Keeping Historic Houses Relevant (or Getting Over Ourselves in order to Connect People with Places and Things)

Hale House in Los Angeles, CA

Within the United States, Los Angeles is not exactly known for its historic house museums. Owing to its relatively late industrialization and urbanization, it never had the abundance of pre-Civil War era homes that places like New England are famous for and many of the historic houses that did exist were demolished in the name of urban renewal to make space for more “efficient” post-war housing and industry. Nevertheless, there are more than a few notable historic homes in the Los Angeles area: in this post, I’d like to talk about my experience with one cluster of historic homes that make up the Heritage Square Museum.

Located off the Arroyo Seco Parkway (a narrow, winding old highway that cuts through the hills of Northeast Los Angeles) at the end of a cul-de-sac in the working-class neighborhood of Montecito Heights, it is a relic of the Victorian era. The immaculately maintained houses look like beautiful haunted houses and growing up, I thought they were. It wasn’t until the 2016 Museums of the Arroyo (MOTA) Day that I realized that these houses are indeed haunted: haunted by the specter of antiquated historic house museum practices.

Normally, the price of admission prevented me from visiting. But on MOTA Day, when several local museums offered free admission, I came with my younger sister. While the folks working the admission table were friendly, some of the house guides were not. I did not see a sign prohibiting photography, so I tried to take a photo of the interior of a house and was promptly yelled at by a guide. This startled me and set the tone for the rest of my experience.

I don’t think the guide was trying to be rude. Like people in other professions, museum professionals can forget how much authority they have in certain situations and how this comes across to visitors. Unfortunately, this makes us worse at our job, which is to connect people to objects and places. Reading the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums was a helpful reminder of this and I appreciated its strategies for engaging visitors and communities.

Historic house museums are often paradoxical in that they are homes but you do not feel at home. The philosophy of the Anarchist’s Guide basically boils down to enhancing communication through self-awareness and empathy. You are interested in a subject: now imagine someone could be less interested in this subject than you. You grew up in a certain class: now imagine a person grew up in a different one. Imagine these things and now with this knowledge, try and connect to other people, as fellow humans with their own thoughts, bodies, and experiences. Within the context of house museums, enhanced communication serves the role of facilitating a meaningful experience for the visitor with regard to education and interpretation.

Recently, it seems like the Heritage Square Museum has made efforts to address its shortcomings, through programs like the Inhabit Heritage Square Museum. The Inhabit Heritage Square Museum site describes it as “a new program which asks artists who reside in Los Angeles to interpret and explore the historical buildings and the site of Heritage Square Museum. Artists will present works that question notions of preservation, interact playfully with the collection, and foreground Los Angeles as a site of exploration.” This sounds cool and I hope it’s just the beginning of future efforts to increase communication, connection, and goodwill with the surrounding community and visitors. As they are, the houses of the Heritage Square Museum serve as attractions for film crews, wedding venue seekers, and fans of historical architecture, but they have the potential to do so much more.

Works Cited

“About.” Inhabit Heritage Square, https://inhabitheritagesquare.org/about/. Accessed 31 Mar. 2017.

MOTA. Museums of the Arroyo Day, 2017, http://www.museumsofthearroyo.com/. Accessed 31 Mar. 2017.

Vagnone, Franklin D; Ryan, Deborah E; Cothren, Olivia B; Sorin, Gretchen. Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. Walnut Creek: Taylor and Francis, 2016. Ebook Library. Web. 31 Mar. 2017.

“Visit.” Heritage Square Museum, 2013, http://heritagesquare.org/visit. Accessed 31 Mar. 2017.

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