Rethinking the “House” in Historic House Museums

I appreciate the premise of the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, but I can’t help but wonder if the focus is misplaced. The book encourages a broad reconstitution of house museums that involves neighborhood integration, diversity, community service, and local “relevance.” While the principles of the book are worthy, (and perhaps carry transformative potential) I am disappointed that the guide seems to accept the basic format of the Historic House Museum.

The Forward to the book notes that historic buildings often become museums automatically. As a result, “questions about the intersection between community needs and the history of the building go unasked: For whom shall we preserve this historic house and how will it serve the local community? Why should members of the community care about this house and how can it serve a vital role to its public.” (12)

Yet over the first few chapters, the authors offer their guidance almost entirely in terms of museum operations: staff outreach, community and business partnerships, visitor marketing, and educational programming. Moreover, they repeat the same vague ideas pushed by the museum visionaries they critique: acknowledging socioeconomic difference, talking to community members, and looking for “unexpected” collaborations. (67) This might lend itself well to house museums in their current form, but I’d say it falls short of the overhaul they propose.

I think a more radical (and arguably, more “anarchist”) model for house museums would carry forth the guide’s critique of use, rather than execution.

One example is the preservation of black schools in the rural south. In order to revive the spirit of black schools that white-led policies forced closed during desegregation, black community members later repurposed the school spaces for contemporary community needs—adult classrooms, Head Start programs, and meeting spaces. In addition to making the schools into historic landmarks, they fit their function to the ongoing struggle of local black communities. These historic schools promote shared ownership, immediate relevance to the daily lives of local people, and direct community participation. They completely erode the proprietary ownership of culture, knowledge, and material objects that the Anarchist’s Guide critiques.

If the authors hope to build a world “that no longer derives knowledge from objects, looks to institutions for answers, or defines reality through materiality,” then asking what a community can do with a house may be better than asking what a community can do with a house museum.  (51)

 

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