Vagnone’s “Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums” might not be as revolutionary as the title (as many of us have noted), but it is still practical, much needed advice. As Amelia noted, many historic house museums are behind the curve of accessibility and relating to visitors, so a more middle-of-the-road approach to programming and visitor relations might work best.
Sometimes, though, museums take a more drastic, new approach to programming. Reading Vagnone and Simon, I was reminded of the historic house museum – Duke Farms – that demolished its historic home. Well, the property was really preserved for the landscape and because it was owned by the tobacco money heiress Doris Duke, but it also included a 1893 historic structure that was torn down just last year. Doris Duke created foundations for her other homes based on their architecture, but Duke Farms’ was meant to preserve the farm and property. Over time, the mission evolved to “inspire visitors to become informed stewards of the land” and inspire “people to transform their approach to conservation” (About Duke Farms 1).
The historic home was never designed as an architectural beauty – it was only meant as a temporary home while the family waited for a nicer house to be be built (which never was). Demolishing the house created controversy in the New Jersey community, but also perfectly followed Simon’s advice on relevancy. The home did not hold any particular historic value, and demolishing it allowed Duke Farms to further realize its mission of protecting the landscape and providing recreation space for visitors.
Image Source: http://www.nj.com/somerset/index.ssf/2016/03/demolition_of_doris_duke_mansion_has_begun.html
“What makes a museum visitor experience high-quality and personally engaging is that it fully satisfies the visitor’s entering identity-related museum motivations. As museum researcher Zahava Doering wrote: ‘Rather than communicating new information, the primary impact of visiting a museum exhibition is to confirm, reinforce, and extend the visitor’s existing beliefs.” (Falk 153)
“When I looked into the research on relevance, I discovered that experts define relevance as more than a link. In the words of cognitive scientists Deidre Wilson and Dan Sperber, relevance ‘yields positive cognitive effect.’ Something is relevant if it gives you new information, if it adds meaning to your life, if it makes a difference to you. It’s not enough for something to be familiar or connected to something you already know. Relevance leads you somewhere. It brings new value to the table.” (Simon 29)
In reading Falk and Simon, I was struck by these two quotes and what they imply about visitor experience as well as the role of research experts in understanding these experiences. Falk and Doering seem to be suggesting the relative stability of visitors’ relationships to exhibits (confirm, reinforce), although the idea of “extend[ing]” existing beliefs implies some change. Simon, on the other hand, is more explicit about the idea of newness—relevance means adding something, making a difference.
I’m interested in museum research’s relationship to stability and change—how we can study the effect of a museum visit without implying that it needs to alter a visitor’s self-perception? Research is often thought of as a time consuming process and one that needs to hold certain variables constant, but if relevance implies newness and difference, then what might relevant research look like?