Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums (CBR8 #81)

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I work in museums. Specifically, I work at historic sites, and one of the main types of historic sites is the Historic House Museum (HHM). There are a lot of ways in which HHMs are interesting and important to our cultural heritage, and tons of ways where the traditional methods of running such institutions are just plain bad ideas at this point. The entire cultural sector is down in visitation/consumers, so there are always conversations being had about how to be better, attract more people, and just what the heck we should be doing in the first place.

Enter Franklin Vagnone, the self-appointed Museum Anarchist. If our field has a loyal critic, its him. He has built his personal brand and his professional career on bringing the HHM out of the previous century and putting the visitor experience first. He has many loyal supporters (houses should be alive!), and many detractors (you’re going to let someone nap on your lawn?).

I’ve been following his writings and work for a few years, as promoting a quality visitor focused experience is one of the most important parts of my job. Whether loved or loathed (and his coauthor and co-researcher Deborah) he has a lot to say and brings up points for reflection. I’m mostly in his camp, we need to loosen up and refocus on what people want to discover and experience, and be less precious about the vase in the corner of our perfectly researched period room (that no one can see anyway because its behind that rope and then four feet away in the dark corner because we can’t add any non-historic lights. You understand, don’t you?).

At work we’re prepping for an overhaul of one of our site’s interpretation, our mission, and even possibly our name. We are also in the prep year for our next phase of long range plans. I needed to get some ammunition to go into these meetings, and this book, which lays out ways in which to research our sites, and make decisions which make us more inclusive and less enslaved to old ideas is going to cause waves. But in any organization waves need to happen. I’m getting ready to suggest this as mandatory reading for everyone in my organization for 2017. We’ll see how that goes.

I don’t know that this book will have interest to anyone outside of the field.  Its broken down into manageable pieces, but it is very dense. I described it to one of my colleagues as being edited with a scalpel, everything in these 200 pages is important and a point of thought, but that means you have to be invested and focused. I spent weeks working slowly through this work flagging ideas which I now need to go back and write notes about to prepare for these upcoming big idea meetings and goals. How do I make people feel welcome? How do we make the experience authentic? What rules can we throw away, which rules can we bend, what new methods do we need to instill? In the best possible way this book is making me think. It’s a very good book.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read. Registration for CBR9 is open until January 13th, 2017. Come Join us.


About Katie

Museum educator, caffiene junkie, book lover, student of history, overall goofball.

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