900, Ottinger was used continuously by the Veteran Volunteer Firemen’s Association as a meeting house and museum for 100 years.

When that use was no longer feasible and the building became vacant, the City, to whom ownership had reverted, sought out the local Rotary Club. Together, these partners invested $150,000 into rehabilitation, and converted the site into a youth center. Through a city-sponsored initiative called Youth City, the site now houses an after school program for neighborhood kids ages 9 to13.

Check out Youth City’s Facebook page, and you’ll see some cool stuff from the kids – stop motion videos, guitar lessons, cooking class, and career exploration tours. A pretty good use of a museum, don’t you think?

Ottinger demonstrates beautifully the adaptive evolution of a property over time: from meeting place and museum to community center, and I find it very freeing to begin to contemplate other uses and other ways of protecting historic structures.

From here, let me pivot to what might be considered a ninth option in Donna Harris’ analysis: “Shared Use.”

This is a model we are exploring ourselves. We call it “shared use” because it mixes traditional interpretation and programming with for-profit commercial uses – in the same spaces. It’s a conversation currently underway at the Cooper-Molera Adobe, a Trust property in Monterey, California -- a site that interprets an era of early California life in the 1800’s. Our partner, the California State Parks, has operated the site as a house museum since 1972. But, quite simply, Cooper-Molera is no longer working. Due to budget challenges in California, the site is now open by appointment only. And with low visitation revenues and no endowment, the status quo is simply not a future.

Cooper-Molera cries out for adaptive re-use. This is a property that has seen a lot of commercial uses over time: everything from a horse stable to a beauty salon. It’s served as the meeting place for the Boys Club of Monterey, and as a tavern – though it’s important to note: NOT AT THE SAME TIME. In fact, it’s been a museum for only 28 of its 178 years.

Which is why I think it’s a missed opportunity for its beautiful buildings and grounds to sit idle, barely seen and rarely visited. I’d like to see the site open seven days a week: marveled at, explored, blogged about photographed for everything from holiday cards to Instagram posts. Cooper-Molera Adobe should be a central part of the revitalization of Monterey’s Main Street, rather than a mostly shuttered relic of a bygone day.

That’s the vision that is motivating us to examine alternatives to Cooper-Molera’s current use. We’re exploring a long-term lease arrangement with a preservation-sensitive developer who would bring new commercial and retail uses to the site, operating side-by-side with interpretation and education. The new vision includes installing restaurants, re-purposing the barns as event space, and reopening long-closed gates to better allow the public to enjoy the gardens and orchards.

We’re excited about the possibilities, but proceeding very carefully. Throughout all this, we’re guided by the Secretary’s Standards for preservation -- as well as our own high standards -- to ensure that any new uses not only protect the site’s historic character and communicate its cultural and historic significance, but also that they make Cooper-Molera more available to the public; ensure its financial stability; and elevate the site as an important part of Monterey’s downtown revitalization.

But the most important thing is, Cooper-Molera will be preserved. It will be open to many more people. Its deferred maintenance will be addressed. Its story more broadly told. Its historic character imprinted on a new generation who will be responsible for its care long after we’re gone.

This is what we must tell groups who want to start new house museums, just as we must embrace it ourselves: a historic house museum may not be the right model for every important place we wish to protect. But if we think inventively, and look to our colleagues for examples, our new innovations can become models so that more places can be saved and enjoyed for generations to come.

Which brings me back to New Harmony. Today this community of almost 800 people makes the best of living in a historic district. There are house museums for sure, but there are many more examples of historic buildings being actively re-purposed. The Town’s preservation plan emphasizes this, and I quote: “A community such as New Harmony is more readily characterized by the confident innovation that is apparent in old buildings adapted to modern usage…” This place is an example of living with history.

I know we face complicated choices ahead, choices that will evoke strong emotions. This is how it should be. But as we forge ahead, let’s face these choices honestly, boldly, and with a zest for the possible. I challenge us to constantly be in service to that simple, but wonderful question, “What if?" Thank you.


The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded nonprofit organization, works to save America’s historic places.
SavingPlaces.org | @savingplaces

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