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
To justify their significance, HHMs provide visitors with a meaningless citation of facts and details, especially relative to what they believe are important names, dates and significant genealogies. But to really distinguish themselves, historic sites typically have to frame their importance relative to a particular time and jurisdiction. Doing so allows them to compete in a battle of the superlatives, where they can truthfully claim to be the equivalent of the oldest pink house in the most southern neighborhood of the city.
While it might have once been adequate to simply claim that “George Washington slept here,” this official messaging now feels insignificant and affected. Through skilled wordsmithing, we have seen an HHM’s claim to fame to be that it was the first house to have indoor plumbing in the area, the first house to use nails, the biggest, tallest, or heaviest house, the house with the most glazed windows, or even the house with the best moldings in the southeastern part of their state. Other HHMs describe themselves as the only museum that exhibits male/female/animal/children/servant life during a particular year, in a particular place. The best superlative is if the house is the “last” of its kind. The possibilities for distinguishing HHMs are seemingly endless, and ultimately eye rolling. All that these fabrications do is minimize perceived value into small sound-bites of useless information. They hurt engagement rather than engender appreciation.
Consider a new paradigm to celebrate everyday practices rather than citing self-defined, monumental events. Be willing to accept that your HHM is important simply because it was built, lived in, and loved by people who were ill-defined, messy, complex, and far from perfect. We suggest that it is the mundane details of everyday living that should define an HHM, rather than the carefully worded list of invented superlatives.
Do not think of other HHMs as competitors, but rather as members of an extended family who work well together. Consider hiring outside marketing consultants to identify commonalities in a group of properties rather than each House’s hook. Ask community members for their perspectives. Approach the task with humor. Try to realize that the lack of specialized messaging is not a sign of weakness or poor planning. Recognize that there is nothing wrong, and perhaps even something quite wonderful, about just being a cool house with an interesting history.
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.