Reflections of a Newly Awakened Museum Anarchist

Sara Patton, MA Candidate, Umass History

Among museum and academic public historians, the idea that historic house museums (HHMs) are a dying breed has become accepted almost without question. Yet, while often describing or delighting in their demise, few public historians have considered what might be the cause of their decline, and how this large group of admittedly small museums might be saved. In this context, Frank Vagnone and Deborah Ryan’s work, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums explodes the debate. For the first time, Vagnone and Ryan offer provocative ideas—perhaps even solutions—for small historic house museums experiencing declining visitation. Recently through the combined efforts of the UMass Art History and Public History programs, Frank Vagnone brought his ideas to campus through the Mark Roskill Symposium, including a visit to our foundation seminar Introduction to Public History, a public talk, and panel discussion.

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Vagnone’s talk outlined ways in which HHMs fail, and then provided his views on how they can do better. For Vagnone, HHMs fail to communicate effectively online or in person, are disengaged with their communities, and are just plain “boring.” The presentation presented several successful programs, not necessarily museum based, that showed good communication and community engagement; examples included the “Funeral for a Home,” a year-long celebration and reflection on the life of a house (not a museum) slated for demolition, and the conversion of a HHM’s formal garden to a farm stand that offers teens employment and grants the neighborhood access to fresh produce. Engagement and feedback—both positive and negative—is critical, and part of why Vagnone first created the “Museum Anarchist Tag.” Each tag asks the holder to place the tag when they experienced or saw something they did or did not like, and space to respond to the question, “If I ran this place, I would…” By collecting and mapping where these feedback tags are dropped, Vagnone has created some of the first research into how visitors respond to specific aspects of a museum in the same space those reactions occur, rather than on a detached comment board outside of exhibit space.

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Most intriguing is Vagnone’s current exploration into how we live in our homes. The talk highlighted several projects, including one-minute videos participants made to reveal how they live, and current research suggesting how many distinct activities (brushing teeth, cooking dinner, reading the mail) occur within a period of time in a house. When combined with the size of the space, these numbers yield what Vagnone terms “square feet per activity.” Therefore, Vagnone postulates, to engage visitors in a historic house museum, a tour should also include a distinct activity at specific square foot intervals that reflect our usage of space. In these ways, Vagnone suggests that all of us already possess some connection to historic house museums because we all have the experience of living in a house. The challenge for museums is to translate this literal “lived experience” into their program in dynamic ways to spark visitor engagement and curiosity into how others live and reflect on how they themselves live today.

The panel discussion following the talk had excellent potential, as it brought together leaders of a variety of successful historic house museums to respond to the talk. Panelists included Nina Zannieri, Executive Director of the Paul Revere Memorial Association, best known for the Paul Revere House in Boston; Jane Weld, Executive Director of the Emily Dickenson Museum; and Anne Lanning, Vice President for Museum Affairs and Barbara Mathews, Public Historian, both of Historic Deerfield. Moderator Tim Rohan, Associate Professor of the History of Architecture, opened the panel by asking panelists about the role of objects in their museums, launching a series of responses about how each institution balances object and narrative and programs aimed at “everyone” vs programing for targeted audiences. While each panelist provided thoughtful comments on these topics, a real weakness was the disinclination of the panelists to respond to each other’s ideas in a substantive way, missing the opportunity to see how each of these very different museums found points of similarity or divergence.

One of the most engaging portions of the discussion came when Nina Zannieri and Frank Vagnone began a spirited debate about the role of programing for specific groups, such as programs targeted to LGBT or black audiences. For Zannieri, regardless of our personal identity, we all connect to big “universal” ideas like death, love, loss, and hope. Therefore, by making good use of universals, all programming will connect well with individuals regardless of their background. Zannieri cited several examples of this within her museum. Vagnone’s response acknowledged the importance of universals, but also offered a more nuanced consideration. Certainly, he argued, universals connect with a wide range of people—but what if you could forge even stronger connections if you were to offer programs about gays or enslaved peoples (to think of but two examples) at your site? Such a suggestion argues that by investing in the specific interests and identities of one visitor group, a museum shows investment in a wider range of its community, which could generate increased support for a museum’s presence and mission.

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As the panel concluded, the lack of a one-size-fits-all solution for historic house museums was evident in the examples of successful programs each of these museums presented and in their views for how their institution can continue to be successful. Vagnone called upon attendees, particularly students, to embrace the idea that historic house museums can change, and (noting that the panel consisted of older, white individuals) he observed that today’s students will eventually be the individuals filling those roles—what future for Historic House Museums to we want to see? Rather than ancient dwellings near to their last breath, this symposium left attendees with a strong sense that not only do historic house museums have a future, but that it could be an exciting one.

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