CRM Journal

Book Review

Interpreting Historic House Museums

Edited by Jessica Foy Donnelly. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2002; 326 pp., illustrations; clothbound $70; paperbound $24.95.


The editor of a book of essays faces a great challenge: bringing together many contributions into one coherent volume. The difficulty of the task is increased when the contributions were originally presentations at a conference. The leap from spoken to written word can be dramatic. The coherence of Interpreting Historic House Museums is all the more impressive considering that the papers were presented at separate conferences held at the McFaddin-Ward House in Beaumont, Texas, in 1995 and 1998.

The variety of the essays is one of the strengths of this volume. The 14 essays range from the historical to the managerial and to hands-on interpretation, but its two universal themes are the necessity of planning and research. Jessica Foy Donnelly, curator of collections at the McFaddin-Ward House for 12 years, has shown herself to be highly skilled at editing such collections. Interpreting Historic House Museums is the third volume to emerge from a series of symposia at the McFaddin-Ward House. American Home Life, 1880-1930: A Social History of Spaces and Services, was co-edited with Thomas Schlereth, and The Arts and the American Home, 1890-1930, was co-edited with Karal Ann Marling. Donnelly edits and introduces the present volume, and does so very capably.

Patrick H. Butler III, a trustee of the Historic Alexandria Foundation and an all-around museum hand, provides a broad context for the essays that follow. He begins the collection with an essay considering the place of the house museum within the museum community. He first recounts the history of the historic house museum, interweaving it with the history of the historic preservation movement. Butler then considers in greater detail issues facing present and future historic house museums, suggesting that museums can continue to grow and improve while reminding us that pinched financial times raise the question of sustainability as never before.

Several of the essays deal with interpretation planning. Barbara Abramoff Levy, who has worked as director of education and interpretation at the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, stresses the importance of advance planning, including analysis of the site, the selection of the planning committee, and how the work should be scheduled. She emphasizes the ongoing nature of research at historic house museums, acknowledging that interpretive work is a continuous process. "In some ways," she notes, "the most difficult aspect of interpretation planning is choosing what not to interpret."

Sandra Mackenzie Lloyd, who has co-authored with Levy a book on developing tours, shows how such ideas can be applied in her essay "Creating Memorable Visits." Lloyd discusses the planning process at Cliveden, a National Trust property in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, where she served as curator of education. She describes the interpretation when the house first opened to the public in 1976, which emphasized the great Georgian house, the Battle of Germantown with which it was associated, and the house's collection of decorative arts. Lloyd then explains the process for developing new themes, which included a historic structure report and a National Endowment for the Humanities planning grant. One of the great strengths of Lloyd's essay is her discussion of the roads not taken and why they were not chosen.

Rex M. Ellis, vice president for the historic area at Colonial Williamsburg, discusses how curators can bring African-American history and culture into their interpretation. He speaks with authority, having been behind "The Other Half Tour," Williamsburg's first initiative to interpret the lives of the enslaved population. He emphasizes the importance of interpreters who are armed with "the best information and interpreting skills possible" and of outreach programs such as Monticello's program to compile oral histories from the descendants of those who were enslaved on Thomas Jefferson's estate. Ellis insists that museums must proactively plan for controversy and, "instead of shying away from controversy…museums should embrace it for the lessons it can teach." At the same time, interpreters should address universal topics and good stories to which all visitors can relate. In the end, though, the most important lesson for Ellis is recognizing that the number of smiling faces leaving the site cannot be the measure of a historic house's success. Sometimes history is disturbing, and a visitor who is not disturbed in some way clearly has not gotten the message.

Perhaps the most ambitious essay in the volume is by Debra A. Reid, who teaches history at Eastern Illinois University. "Making Gender Matter" is an extended analysis of whether the traditional concept of women as rulers of "the domestic sphere" might actually minimize the complexity of women's relations with the world beyond the home. This question is of considerable import for historic house museums. Reid thoroughly assays academic writing on the subject, but also discusses strategies at many historic sites, including Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts and Conner Prairie in Indiana. She explores strategies for incorporating women in sites generally seen as dominated by male historical figures, such as military sites like Fort Ticonderoga in New York.

Catherine Howett's essay meditates on the necessity of interpreting the landscape setting of historic houses, and on the difficulty of such interpretation. Howett makes a case for the landscape as an essential primary source, expressive of the values of those who shaped it. Howett cautions that no one historic period's design should be privileged to the point that it compromises the integrity of significant design features from other eras. She also notes that criticism of the historic preservation movement in general and Colonial Williamsburg in particular has led to a sort of "Williamsburg paranoia," a demand for rock-solid evidence for landscape restorations, lest the landscape architect be accused of indulging in romantic fantasy.

Nancy E. Villa Bryk, curator of domestic life at the Henry Ford (previously known as the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village) outside of Detroit, Michigan, explains how a curator can infuse a historic house with characters and activity. Bryk acknowledges that curators run up against a dearth of documentary evidence, and she takes on the challenge of explaining not simply how to create a furnishings plan, but how that plan must be intimately connected to the interpretive schema. Bryk proposes that a "moment-in-time installation" can often meet this need, using as examples the historic houses at Greenfield Village, most notably the New Haven, Connecticut, household of the lexicographer Noah Webster.

Even the very best historic house installation is useless if visitors cannot get through the door. Valerie Coons McAllister, who has worked at Old Sturbridge Village, Winterthur, and Colonial Williamsburg, tackles the relationship between accessibility and historic preservation. She provides a brisk summary of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and explains that its section on historic buildings was based on the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act. McAllister then discusses several techniques used at Old Sturbridge Village, including new road surface treatments that improve wheelchair accessibility in bad weather, and recounts the rationale behind using a wooden ramp at the Salem Towne House and an earthen incline at the Asa Knight Store. Other issues, such as access to second-floor spaces, are not so easily resolved, but McAllister offers a number of ideas.

Another veteran of Old Sturbridge Village, Margaret Piatt, discusses how to engage visitors through effective communication. Her essay deftly blends autobiographical stories with communication theory. She recounts her adventures as "a tour guide prodigy"—giving her first tour at age five—and her three summers as a teenage tour guide. Piatt discusses how to improve vocal skills, use gestures, and even ways to relax tense tour guides, before providing a succinct eight-point checklist on how to organize the content of a tour.

The three final essays directly address educational programs that take full advantage of research and planning. Jamie Creedle, director of museum education at Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens in Akron, Ohio, provides a catalogue of "programs that work" with a refreshingly wide variety of locales and budgetary ranges. Meggett B. Lavin, retired curator of education and research for Drayton Hall near Charleston, South Carolina, discusses seven tools that any historic house should have in its "tool kit for interpreters." And Patricia Kahle, director of Shadows-on-the-Teche in New Iberia, Louisiana, documents the evolution of educational programming at Shadows, including programs on the everyday life of a 19th-century child, on architecture, and on local African-American history using oral history research.

Authors of such essays often achieve little more than reporting on how things are done at their museum. Happily, the contributors to this volume have such a broad frame of reference and such a wealth of experience that the discussion is never provincial or prosaic. This volume is profitable reading for museum administrators, curators, educators, interpreters, and students who hope to work in a historic house museum.

Kenneth Hafertepe
Baylor University