On Saturday January 10th, Frank Vagnone, Executive Director of the Historic House Trust of New York City, held a full house including staff and board members from Clermont, The Thomas Cole National Historic Site, the Columbia County Historical Society and the Rennselaer County Historical Society in his thrall as he presented his iconic talk, “The Anarchists Guide to Historic House Museums”.His engaging, sometimes provocative look at the current crisis facing historic house museums today, exploration of ways to engage contemporary audiences, connect with surrounding communities, and address the need to move house museums away from their traditional focus, was met enthusiasm by many in the audience. The research presented brought new insights regarding the different types of contemporary visitor, and how the standard experience compares and contrasts with the familiar patterns of movement and actions within a domestic space.
After the talk Mr. Vagnone led a group through the mansion, which morphed into an impromptu “Anarchists Workshop”. Participants were invited to explore the mansion on their own without the traditional restrictions placed on house museum visitors, and encouraged to record their reactions to what they liked, didn’t like, or general reflections on tags that were provided.An initial tentativeness on the part of this group of professionals and board members (with decades of experience in preservation and house museums) to feel at ease and immerse themselves, without a list of “don’ts”, spoke volumes to the ingrained “Keep a Respectful Distance” , and “Don’t Touch” culture we have been trained in. With encouragement however, participants soon overcame their hesitation, and excitedly explored the museum from basement to attic, including offices and storage facilities.At the end of the afternoon the group convened in the library, enjoying the space as a room as opposed to a museum, (sitting on the window seats and sturdier pieces of furniture in the warm afternoon sun), and engaged in a spirited conversation about the insights gained, as well as how these could be potentially translated into better visitor experiences.While those who came hoping for a definitive solution for the crisis facing house museums today might have been disappointed, that wasn’t the point. It was stressed that there is no one simple universal solution, and that not all of the ideas presented can necessarily or even practically be adopted by every institution in their entirety in all instances. What was very clear however was that by listening to our communities, engaging audiences in a more active way, and adopting other principles presented on some scale, these historic treasures can become more appreciated and popular. The very notion that Mr. Vagnone’s approach, in many instances rooted in simple common sense, has been labeled “Anarchist”, suggests how far many house museums will have to go to get there.