I recently read and enjoyed Frank Vagnone and Deborah Ryan’s new book, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. Despite its rather alarming name, it is actually full of what I consider good ideas for historic house museums (as well as other small cultural institutions). It focuses on improving the visitor experience, involvement with the surrounding community, an emphasis on communications, and what a more holistic approach entails.
Both Frank and Deborah were kind enough to take some time to talk with me on the phone about their new book (and the work they’ve been doing for the last couple of years in this field). Here’s what they had to say:
Q&A with Frank Vagnone & Deborah Ryan
Interview date: November 5, 2015
Deborah: Jacksonville, NC
Frank: It’s complicated. I was born in Columbus OH (a mid-westerner), and moved around a few times. Moved to Charlotte, NC (a southerner), then Philadelphia, then New York City (Yankee). I’m a mid-westerner wrapped in a southern drawl tempered by north-eastern.
Let’s hope without the double curse of northern charm and southern efficiency (as Washington DC was once famously described)!
Frank: New York City
Deborah: Charlotte, NC
I have done some legal work pertaining to historic house museums and I have been a visitor to a number of them, but I am in no way a museum professional. So I am not exactly the target audience for your book. I did find it very interesting, though, and your ideas seem, in the main, like good ones to me. Clearly, you’re exaggerating: you’re not Abbie Hoffman, and this isn’t The Anarchist’s Cookbook! Why are the ideas you’re proposing so radical in museum circles that you’re calling them “anarchist”?
Deborah: We actually talk about it in the book a little bit. We do fundamentally think that historic house museums are going to have to change, and it will have to be a wholesale change if it is to affect the houses’ long-term sustainability. So many things need to change at once, and it can seem like an overwhelming challenge. But we think they can start small.
One of the things I brought to the book (as an urban designer and landscape architect) is that I’ve been doing community work for many years and have developed an expertise in civic engagement. What we have learned is that sometimes traditional public meetings don’t have much impact. But what does seem to work are small interventions, like those promoted in a movement called tactical urbanism. These small-scale interventions are used to create long time changes, like the lawn chairs that were set up in in Times Square. It was a small, inexpensive thing to begin with, but it led to taking Broadway back from vehicles and formalizing the designation of a pedestrian plaza. The goal is to shake things up a little bit, and to test in a small way, what could eventually be big, significant changes. From a historic house perspective, we are suggesting tactical interiorism.
Historic house museums are struggling for sustainability. So there has to be change.
Frank: The truth is, you are the very the audience we want to attract to the historic sites. And the way you perceived the book is a sign of the core problem. To someone outside the profession, the “anarchist ideas” ideas are basic, normal, common sense – but to someone inside the profession, these ideas don’t seem normal. In fact they seem radical. They’re not radical ideas, but in the context of historic sites, they are perceived as counter-intuitive.
(Deb is far more polished than me when it comes to getting these points across!) For me, the important aspect is quite frankly, that we perceive a kind of urgency. There’s a kind of triage needed. Historic sites tend to be very slow in making change. The economy has flattened them. The aging of the baby boomers is flattening them. Experience expectations are flattening them. How information is being conveyed, and the speed of that information, is flattening them. It’s a perfect storm.
Museums tend to look at the good things they’re doing, and then separately look at those things that they are not doing well. The problem is that they rarely look at these things comprehensively. I come from running these places. We aren’t about hiring expensive consultants. We don’t have all the answers. We are saying that here are the tools that you can use, to figure out what is going to work for your site.
It’s not a silver bullet. It’s a validation for museum professionals to just try anything.
What criticisms have you been receiving from people who are perhaps more concerned about preservation than about access?
Deborah: Academically speaking, Frank and I come from outside the preservation world, so we initially thought that our contribution to the historic houses would be our ability to bring ideas and thoughts tested in other fields. We thought there would be significant push back. But, you know, it’s funny. We haven’t received that much criticism, considering that we’ve been undertaking this work and sharing it with colleagues for three or four years. Admittedly, we’ve hit some nerves along the way. Perhaps that is because there are a lot of folks that are in the historic house business who have been there so long that change is difficult for them.
I’m sure more criticism is coming. And that’s okay. We’re not expecting everyone to be comfortable with our positions and suggestions.
Frank: I’ve had people get up and leave lectures. We’ve been called a menace and and idiots. Recently the book was compared to the seven headed dragon of the apocalypse! That expresses to you the depth of love and appreciation people have for these sites. Anything is considered a threat. Although these comments reveal the love and intimacy some people have for these sites, that love may also not allow us to step back and reassess these places. The criticism, in way, shows a symptom of the problems that we talk about. But Deb and I are grown ups – honestly, when we first started this project about 4-5 years ago, we were also stung by some of the comments.
Almost all of our research has been national. Some pilot projects were in NYC (directed by wonderful Executive Directors like Carol Ward, at the Morris-Jumel Mansion and Monica Montgomery, at the Latimer House), but mainly traveling and visiting national destinations. It’s not just a New York City-centric urban book. We’ve been investigating the gamut between urban and rural houses. An important aspect is that interestingly, there’s not much variation. In a tiny little town and in a big city, you’ll see the same railing, the same historic costumes, the same narrative, and the same plexi-glass. The beige experience. We’ve seen enough that we can spot the beige experience. Preservation and museum best practices are so overwhelming for small sites, that they do the purest preservation, the purest assessments, and it eradicates what are the quirky, unique, fuzzy, interesting aspects of these sites.
Are you worried that your ideas could be translated poorly and lead to a dumbing down of history, or worse, damage to a house?
Deborah: Oh sure, that can happen. Nothing is foolproof. As an architecture professor, I talk to my students all the time about idea and craft. Execution doesn’t always live up to the idea. But our hope is that our readers are empowered to try something new, and they shouldn’t be afraid to fail. Most of the ideas we’ve written about, we’ve tested, a few are complete conjectures. But we believe in a process of trying a lot of different things things to see what works and what doesn’t. What’s great is that so many of our suggestions are so accessible and really inexpensive, so really easy to try. You don’t need to hire consultants, especially if what you’re trying doesn’t alter the house in any permanent way.
Frank: I’m not worried about that. I’m worried much more about sites not being willing to try new things and closing. I also think worries about theft and damage are greatly overblown. Those are smokescreens, they’re excuses for not trying something new.
Now our ideas…they can be misconstrued. But for me, it’s not about doing it this particular way, but rather about allowing individuals to find what works for them. We are not telling people this is the way to do it. Some people may be interpreting what we are saying as prescriptive, but that is just not true. The book is just coming out and we’ve sold out of the first run (they’re rushing to a second run!), so someone is listening.
I like your suggestions for historians and museum professionals to engage local communities in their historic spaces. Can you give me some examples of places in which this has been done well?
Deborah: Yes, we give quite a few examples in our book. The Jane Addams Hull House and Hancock Shaker Village both host farms and fresh food markets, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum offers classes in English as a second language, and Fort Snelling offers a “sentencing through service” job training program to inmates. Executive Director Monica Montgomery has hosted poetry readings with community writers and performers while hosting social justice salons at the Lewis Latimer Historic House Museum, and naturalization ceremonies have been held at King Manor House and Old Stone House.
Frank: Yes, and this idea really comes from Deb and her understanding of community engagement. Her experience is derived from her work with large scale urban projects and garnering community support for such projects. Most small historic sites do not have a big picture idea of engagement. One of the things about the book is that we’ve learned that a lot of sites are doing select pieces of the puzzle. For instance, some places are great about community engagement, or bringing in contemporary art, or expanding the narrative, but aren’t great about the visitor experience. The truth is, so many sites are doing good things, but aren’t thinking of it comprehensively. That’s what The Anarchist’s Guide is about, so you can do self-assessment of what you are doing. Some places have Spanish translations, and programs that deal with the right demographics, but the house tour might be boring: that’s the bait and switch. So there’s not one easy answer.
Personally, I enjoy learning about cultural history, social history, intellectual history, literary history. Political and military history tends to leave me a bit cold. Then again, perhaps I would find those topics very interesting if I were taught them in a different way.
Deborah: Wars and leaders…I am the same way as you! My eyes glaze over quickly with that traditional way of explaining the past. But when I was in graduate school at Harvard University, I learned about cultural history from Professor John Stilgoe, Ph.D., and have been intrigued with the subject ever since.
What are some historic sites that do a good job with the more traditional, textbook aspects of history?
Frank: Well, this type of “textbook history” is where historic sites are really good. They tell the facts, they tell the dates, and they integrate it with curriculums in our schools. This is actually where they’re excellent. The presentation of the facts and that information may not be that compelling, but the information is very good, the quality and the accuracy. That’s the area where house museums and historic sites are good. And that’s fine, except that the people visiting, like you, want to hear more and experience more than just the textbook facts.
When you go to a historic site, you bring with you a sense of expectation, some background knowledge of the subject, and of the time period. When visitors attempt to reconcile this pre-existing background knowledge with the information we are telling them at the site, the visitor has difficulty blending the two into one. In many cases, the historic sites take an adversarial role toward gossip and conjecture, such that they make the visitor feel stupid for asking a question regarding less than accurate information. They shut down. They avoid dialogue because our visitors feel that they will be made to look foolish. And that’s a problem. That’s the very space where you can engage people intellectually, and modify how to present history to make it more compelling.
Some of my best experiences at historic houses have been at special events: art openings, wine tastings, etc. When done well, I’ve been entertained, and also have learned something. I imagine that this may be difficult to pull off with a limited budget, though. How would you advice a small institution to get started?
Deborah: I think it’s totally achievable for a small organization. It’s about building relationships with people in the community. For small groups with one staff member…it can seem overwhelming. But what house leadership needs to do is to form relationships with the community to establish common ground. That relationship might have something to do with the folks that once lived in the house. Or it might be based on sharing some of the historic house’s underutilized assets. For instance, all of the NYC historic houses have fences around them. Why not open these yards up and make them available as dog parks? Then the staff could come out and talk to people about their shared passions; for example, the former inhabitants of the house were known for loving their dogs as well.
Building relationships can begin with looking at a historic house’s assets, what they’re about, and who they share interests with who may be in need of space. Useful partners may have a large email distribution list but need space to extend their market area. I think it would be great fun (actually, one of my students suggested this) to have a food truck rally at a historic house museum. That would bring in a lot of new visitors because food trucks have their own followers. And they spread news of their locations on Twitter. There wouldn’t need to be a lot of organizational work to make that happen.
Frank: Really, most things don’t cost a lot of money. It takes a shift in your philosophic perspective! That doesn’t cost anything. Any institution can take this book and try these things. You don’t have to be the Met to compete in social media. The same is true with other things. How creative and thoughtful and strategic are you? Our ideas don’t need to cost much.
What has been the critical reception of your book so far?
Deborah: We’ve been at this for a while now…and have tested our concepts in earlier papers and through public presentations. We have tried to address the concerns we heard prior to the book coming out. We often heard that people liked our ideas, but “we could be effective if just had more money” or “I don’t have time to do anything more than I am already doing!” So that’s one of the reasons we’ve tried our tactical approach promoting small interventions that can lead to long term change. For instance, historic house museums could try out some new, more welcoming signage. Rather than focusing on a message of “Do not sit” and “Do not touch,” try some temporary signage (easy to do when we’re all so good at Photoshop these days) that conveys a sense of humor. Where’s there’s a toilet, let visitors know “George Washington sat here!,” a good guess if he slept here.
The other big criticism we heard early on was about the historic collections, and it is a valid concern. But I don’t think that we’re suggesting anything that would put the collections at risk. Instead, what we’re trying to say is that collections preservation should not trump visitor experience. We’re arguing for a balance; to do both, not one or the other. Addressing the user experience shouldn’t have to negate collections management.
Frank: We’re just at the beginning here. People are getting the books in the mail. And they’re commenting back on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. We’re starting to hear many positive comments. Certainly we are hearing a few negative comments, However there always will be those types of comments, and those are important to forward the dialogue. We are not afraid of them. The book is about a safe forum for the conversation.
In my travels I’ve been to a few historic houses I really enjoyed in different parts of the country: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello was fascinating. I also had a great time visiting the Hemingway House in Key West. And earlier this year, I went to the FDR Presidential Museum and Library, which had some historic house elements to it. And I attended a party recently at the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston, which, again, is not exactly a historic house, but she did live there and her life is largely the fabric of its history. So, using a very wide conception of what a historic house is…what places do you particularly recommend that visitors go to see?
Deborah: There are so many! There’s a place called Korner’s Folly in Kernersville, NC…we discovered it when we sent our students out to evaluate historic houses in the Charlotte region. A student came back and scored the house museum very high on the Anarchist Evaluation Matrix. We thought the house couldn’t possibly be that good. So Frank flew down and we went to it together…and it was that good! There’s an attitude of mischief there. You can wander about it, make your own discoveries and draw your own conclusions. There’s plenty to chew on. For instance, the onetime owner of the house made every room different. The children’s room has six-foot high ceilings and adults have to stoop over to move through it. Like Korner’s Folly, I suspect that that in small towns around the country there are likely gems that are largely undiscovered by the historic house community. Our hope in writing the book is that we’ll hear more and more about them!
Frank: That’s a bit of a touchy question. We went testing our assessment wheel (that’s in the book). At the point we stumbled upon Korner’s Folly, it was like landing in Oz. Anyone would go there and think “how cool is this?” For us, in our years of research, it jumps out because it made us stop and think. It engaged all of our anarchist ideas simultaneously. So many historic sites are beginning to try new things – that is where we want to be a resource for them. We want to know what works, what doesn’t – how can one site help another. Collectively we can raise the bar.
What are some places that aren’t that well known, but should be?
Frank: Let’s have this conversation a year from now. You can visit thousands of historic houses. Monticello may be beautiful for one thing. Morris-Jumel for another. A house has to allow for the flexibility of the visitor experience. I have a picture of my partner falling asleep in the rose garden at Lyndhurst, and it was just a great place to relax. It doesn’t need to be a forced march through the hallway in order for these sites to provide meaningful experiences to the visitor.
For instance, I just went to visit Stepping Stones in Katonah, NY, the home of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon. It was one of the most meaningful house experiences I’ve had. I was floored by it. There were aspects that were traditional, but also others which were boundary shaking. I could stand and listen to my partner play the piano (you are encouraged to do so because many meetings and events were held in the house where the piano was played) while we all roamed the house and explored on our own. So, this month, I was blown away by Stepping Stones. Next month? Invite us and we will see….
We’re getting calls to come and speak and visit, so we’ll see what else is out there.
Is part of your mindset the idea that cultural institutions need to change to adapt to a younger generation, and different mores, technologies, etc.? Any institution to survive needs to attract a new audience, but is the issue that younger people aren’t generally interested in historic houses (but they age into an interest in history), or is it that this cohort of people aren’t particularly interested in history? Is it a new problem or an old problem?
Deborah: You know, we’re all so busy today. We have so many entertainment choices. Going to a historic house might not be on the top of that list. So each house is competing for attention in terms of both time and interest. We need to engage people that aren’t interested! Dog people. Fashion people. Bringing people in that didn’t know they’d find it interesting. It’s part of that partnership thing. It’s hard to be about just one thing anymore.
As for millennials: I’m optimistic about the future. The ones that I encounter as a college professor are hard working, motivated and interested. My job is to have to expose them to ideas. When I do, they’re like sponges, and soak it all up.
Frank: That question is not framed correctly. I want to turn it around. What are we doing that is interesting and compelling? How are we addressing what is happening in the “outside world”? Compare it to what is portrayed inside the historic site. I do not believe that it is a call to change everything we do in order to attract a certain demographic, rather I think it is about just becoming a more welcoming and friendly spot. Integrating your historic site into what is happening on the front page of the newspaper.
What’s a young person, anyway? A 6-year old? A sixth grader? Someone 18? 24? 33? Me at 50? We have different relationships, different expectations, different friendships at different ages. I should be able to go back with different people and family members, and different expectations, and have a different experience.
Yes, you want to engage younger audiences because that’s your future. But you can’t blame the audience for not coming! No one does that for a restaurant. Would a restaurant owner ever go to a community board meeting and complain that no one comes to their restaurant? We don’t put the marketing economy idea on visitor experience. Is my food palatable? Am I friendly when you eat at my restaurant? For me at least, you’re asking the wrong thing and directing it at the wrong party.
Well, I like being told if I’m asking the wrong question. It will help me learn to ask better questions. Getting away from historic houses specifically for a little bit, what’s the best advice you’ve been given?
Deborah: I hate to go with best but here’s some good advice: do the best you can with the time you’ve got.
I actually just said that to my 26-year old son. He’s a painter and got this big commission for a new painting. It’s the largest he’s ever received and he wants it to be perfect. I said to him, “Don’t make yourself crazy. Your good is good enough!” There’s never enough time to make it perfect.
Frank: The best advice I’ve received is when I was told by someone I dearly respect, that someone has to be the canary in the coalmine. And you can’t help it if you are a canary.
And you’re a canary?
Frank: Unfortunately, I’ve been told that.
What’s a book (besides your own) that you recommend to our readers?
Deborah: What is Landscape? by John Stilgoe.
The other book I’d say is Tactical Urbanism by Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia. It was a blog for a long time, and they finally came out with a book a year or so ago, and I’m using it as a textbook next semester. It’s a wonderful guide to small actions for long-term change.
Frank: Well, particular to house museums, Domesticating History by Patricia West. There are lots of others. One thing I’m really interested in right now is the relationship of preservation, decay, demolition, and death. I think it’s going to be the next book that I work on. It’s a reflection of our own mortality. A lot of books don’t address that straight on, but talk about history of how we view death.
Right now I’m also reading The Work of the Dead by Thomas Laqueur. It’s a really interesting book, about how we have treated the dead as an expression of our culture. I’m applying it to historic sites, monuments and how these things can produce compelling stories about ourselves. My personal interest lies with the stories of these places rather than the architecture or artifacts.
Like that quote by Fitzgerald, from The Beautiful and the Damned that you use at the beginning of your book:
Eventually the bus moved on to Arlington. There it met other busses and immediately a swarm of women and children were leaving a trail of peanut-shells through the halls of General Lee and crowding at length into the room where he was married. On the wall of this room a pleasing sign announced in large red letters “Ladies’ Toilet.” At this final blow Gloria broke down.
“I think it’s perfectly terrible!” she said furiously, “the idea of letting these people come here! And of encouraging them by making these houses show-places.”
“Well,” objected Anthony, “if they weren’t kept up they’d go to pieces.”
“What if they did!” she exclaimed as they sought the wide pillared porch. “Do you think they’ve left a breath of 1860 here? This has become a thing of 1914.”
“Don’t you want to preserve old things?”
“But you can’t, Anthony. Beautiful things grow to a certain height and then they fail and fade off, breathing out memories as they decay. And just as any period decays in our minds, the things of that period should decay too, and in that way they’re preserved for a while in the few hearts like mine that react to them. That graveyard at Tarrytown, for instance. The asses who give money to preserve things have spoiled that too. Sleepy Hollow’s gone; Washington Irving’s dead and his books are rotting in our estimation year by year—then let the graveyard rot too, as it should, as all things should. Trying to preserve a century by keeping its relics up to date is like keeping a dying man alive by stimulants.”
“So you think that just as a time goes to pieces its houses ought to go too?”
“Of course! Would you value your Keats letter if the signature was traced over to make it last longer? It’s just because I love the past that I want this house to look back on its glamourous moment of youth and beauty, and I want its stairs to creak as if to the footsteps of women with hoop skirts and men in boots and spurs. But they’ve made it into a blondined, rouged-up old woman of sixty. It hasn’t any right to look so prosperous. It might care enough for Lee to drop a brick now and then. How many of these—these animals”—she waved her hand around—”get anything from this, for all the histories and guide-books and restorations in existence? How many of them who think that, at best, appreciation is talking in undertones and walking on tiptoes would even come here if it was any trouble? I want it to smell of magnolias instead of peanuts and I want my shoes to crunch on the same gravel that Lee’s boots crunched on. There’s no beauty without poignancy and there’s no poignancy without the feeling that it’s going, men, names, books, houses—bound for dust—mortal—”
A small boy appeared beside them and, swinging a handful of banana-peels, flung them valiantly in the direction of the Potomac.
Frank: Yes, a friend pointed that out to me before we started writing the book, saying it sounded like me. She was dead on!
Is there a movie you’d like to recommend?
Deborah: There’s a spoof movie about historic houses, starring Kerry Washington. They’re all wearing period costumes in modern day. It’s called Austenland. It’s an immersion weekend. Really, it borders on male prostitution. She’s guaranteed a romance!
Well that’s how you get people into historic houses: Immersion weekends! Guaranteed romance! That ought to do it.
Deborah: That would require a lot of planning!
Frank: Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle. That movie was really fundamental in gaining the ideas I have for this book. There are two characters, the uncle in a rickety old building, and his family member in a modern house, constantly dusting and keeping it clean; it captures the dichotomy of a historic site.
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
Frank: There’s not much people don’t know about me–I’m pretty open! I’d say that I’m a homebody and I actually like to vacuum.
Deborah: Well, I am a huge dog lover. I have a huge dog. I have a 90-pound golden doodle (golden retriever/poodle). George, named after George Washington. Adopted from Washington State. Now he’s my five year old stay at home kid. My five year old at home.
I like golden retrievers. Goldens are such happy beasts!
Deborah: Yes, he’s very happy except when I leave.
What is your strangest phobia or superstition?
Deborah: Walking under a ladder. That’s about it.
Frank: I can’t eat any meat that’s on a bone. It’s my avoidance mechanism.
What is the best or the worst thing that has happened to you this week?
Deborah: We’ve gotten two really great reviews!
Frank: No comment.
Last but not least, is there anything you’d like to pitch, promote, or discuss?
Frank: Our book!
Lead-In Composite Image Courtesy of 1000 Words / Shutterstock.com and the Anarchist Guide To Historic House Museums’ Official Facebook Page
All Other Images Courtesy of the Anarchist Guide To Historic House Museums’ Official Facebook Page
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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