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  • Stepping into the Future at Historic Sites
  • Stephanie Meeks (bio)

Today we take house museums for granted. But it wasn’t always this way. When Ann Pamela Cunningham and her indomitable Ladies’ Association rescued Mount Vernon 150 years ago, they were true innovators.

Generations have followed their model, and we now have some 15,000 historic house museums nationwide—more than three for every county in the country if they were evenly distributed. These places include some remarkable examples of success—Mount Vernon, for instance, remains a leader and innovator—and they represent a powerful legacy for future generations.

Yet underneath this success, there is a difficult truth: House museums on the whole, including some of the National Trust’s own historic sites, are in tough financial straits.

We can point to a variety of culprits, from shrinking public cultural budgets to increased competition for visitors. But the bottom line is that the world has changed dramatically since the mid-20th century, when many of these house museums were created. These places, and the lessons they teach us, are as relevant as ever, but the traditional velvet ropes and timed tours have lost their luster for a generation with infinite entertainment possibilities at its fingertips.

To save these places, we must be willing to challenge our own ideas of preservation and consider new models. Toward that end, the National Trust sponsored a leadership forum at Kykuit, a National Trust Historic Site in New York State, several years ago, and in 2012 we secured a grant from the Innovation Lab for Museums to support prototyping at our own network of historic sites.

Promising work is already underway. In some cases, a fresh approach to interpretation, one that underscores a site’s relevance to today’s audiences, can make the difference. For instance, President Lincoln’s Cottage, a site with a reputation for innovation, attracted new audiences—and won two awards—with an exhibit that makes the connection between slavery and human trafficking in modern times. [End Page 3]

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A new vision for Cooper-molera in monterey, California, includes installing restaurants, repurposing the barns as event space, and reopening long-closed gates to better allow the public to enjoy the gardens and orchards.

At other sites, more dramatic reinvention will be required. We may need to consider re-purposing these museums as community centers or commercial properties, or returning them to private residences. Woodlawn Plantation in Virginia provides one example of how that model could work. The property has been managed as a house museum for 50 years, but has a long history of pioneering experimental agriculture. The National Trust has partnered with the Arcadia Center for sustainable Food and Agriculture to reinvigo-rate the site’s connection to experimental agriculture and connect it with the current locavore movement.

Since 2010 Arcadia has farmed about three acres at the site, where the growing, harvesting, and even cooking of the vegetables, honey, and eggs that are produced there are used in on-site school programming. We are now looking to expand this partnership to encompass the entire 126 acres, moving toward a farm-to-table destination focused on the visitor experience, incorporating gardens, and expanded educational offerings.

And, at Cooper-Molera Adobe in Monterey, California, a proposal to bring commercial uses to the property aims to preserve the adobe, make it widely accessible, and help revitalize downtown Monterey, while ensuring the property’s long-term financial sustainability and [End Page 4] stewardship. A house museum for only 30 years of its nearly 190-year history, Cooper-Molera has seen many uses over its life, including as a general merchandise store, tavern, beauty shops, dance studio, and offices.

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Woodlawn Plantation in Alexandria, Virginia, has a long history of pioneering experimental agriculture. It is continuing that tradition today thanks to an innovative partnership with the Arcadia Center for sustainable Food and Agriculture.

The National Trust is exploring a long-term lease arrangement with a preservation-sensitive developer to re-imagine the space. We envision the installation of restaurants, repurposing the barns as event space, reopening long-closed gates to better allow...


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