Monday, February 22, 2010

When Should You Close Down Your Historic House?

Everybody in the museum field knows a historic house that's struggling--one where the attendance has dropped, the maintenance and restoration costs are rising, and there's an increasing sense that it may no longer be sustainable.  It's a rare thing when you see an organization take the difficult step of deciding to go out of the museum business.  The Landmark Society of Western New York, in Rochester, has announced:
On February 8, 2010, The Landmark Society Board of Trustees approved a motion to cease museum operations at the Campbell-Whittlesey house on July 1, 2010, and to begin active marketing of the property in August.  The decision to close the house museum at Campbell-Whittlesey is the end result of over five years of strategic planning and in-depth studies of opportunities for the property’s use.

We’re holding a public meeting to welcome ideas for adaptive re-use of the site.  It’s important to note that we all remain committed to the exploration of viable options that support the proper stewardship and the maintenance of the integrity of this historic treasure.
Cindy Boyer, Director of Museums and Education at the Landmark Society wrote in a message to her colleagues on the Upstate History Alliance list-serv:
As my colleagues can imagine, this is a time of very mixed feelings  for me.  I am committed to seeing this through in a professional manner, and all involved are supportive of following the legal, ethical and professional guidelines.  It is an unequivocal sign of our changing times, and sad to see a museum that has been in operation since the late 1930’s close its museum services. But I also see opportunity to strengthen our mission and our service to the community.
What's critical in both the official statement and Cindy's comment?  It's a clear understanding of the important of mission.  The mission of the Landmark Society is to "protect the unique architectural heritage of our region and promote preservation and planning practices that foster healthy, livable, and sustainable communities."   Does that mean operating a museum?  Not necessarily--and not really.  

I read Cindy's email as I'm returning from the Small Museum Association conference--and the collision is stunning.   There are more and more new museums, small ones, all volunteer ones and big ones.  Many do great work...but at our session on grant-writing, we answered questions about finding grants to do basic inventory and cataloging, to care for your collection, to pay operating expenses--to do, in fact, the basic work of museums. For some, there seemed to be a lack of understanding that core museum functions are yours, as an organization, to support.

When an organization as large and well-respected as the Landmark Society (Campbell-Whittlesey House has been a museum since the 1930s) can't sustain a museum operation, it should make every history organization that operates a historic house think twice--in a good way.   Some questions you might ask your organization:
  • Are there other historic houses nearby?  Are they really that different?  (I mean really different, not just kind of different, owned by a different white industrialist in your community)
  • What sort of historic documentation exists for your house?
  • Could you ever, even if you had the documentation, afford to acquire the furnishings to furnish the house appropriately?  And what would those authentic furnishings gain you?
  • Who will come to this historic house?  Why?
  • Are there other, better, more engaging ways to share history with your community?
  • And most important, I think,  is the big SO WHAT?  If there's not a compelling story to tell and audience to connect with--if  in fact your goal is preserving an old house, consider some other way to do it, as the Landmark Society is doing.
It appears that the board and staff at Landmark Society have made hard choices in a thoughtful process, driven by mission.   They should be applauded.


Bob Beatty said...

Great post. Sad to see so much of this going on these days (just heard another colleague lost a job today due to a museum system closing).

Anyway, here is one resource to consider for the Sustainability of a Historic House, a technical leaflet on this subject the AASLH Historic House committee published in 2008

And of course, the StEPs program is another great resource for historic houses


Laura Roberts said...

Thanks for this, Linda. I have been facilitating LSWNY's conversations (and will be at the public meeting on Thursday) and they have been very deliberate and thoughtful. Getting to know the organization has made me think about the history of preservation and local history in the 20th century. Organizations like LSWNY (and SPNEA, SPLIA, etc) started out doing both, but somewhere along the way, preservation took an interesting turn. In general, I think preservation organizations are more robust and relevant that historic house museums. I think LSWNY is doing great work and is poised to do more!

Linda said...

Thanks Laura--and by the way, that sounds like a potential fabulous book about preservation organizations and their historic houses! I'll watch Landmark Society's next steps with interest--keep me posted...

Donna Ann Harris said...

I am pleased to see that LSWNY has taken this bold step. I have been advocating for historic house museums to consider other options for more than three years since the publication of my book, New Solutions for House Museums was published by AltaMira press in
2007. Now that organizations have a methodology for starting these discussions and a series of 12 case studies of sites that have decided on a new use or user (as noted in the book), they might be more likley to make the changes necessary. Bravo.

Linda said...

Hi Donna--
Thanks for reading and commenting--I'm perpetually recommending your book to people--are you beginning to see an impact, I hope?