- Innovation at National Trust Historic Sites
Even before Richard Moe’s groundbreaking essay “Are there too many house museums?” historic sites stewards and preservation professionals had begun questioning the relevance, role and long-term sustainability of historic sites. By 2012 exploring that question became an imperative, and the National Trust embarked on an ambitious program, supported with a multiyear Innovation Lab for Museums grant from EmcArts, to incubate new approaches at its own sites. The goal was to find ways to move from the traditional house museum model (static objects, contrived period rooms, guided tours) to a visitor experience that better informs, illuminates and inspires. As conceived, the re-imagined historic house museum would engage the senses beyond sight to include sound, smell, touch, taste and even sentiment. It would welcome user-generated content and foster new collaborations. It would use architecture, collections and landscapes to tell a broader range of stories that reflect the diversity of American history. It would serve as a living laboratory for conservation, creativity and scholarship. It would seek to address tensions and difficult issues based in the realities of its past. It would be economically sustainable.
The Innovation Lab project provided the platform for exploring and launching this new approach. The grant funded several key activities including joint brainstorming sessions and diverse “prototype” projects conducted by individual National Trust sites. Crucially, it enabled a core team to meet to develop a charter with specific principles that will guide future work:
▐ Historic sites are managed adaptively to be financially sustainable.
▐ Historic sites listen to and respond to their communities.
▐ Historic sites are dynamic, relevant and evolving.
▐ Historic sites foster an understanding and appreciation of history and culture that is critical, layered and sensory. [End Page 25]
▐ Historic sites serve as spaces for reflection, conversation and as a nexus for storytelling.
▐ Historic sites are inclusive and reveal the full breadth, depth, and often marginalized scope of American history.
But what does innovation really look like? Following are several examples that provide evidence of National Trust Historic Sites’ growing “innovation muscles.”
EXPERIMENTAL EXHIBITION AT CHESTERWOOD
It’s always a challenge for a historic house museum to stay fresh and relevant for visitors. At Chesterwood, the country home, studio and gardens of renowned sculptor Daniel Chester French, located in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the Innovation Lab grant supported creative exhibit installations that added new layers of information and insight. These were produced by artist Rebecca Keller, who has created exhibit installations at historic sites around the world. Her work explores the intersection between the arts and the layers of stories embedded in those sites—all to “do history better” and to engage and connect with visitors in unexpected but important ways.
Beyond conducting historical research about French and his home, Keller employed the eye of an artist and poet to look for themes and metaphors suggested by the facts and the setting. Some of the unifying themes and tropes in Keller’s installations are French’s connection to notable figures in American arts and letters; images of veiling and unveiling in French’s art; his use of allegory; flight; notions of nature as a path to the sublime; and his sculptural methods as both metaphor and artistic process. Supplementing the existing room displays, Keller expressed these themes by introducing additional objects and graphics, such as “calling cards” of significant people who associated with French and stacks of books showing his diverse interests; a fabric-art display of wings; quotations in French’s handwriting on the topics of nature, beauty, and transcendentalism; and work-in-progress sketches and sculptural pieces. The installation project was well received by the public and local media, inviting the possibility of more creative efforts to interpret other themes at the house. [End Page 26]
CULTURAL PROGRAMMING AT THE PHILIP JOHNSON GLASS HOUSE
With exterior walls composed almost entirely of glass, the Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, is one of the most unusual living spaces visitors may ever see. But can the creativity of the past be connected to that of the present and future? Along with continuing to provide tours of this unique property, the stewards of this National Trust...