As Rica and Emily both rightfully point out, there’s nothing truly revolutionary about Vagnone and Simon’s “Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums.” It seems overly simple to chalk up this opinion to a generational divide but, engaging with the community, talking with visitors (not just at them), and changing interpretation and exhibits with the times, are not acts of anarchy. However, they are desperately needed.
I’ve spent hundreds of thousands of hours in historic house museums (HHMs). I know them from both the employee and visitor side, and I’ll tell ya, sometimes historic house museums are truly awful. Reading Vagnone and Simon I was struck by how many of the “rant” sections resonated with me. “A little history is fine”, “We need to make room for today in our historic houses”, and “I worry that we think we’re already providing these great participatory experiences for our guests simply because our tour guides ask questions every now and then” all highlight my frustration with guided tours of historic house museums. All these statements get to the fundamental question HHMs need to ask: “who cares?”
It’s easy to walk around a historic house and show off your knowledge of 18th-century china, a complicated family lineage, and complicated political and philosophical ideas. I know, because I did it. But that doesn’t make for a good tour. Instead, HHMs should, as Vagnone and Simon advocate, train guides to connect personally to visitors to engage with the story of the house. But beyond simply a guided tour, “who cares?” connects to a bigger point: relevance.
I bet when the average person hears “historic house museum” they don’t think about the word “relevance” which shows the untapped potential for the future of HHMs. Many sites worry about being too political or controversial, however, history is inherently disruptive and uncomfortable. President Lincoln’s Cottage’s tagline is “a home for brave ideas”. This DC HHM uses the story of Lincoln and the Civil War to connect to modern fights in exhibits like, “American By Belief” which explores Lincoln’s immigration policies and brings in Ronald Reagan’s 1986 immigration act to further the dialogue. They also support a program called “Students Opposing Slavery” which furthers Lincoln’s legacy by encouraging modern day abolitionists to work to end human trafficking. While not “anarchists” by political standards, Lincoln’s Cottage is paving the way for a new model of the HHM that Vagnone and Simon advocate and more sites should follow the lead, ASAP.