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
HHMs (Historic House Museums) ignore their neighbors. House staff make very little effort to learn about local residents or businesses or discover their interests. Though living in close proximity, neighbors are rarely considered in a comprehensive strategy to expand the audience beyond the established constituency of HHM enthusiasts. We often hear that neighbors who walk or drive by HHMs on a regular basis never knew they are open to the public, never knew they are museums, and never feel invited.
More often than not, HHMs target tourists who live far from the Museums in the marketing and communication efforts for the House, believing that these visitors would sustain their Houses’ operations. That has proven not to be the case at almost all Historic Houses, except for a small handful of the most famous sites. Although each site has a unique combination of issues, even at some of those well-known sites, like Historic Williamsburg, attendance figures are dropping. We have worked with Historic House sites that struggled to pay for rack cards at hotels, train stations, and airports, all the while making no effort to advertise to their own neighbors.
Consider the neighborhood surrounding your HHM as a key to your future sustainability. Procure publically accessible data to get to know your neighbors. Include as much and varied information as you can find (census, real estate, ethnicity, immigration, language, household composition and size data). Search out deeply imbedded data, most of which are to be found easily online with a bit of time and concentration. Make sure that you consider local, state, and federal council districts in your study.
This effort of completing your homework is only the first step in a serious attempt to find and engage the uninterested. Once you understand whom you are surrounded by and whom your potential audiences can be, you can begin to discuss the best methodology of communicating a more strategically targeted message.
Consider this type of research as essential to the successful operation and management of the House Museum. It is not marginal to the perceived primary effort—the teaching of your historic narrative. In fact, you can become better communicators of your historic narrative if you expand the audiences with whom you attempt to share your story.
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.