Blog Post

Are Historic Houses Circling the Drain?

Gretchen Sullivan Sorin

Everybody is from someplace and that place evokes memories, perhaps good, perhaps bad, but often visceral. Places trigger thoughts of childhood and places mark the events in our lives—the place the family vacationed each summer, the place we were married—the place we went to school or played as children. The evocative nature of place makes historic house museums potentially the most accessible and resonant museums to engage the general public in discussions about American history—Warts and All.  “Sometimes spatial history can fill the silences in archives,” Dolores Hayden reminded us during this session on History, Preservation and Public Reckoning. The architecture, landscapes, and material culture of house museums has much to offer historians as clues to unlocking the past about people who have traditionally not been a part of the written record, by helping us to understand domestic life, women, African Americans, workers and other marginalized groups. 


Unfortunately, house museums that could fill in the blanks have been afraid to tackle tough issues like slavery for several reasons.  Some of the sites’ staffs fear the reactions of visitors.  Others have convinced themselves that mentions of slavery will sully the good names of the wealthy families who owned the plantations.  Still others don’t want to talk about such disturbing topics choosing a Disneyland approach that focuses on gracious living, elegant rooms and the beautiful carvings on mahogany furniture. Unfortunately, by refusing to acknowledge the difficult aspects of life at our historic sites, these museums cannot fulfill a higher purpose—to provide places for dialogue and discussion—essential components of a strong democracy.   


The integration of slavery into the many historic houses across the country is so important that several books have been written to help museum professionals navigate the potential minefields.[1] But, museum work is both history work and politics. Somerset Place is a case in point. Dorothy Redford introduced the process of “moving an historic site to the point that it has historical legitimacy.” When she started at Somerset Plantation the pubic tour was what she called, the standard industry-wide, “He” tour.  “He built the house.  He worked the farm.” The enslaved Africans who lived and worked and made the plantation hum were invisible.  Of course, copious research constituted the first step in invigorating and legitimizing the interpretation.  But concurrently, a campaign to gain the support and even the enthusiasm of local residents, previous supporters of the plantation, other stakeholders, as well as local government officials and state politicians constituted a process of building civic capacity and support, creating excitement and demonstrating how the new approach would benefit the site and its constituents both intellectually and financially.  These projects are not only exercises in creating historical accuracy, but require carefully planned and executed public relations campaigns and cultural tourism programs. 


The essential political process of building civic capacity to bring about change and the development of enthusiasm for the story take time, lots of time.  The goal of such a campaign to reinforce the idea that a nuanced, accurate and complete story humanizes every person who lived on the site, demonstrates our shared American story, and is so much more interesting than the usual “He” tour.


Gradually and concurrently, Redford secured the funds to rebuild the plantation adding the buildings, long since demolished, and creating compelling personal stories to fill them.  The physical presence of slavery is key to insuring that the plantation’s interpretation doesn’t change with changing staff.  Sucky Davis’ House and the Plantation Hospital, for example, give the site a palpable sense of authenticity that plantations that have razed slave quarters cannot attain. 


As a category, historic house museums, more than 15,000 strong across the country, are not doing well.  Visitation is dropping like a rock.  The usual paradigm, a stagnant building of period rooms in which a docent talks at you for a seemingly endless hour giving a this-is-a that-is-a tour.  This is George Washington’s chair. That is a French clock. Such tours offer no insight into the lives of people in the past or a way to use those past experiences to inform our understanding of the present. Historic houses are not attracting visitors and many are downright boring.  We need to try new things, to experiment. We need a closer relationship between scholars and public historians to think through strategies and to share research. Frank Agnon’s book, The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums proposes a new approach of participatory engagement with real insights into habitation.  Some of his ideas are off-the-wall, but many offer new approaches and should spark necessary new ideas.


[1] See in particular, Kristin Gallas and James DeWolf Perry, Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites and Slavery and public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory by James Oliver Horton and Lois Horton, Eds. 


SESSION 7: History, Preservation, and Public Reckoning in Museums