Closing the Gap: Frequently Asked Questions at the John Brown House Museum

Emily Esten, Class of 2016, UMass History

I interned at the John Brown House Museum (JBH) in Providence, RI this summer. Interning in a small historic house museum allowed me to be a jack-of-all-trades. I opened and closed the museum, followed and guided tours, attended meetings, met with docents, assisted at events, create education packets…essentially, a little bit of everything.

The John Brown House Museum in Providence, RI

The John Brown House Museum in Providence, RI

But the most important task I dealt with on a day-to-day basis was manning the front desk. As the first person patrons would see prior to entering the museum, I handled all their questions. Over the course of the summer, I had a running FAQ list of statements I had heard far too often, such as:

  • Is this John Brown the abolitionist? (No.)
  • Do you allow photography? (Yes, no flash.)
  • Is this museum affiliated with the University? (No.)
  • Where’s the bathroom? (To your left.)
  • What’s the square footage of the house? (8,000)
  • What time do you close? (4 PM)

I also handled questions that probably apply to more places than JBH. I was asked these questions more often than I expected, and didn’t know quite how to answer them. So, with some time, I came up with concrete responses:

Can I take a look around?

“Look around” is patron code for “wander aimlessly.” This usually comes from patrons who walk in off the street, or are looking for something to do while on College Hill. Most historic homes don’t allow this. For one, there is no interpretation. Houses are small enough as it is – to fit in interpretive panels would be difficult. Instead, homes are typically structured in period-style. Unless you have extensive knowledge of late-eighteenth century architecture and culture, you’ll miss out on the nuances of experiences available in the museum.

Second, this home is furnished with artifacts. Our job as museum employees is toa protect these artifacts from damage and decay for future education. If we want these artifacts to be available for long-term use, we’d prefer you tour the house in a manner that ensured the safety of the home and its contents.

You have two options at JBH – a guided tour offered twice a day (four times if it’s Saturday) or a self-guided audio tour. We strongly ask that you choose one of those two options.

Why is this museum important?

This usually follows the abolitionist and University question. The John Brown House (JBH) is a US National Historic Landmark within a National Historic Landmark District. It is architecturally significant as the first mansion of Providence. In addition, its location on Benefit Street places it within one of the best areas in the country to view a collection of 18th- and 19th-century architecture in the United States.

More on this home: John Brown was an American merchant, slave trader, and statesmen. He was instigator of the Gaspee Affair, cofounder of Brown University, founder of the first bank of Rhode Island, and an early industrialist. This home primarily reflects his lifestyle and family in the 1790s. But it can also address Rhode Island history, the American Revolution, the early debate over slavery and the slave trade, American trade with China, and women’s history.

And finally, historic homes like JBH are important reminders of a city’s history and culture. Historic homes are accessible spaces for patrons to discover and analyze history because they are homes. Especially as interpretation of historic homes shifts from decorative arts to social history, patrons are able to understand these venues through learning the day-to-day activities of a person or family and applying it to broader contexts and themes.

Why isn’t it free? Why does it cost so much?

This is a really uncomfortable question for me, an unpaid intern, to answer – I don’t think people appreciate the irony enough. JBH charges a $10 admission fee, with discounts for students, seniors and members. We are a Blue-Star museum, which means active military members can visit the museum for free. We also offer Groupons with discounted admission.

Admission fees are a small but integral part of the funding paths for the Rhode Island Historical Society. This takes care of conservation, maintenance, insurance, employee salaries, event planning, item acquisition, special exhibitions…the list goes on and on, but you get the idea. Your admission fee allows for RIHS to continue its mission to collect, preserve, and share Rhode Island’s history through multiple avenues.

The debate over museum fees is a difficult one, but the truth is this: while many large museums can offer free admission, small institutions – like the one you’ve entered – just can’t. Museums receive money through donations, memberships, endowments, and grants, but funding from admission is crucial for the survival of small and mid-sized museums.

There were a lot of questions I had to field each day, but these were the most troublesome. I’m a regular museum visitor – I do my research, I spend as much as possible in exhibitions, I ask a lot of questions. But that means I’m entirely biased. These questions made me consider how much patrons and visitors don’t know about their museums and institutions they visit, and how it is the duty of the staff and interns like myself to inform them. It’s a larger problem in the museum world of engaging audiences, but for places like JBH, these are questions the staff are constantly negotiating and exchanging. By being able to answer these questions, we’re one step closer to closing the gap between cultural institutions and the public that needs them.

Thank you to Jennifer Wilson and Barbara Barnes at the Rhode Island Historical Society for taking me under their wing, the many docents and tour guides I watched in action, and the countless patrons who inspired this post.

Emily Esten is a senior History and BDIC (Digital Humanities) major.

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