My people are old-house people. Growing up, my parents and relatives all lived in old houses and the majority of our family vacations were pilgrimages to historic house museums. And then I met Franklin Vagnone, co-author of The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, and in one encounter, he completely torched my preconceived notions and refired for me what such a place can provide visitors in terms of an unpredictable and personally memorable experience. Not since Thomas Hoving notoriously made the mummies dance at The Metropolitan Museum of Art has any curatorial voice been so radically compelling. And it’s not just me he’s affected, as he has become an in-demand visiting lecturer and workshop facilitator resurrecting these sleeping beauties from their time machine fabled irrelevance and introducing a myriad of creative approaches to make these buildings meaningful again to their local and international cultural communities, today. MacArthur genius award committee: this is a guy you want to meet!
~Victoria C. Rowan, Creatrix-in-Chief
If you are anything like us, your interest in history and cultural experiences has led you to visit a good many Historic House Museums (HHMs) and historic sites. While some visits turn out to be wonderfully memorable experiences, others fall surprisingly short of expectations, ranging from simply lackluster, uninspiring, and forgettable to frustratingly disappointing.
Frustration is the operative word here, because many of us Historic House nerds know intuitively, on some level, that every site we visit for the first time must have something new and exciting to offer, even if we do not know exactly what it will be. While it is true that we do not all go to HHMs for the same reasons, we probably all share in the hope for some degree of enjoyment, as well as a pleasant surprise. Full of anticipation, we open that gift box full of potential and possibilities, only to discover a pair of socks similar to the ones we were given last year, the same old blasé attitudes, a predictable and controlled House tour walkthrough, and maybe a half- decent gift shop at the end of the line.
Have you ever felt unwelcome at an HHM, like an unexpected, last minute guest at the table? When we have that experience, we seldom return. Like us, some of you may have worked professionally in historic preservation and related fields, and as members of the HHM tribe, are sometimes given special attention and granted broader access when visiting a new site. In and of itself, this premium experience can greatly enhance and personalize the visit, especially when it includes opportunities like a private tour, after-hours access, behind-the-scenes considerations, or a peek into the attic or other off-limits areas. Though more often than not, we visit HHMs as members of the general public and experience the House Museum as any other visitor would. An HHM does not necessarily have to give us special access for us to feel welcomed. But for some Houses, we get the impression that they are doing us a service by simply allowing us to visit in the first place. Perhaps it takes too much effort to make guests feel welcome; besides, making too much fuss over the visitor experience may be overly intimate for them. Right? No? Hmmm… feeling frustrated yet? We are.
Many HHM visitor experiences would benefit from a far greater degree of intimacy and humanity. This critique is just one of several calls to action we make in this book. Historic Houses need to drop their reserve and allow for more chemistry between museums and visitors so a mutual bond can form, making for a much more enjoyable time together. Otherwise, a first meeting can be like the proverbial bad date, listless and un-engaging, with awkward, stilted conversation and an urge to leave early.
Through the years, we have collected both good and bad House Museum experiences. The ones that frustrate us the most, and which we will expound upon in the coming chapters, have been the real motivators for us in writing about the need for change and reimagining the status quo. This frustration has been a gift in the making because it was the genesis for the Anarchist’s Guide.
See more of Franklin Vagnone’s Featured Creative posts on our Ideablog
~~~Franklin Vagnone serves as Executive Director of the Historic House Trust of New York City. As such, he has instituted a community-based perspective toward guiding the institution, creating and encouraging initiatives that unite all 23 houses and promote them as a community resource. Franklin has significant professional experience in preservation, architecture, design, landscape architecture, archive formation & management, and a deep appreciation and understanding of non-profit organizations.
In addition to having a passion for architecture and preservation, Franklin has a robust social media portfolio. His twitter feed (@franklinVagnone) is regularly reposted by major domestic and international preservation organizations and his blog – Twisted Preservation – is presently read in over 60 countries. Frank also paints & sculpts. He currently resides in New York City with his partner John Yeagley and daughter.