An Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums

Do guided tours of historic house museums make you want to curl up in a corner somewhere and nap? Image courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society
Do guided tours of historic house museums make you want to curl up in a corner somewhere and nap? Image courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society

I just finished reading An Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. This is not a review. Whether or not you agree with many of the ideas espoused, it is thought-provoking. I do unabashedly love the idea of the Anarchist tags. They are brilliant and should be carried around by anyone who cares about and visits museums of all types.

That out of the way, there are a few themes that run through the book that I think are worthy of thought/discussion and one is how they challenge the traditional operational (and I’ll say interpretive) model for Historic House Museums (HHMs).

The authors state that this model relies on “. . . guided tours, rooms in frozen tableaus, wooden or velvet barriers” and that it is no longer enough to sustain the many HHMs in this country that are already operating with limited budgets, staff, and visitation.

I agree.

Two quotes on this topic that spoke to me:

“Any family’s history is boring after two minutes; minutiae about the objects in the house are only interesting to hard core connoisseurs.”

“ . . . the docent provided unnecessarily detailed information on each and every piece of furniture, followed by an overview of the entire family genealogy.”

How would you feel if I invited you to my house for dinner and took you from room to room saying: “This brown leather couch was purchased in 2001 at the Nebraska Furniture Mart. It cost XXX dollars which today would amount to XXX dollars. It was manufactured in the blah province of China and shipped to the United States via . . . . blah, blah, blah . . . this chair belonged to my grandmother who, by the way, is a fifth generation blah, she got it from my great grandmother who was a third generation blah and was married to blah who was a blah, they had sixteen children whose names were . . . blah, blah, blah.” Chances are, you’d hate it and not want to come back. Why do we expect visitors to our HHMs to think similar information, albeit from a different time period with which they have no connection, would be interesting? (By the way, if this does sound interesting to you let me know and I’ll have you over.)

Generally, the people who come to my house—and likely yours—want to know and spend time with you. Your furniture and your family history is somewhat interesting, since it can help explain who you are, but it’s not the point of the visit.

Guided tours that treat visitors like genealogists and/or decorative art or architecture connoisseurs is the reason why I avoid them.

So, what options does the book suggest?

Here’s a few (paraphrased and filtered through this reader’s lens):

  • Explore the real-life and emotional experiences of the HHMs previous residents in programming: focus on people rather than stuff.
  • If you have a Period of Interpretation consider expanding it to include more/all of the house’s history up through today.
  • Relate the house to the current surrounding community. It is impossible to transport someone back in time and we all know the HHM doesn’t exist in a bubble. How has the use of the house, or the structure itself, changed to adapt to the neighborhood OR how has it stayed the same? Why?
  • Ask interpreters/guides to develop their own interpretive methodology and narratives based on abundant factual evidence and see where it goes. Give them the flexibility and knowledge to talk about many different stories perhaps dependent on visitor interest–which may actually include decorative arts. (Have any of you given or been on a tour that started with: What interests you about this place?)
  • Allow the visitor to wander as they like and have interpreters/guides there to answer questions as they arise.
  • Eliminate barriers and give visitors the opportunity to experience the house as it was meant to be used. Let them go through the daily motions of living if they desire.
  • Relate the history of the place to current events. Make comparisons that feel real to visitors.
  • Allow the house to be experienced through what would have been its daily and seasonal cycle of use.

Living history, with the exception of a small section on interpreters in period clothing (a future blog), is by and large left out of the book. It is focused on challenging the traditional methods of stand-alone HHMs that offer guided tours.

What about living history though? Can it be used to reinvigorate HHMs? Are we willing to loosen our preservation standards (another theme of the book) to truly turn HHMs into fully-functioning living history sites? Is this an alternative/complement to some of the ideas listed above? The book repeatedly uses contemporary art installations (in and outside of HHMs) as examples of ways to invigorate the museums. I wasn’t terribly keen on this. My thought was: “Why not  offer historic skills and experiences: living history?”

I recently visited the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm in Texas and had a fabulous time. No plexiglas, no barriers, chickens at my feet, interpreters in period dress going about their “chores,” (cooking, farmwork), no guided tours, no interpreters forcing information on me but very able to answer whatever questions I had. Perhaps a stand-alone, guided-tour HHM would benefit from adopting some of the features currently found at Sauer-Beckmann.

Smokehouse at the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm. Smelled great.
Sausage being preserved in lard at the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm. Didn't smell as great.
Sausage being preserved in lard at the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm. Didn’t smell as great.











As I said, the book is thought-provoking whether you work/volunteer at HHMs, just visit them, or both. These are a few of my reactions. I’d love to hear your thoughts on my ramblings or the book itself.

–Deb Arenz







14 thoughts on “An Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums”

  1. Glad to see you also experienced the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Museum in Stonewall, Texas. I have been to several LHM in the midwest over the years and class field trips to the classic LHM on the east coast while attending graduate school at Columbia. I consider Sauer-Beckmann ones of the best. I live within one hour drive of the museum. I have visited many times over the last twenty years and have not been disappointed. I remember being in the kitchen in the summer. The lunch had been prepared during the morning and staff were eating in the non-air conditioned kitchen. It was very very hot and the sticky fly traps attached to the ceiling were working. I still have not experienced the annual slaughtering of a pig sometime in January.
    Gerron Hite, Pape Farm

  2. Enjoy reading your blog posts! I’ll have to add that book to my library. Haven’t read it yet. I do agree with lots of the ideas though. We got to be alive and moving and not dusty to stay alive $ in this business.

  3. Context of the time period and regional significance vital to any tour which some may lack as many dedicated volunteers might not have had the opportunity to research and analyze in their laudable efforts to preserve a site and present it. Also looking for relevancy to current and future issues vital, this story telling is necessary when artifacts or structure are sensitive to wear and tear. Reproductions great for handling, etc. As many historic sites are short handed or underfunded especially in this era just getting them safely into the next era of greater heritage appreciation is critical.

  4. Deb,
    An excellent commentary. Though the movie was not that great, there was a scene in Pee Wee Herman’s Adventure that stereotypes exactly the kind of tour An Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums calls into question. Someone goes into what is supposed to be an interior room of The Alamo to find out about the building layout, and there is a tableau of a kitchen, I think with a mannequin of a Hispanic woman using a mortar & pestle. The perky blond white lady tour guide begins her memorized talk with: “Welcome to the kitchen of The Alamo. Notice Juanita there. She is preparing a dish with corn, a vegetable which can be prepared in 239 different ways — all of which I will now describe.”

  5. Thanks for the comment Jefferson. I saw that clip on Twitter last week and it made me roll my eyes just like Pee Wee.

  6. I know this is an older post, but I am a board member of an HHM in Wisconsin, and we struggle with this. We have board members that think the people that give the people who built/lived in the house a god-like status. Nothing in the house is theirs…just period. But they will give 2-hour, ear bleeding tours explaining every detail of the house and how much money people the former occupants had. It’s exhausting. I like the idea of asking visitors why they are interested in the house.

    1. One of the things I do when training new guides is give them an exhaustive story of my family and the family homestead. Once I have sufficiently bored them, I point out that family history is really not that interesting unless you can relate it to something.

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