Tag Archives: historic preservation

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.

Statues, Historic Preservation, & Climate Change

Doss’ discussion of statue mania seems to be linked to the larger historic preservation of the early twentieth century. Both movements were spurred by  middle and upper class anxieties about national unity because of “the rapid advance of modernism, immigration, and mass culture” (Doss 27). Historic preservation laws are aimed at saving (or recreating) certain places of American life, much as statues and memorials are meant to venerate certain people. Both create a landscape of memory for the public and each of us to interact with – or not.

Since “concepts of nationalism and national identity are cultural constructions,” and each generation has a new view on how the previous generation saved the cultural landscape, what do we do with statues, structures, and memorials that are mostly forgotten (Doss 53)? As cultural workers, do we have a responsibility to repurpose these places into the current mood of experience-based places of memory?

Alternatively, how do we save places of continued meaning from current preservation challenges? With this, I am thinking particularly of how climate change will impact historic structures, statues, and memorials. Without any action, many landscapes of memory will be lost, but saving everything would be costly and would alter the historic integrity of the structures. For my job focused on cultural heritage and climate change, my colleague and I investigated this topic here. From our research, we found that US preservation law has not quite caught up to


climate change impacts, but that states and communties are beginning to take action. This has the benefit of allowing more localized groups to make decisions on which places of memory are important to them, but also means that many communties have not formed a reaction.

Home in Galveston, TX being elevated after relocation due to rising sea levels.

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