When I wrote "Are There Too Many House Museums?" more than a decade ago, I hoped it would begin a serious conversation that would cause people around the country who love these places to reflect on what the best course might be for such sites in their own community. I must confess I have no idea the extent to which that conversation has occurred, or whether it has affected the direction of specific sites.
What I do know is that there are still thousands of historic house museums in the United States, mostly run entirely by dedicated volunteers, which are financially strapped, struggling for visitors, and badly in need of repair. The latter point is critical because it goes to the heart of stewardship, which is what owning a house museum is all about. And the number of such troubled places has to be growing because the competition for charitable contributions in a sluggish economy as well as for entertainment and educational opportunities in a digital age has multiplied exponentially.
So the basic points I tried to make in the original article have taken on even greater urgency if communities are to do right by the places they have already determined to be important. If a private owner can provide essential stewardship to such a place by investing in its physical well-being while maintaining its integrity, that's a huge thing. And historic houses that are returned to residential use—it was, after all, their original purpose—can still be opened to the public occasionally and appreciated by the community.
At the very least, many if not most historic house museums need to rethink and expand their purpose if they hope to remain viable. Aside from places of exceptional historic or architectural distinction, the old "velvet rope" strategy is increasingly deadly and ultimately bound to fail.
Most sites need to find ways to become more relevant to the community by becoming gathering places for purposes other than the site itself. Happily, there are growing numbers of sites moving in this direction. Among the most successful in my view is Sotterley Plantation in Southern Maryland which has made itself not only the focal point for the history of the region but an attractive venue for events of all kinds. Served by a dedicated board and able staff, it is thinking creatively and executing effectively to remain relevant and viable for years to come. Sotterley and other sites like it can serve as models for other house museums if their stories can get around.
During my years at the National Trust there was no greater institutional challenge than addressing this question at our own historic sites. We began the process and it continues today.
It's essential that everyone think outside the box on this critical question if we are serious about the concept of stewardship of historic sites in the 21st century. [End Page 55]
For many people, the terms "historic preservation" and "house museum" are virtually synonymous. While this perception unquestionably represents a narrow and inaccurate view of what preservation today is all about, there can be no question that house museums constitute the bedrock of the American preservation movement.
The saga of the establishment of a typical house museum—often involving a lengthy struggle to rescue the property from the threat of demolition or the neglect of insensitive owners, to restore and furnish it with some degree of authenticity and within the limitations of a tight budget, and finally to administer and interpret it as an icon of historical significance, patriotism, and good taste—has been a staple of preservation history and folklore ever since Ann Pamela Cunningham led the national campaign to save George Washington's Mount Vernon in the 1850s.
The successful Mount Vernon campaign established a pattern that has since been followed by hundreds of preservation groups. As a result of the dedicated labors of these grassroots activists, almost every American community of any size can boast at least one—and quite often more than one—house museum. Many of them serve as shrines to the memory of the Founding Fathers or other notable political and military leaders. Some are primarily showcases...