REFIRING: Franklin Vagnone, “Learn By Doing” (4/6)

FranklinVagnone2-01My 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




Taken at Grounds for Sculpture in Trenton, NJ © Franklin Vagnone

Information about HHMs (Historic House Museum) is authoritatively but passively conveyed, usually through docent led tours that are often more educational than interesting. This is not to say that there are not amazing docents doing memorable tours. There are. But the vast majority of docents are neither trained educators nor performers, and sometimes they lack the experience to bring factual information to life. Regardless of how practiced their monologue is, the very nature of only talking to or with guests limits the visitor experience.

We believe that guests want to physically experience the history of the House, not just hear about it. We have visited many HHMs where we have been told about the music that played on the piano forte in the parlor, but we have never heard one being played. We have seen bells hanging on walls and been told that ringing one would call a servant, but we have never been allowed to ring one. And we have seen a lot of rooms, usually from the hallway, and been told how they were used, but we were rarely invited to enter.

This is an especially unfortunate practice given that research into tactile learning suggests physical experience is beneficial across the age spectrum.

Yet, most HHMs still depend on an outdated, hands-off model that is the least effective strategy for engaging guests regardless of what the associated literature and anecdotal evidence suggests. Some museums, however, have recently adopted a learn-by-doing philosophy, like at the National Building Museum’s Play Work Build exhibit that chronicles the history of active play by inviting visitors to partake in a number of games and activities.

[Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, Pages 112-113, co-written by Deborah Ryan with a foreword by Gretchen Sorin]


Rethink docent-led tours and offer visitors the chance to learn by doing.

Experiment with innovation and collaboration. Know that visitors seek to make a personal connection with the people and spirit of earlier times. Allow your guests to spend time in the house in a manner that replicates the lives of earlier occupants, but doesn’t ask them to pretend. Our research is suggesting that in order for visitors to feel a part of the Historic House, they must move through it as if they were on a typical path. The behavior and movements elicited from guests will determine the experience outcome. Remember that guests would like the ability to touch, experiment, and learn about the House and its history through immersive tactile interaction.

What prevents HHMs from this type of experimentation is the concern over preservation of the collection. Perhaps seeing the entire HHM system as an integrated model would allow for malleability of function and use. Obviously, guests cannot be allowed to manhandle a priceless object, but usable artifacts could be placed in each room that could be sat on, opened, and engaged. The Kykuit II Summit suggested reevaluating traditional and seemingly immutable positions held about collection care, preservation, and education practices, stating, “Responsible site stewardship achieves a balance between the needs of the buildings, landscapes and collections, and the visiting public.” A positive guest experience requires a holistic approach to all of these factors.

[Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, Page 115, co-written by Deborah Ryan with a foreword by Gretchen Sorin]

See more of Franklin Vagnone’s Featured Creative posts on our Ideablog

FDV~~~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.

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