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  • When Buildings and Landscapes Are the Collection
  • Tom Mayes (bio) and Katherine Malone-France (bio)

Most historic sites and house museums currently follow museum collections standards that do not generally acknowledge that their buildings and grounds often represent the most important and tangible “objects” in their “collection.” In this context, institutions struggle with balancing their stewardship of the museum objects they hold with their stewardship of the buildings and grounds they are also charged with protecting and interpreting. Recently the National Trust spearheaded an effort to reconcile these long-standing conflicts by modeling a new approach—one that treats the historic structures and landscapes, and the object collections, as being the same type of resource. This approach places the historic buildings and landscapes on a par with the museum collections objects and recognizes the interconnected stewardship and interpretation of all three elements. It also reflects both the preservation mission of the National Trust and the realities of, and best practices in, stewardship of its historic sites.

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At Drayton Hall in South Carolina, it is clear that the near-original Georgian building, with its exquisitely crafted interiors, and the landscape that preserves layers of historical development are a major part of the collection. Although Drayton Hall does steward a collection of furnishings, decorative arts and archives related to the site, no furnishings are on display in the home itself.


When museum objects and the historic real estate are treated as completely separate types of resources, conflicts between the care of objects, on one hand, and the care of the buildings and grounds, on the other, are [End Page 19] inevitable and can be detrimental to the long-term stewardship of all of these resources. For example, while the installation of an HVAC system might be viewed as necessary for climate control to protect the objects, it may have direct and negative consequences for the architectural and material integrity of the house. Similarly, efforts to use the collection to actively interpret the site may endanger the collection. Staff trained in traditional collections management may apply very distinct standards and use different approaches to stewardship than would staff charged with preserving and managing the buildings and grounds.

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At Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, New York, it makes sense to consider the mansion and its contents as one unified “collection” of Gothic-revival architecture and design.

One of the most controversial questions raised by these differences is this: If funds have been raised through deaccessioning and selling collections objects, may these funds be used to care for the buildings and landscapes?

At the Historic Sites of the National Trust, the buildings and landscapes are interpreted to the public as much as, if not more than, the object collections. For example, at Lyndhurst, a National Trust property in Tarrytown, New York, the Gothic-revival mansion, designed by mid-19th-century architect A.J. Davis, is the principal artifact that visitors come to see. Yet the mansion is inseparable from its setting on the Hudson River and the site’s landscape, which exemplifies mid-19th-century design. Inside the mansion, the collection includes furniture designed by A.J. Davis specifically for [End Page 20] the property and objects associated with the families that lived at Lyndhurst over time, but there are also architectural details that are works of art in their own right. All of these different elements are actively interpreted to the public—individually and as a composition—and all are of equal importance in understanding the site.

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A recent case illustrates the arbitrary limitations of the National Trust’s former Collections Management Policy. Stewards of Lyndhurst were prevented from using proceeds from the sale of objects for the conservation of three stained glass windows because the windows are installed in the building. But these funds could be used to conserve a fourth window (right) because, being in storage rather than installed, it was considered to be part of the objects collection. Ironically, this policy favored conservation of the window that was not in use in public view.



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pp. 19-24
Launched on MUSE
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