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
Historic properties that become HHMs are rarely found perfectly intact, although they are often presented as if they were, because the process of conservation is hidden. We often find that HHM boards and staff feel the pressure to have every element in the House perfectly restored before a guest experiences the room or artifacts in it. Data collected from the Anarchist Guide “Imagination, Energy, and Excitement Graphs” clearly indicates that the most compelling experiences in HHMs occur in the un-restored, un-curated spaces.
Most HHMs are shaped by the presumption that the best-preserved HHMs are the ones that do not show the work that has been done on them. We painstakingly try to keep the public from learning how hard it is to keep the House looking so good. Like the Wizard of Oz, we stand behind the curtain and feverishly operate and restore our HHMs, hoping no one will see all of the efforts and money involved to keep them so pristine. It almost seems as if there is a code of silence regarding the actual steps taken to achieve a perfect restoration, or the painful levels of minutiae that are undertaken to keep an HHM in pristine condition. Instead, most HHMs present a nostalgic version of what it might have been like in the home at a particular point in history, while simultaneously hiding the actual conservation process that was employed to create the myth. It is a pervasive attitude that seems to suggest that if the act of preservation were revealed to guests, that knowledge would detract from the educational mission of the HHM as shared through the narrative conveyed during their visit.
Realize that there is an authenticity in acknowledging the age of your HHM. Remember that guests like to see things unrestored or still being worked on. Realize that the renovation work that is usually hidden from sight can become the center of public engagement endeavors.
Acknowledge that conservation is an ongoing process and not something that is completed before the HHM’s opening. Reveal conservation efforts as a process, where both decay and restoration are ongoing parts of a cycle. Do not hide the messiness or conjectural quality of these efforts, as they can expand the narrative of the HHM. Make preservation efforts public, common, and obvious. Invite the public to participate in them. Think of ways to overlap the process of conservation with other established programs.
Integrate the process of preservation as part of the House’s narrative.
Consider ways in which even the smallest conservation project can be made into a learning experience. With the use of social media and the ease of making videos, every stage of the process can be documented and made accessible to the public. We suggest sharing just about everything, even pictures of rotten sill plates.
You’ve read about Historic House Museums. Now visualize them with this touching video about “Decay and Death in Preservation”:
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.