Review of New Solutions in The Public Historian

Another review of New Solutions for House Museums, this time in the journal The Public Historian, of the National Council for Public History.

New Solutions for House Museums: Ensuring the Long-Term Preservation of America’s Historic Houses by Donna Ann Harris. Lanham, MD: Alta -Mira Press, 2007; paperbound, $27.95.

No one will deny the problem: long struggling with inadequate or non existent endowments, deferred maintenance, and declining visitation, historic house museums are in trouble. What were the legacies of many women-based membership preservation organizations have become the burdens of the government and well-intentioned but financially strapped friends groups. This dilemma, widespread as it is, has been on the minds of preservationists, cultural historians, architects, and generally those people who love old buildings.

The number of historic house museums multiplied during the history boom of the American Bicentennial, which was also a hey day of government sponsorship and support. A decade or two later, these same vital organizations found themselves in dire straits—the very buildings and sites that members came together to preserve had deteriorated and the aging membership clung to models of management that were keeping up with neither the costs of operations nor the changing desires of audiences.

Donna Harris’s book, New Solutions for House Museums, is a kind of call to arms, but not in any traditional sense. She does not say that we must redouble our energies to make these places rich with visitor entry fees so that we can all maintain the properties as historic house museums. Instead, she tells her primary audience—the trustees, staff, and volunteers at these special places—that “museum use is not necessarily the best conclusion for every hard-won preservation battle” (4).

Harris’s book is organized in a very clear fashion: Part I is titled “Assessment and Decision Making.” There she charts the course of historic house development, discusses the legal and ethical issues in changing ownership or use, and outlines the sometimes tortured decision-making process when considering that difficult transition. At every step, the author displays an empathetic objectivity of a sort that one imagines a counselor might in advising parents considering giving up a “baby” for adoption.

Part II begins with an overview of the eight solutions that the author then highlights in chapters 7 to 15. Each of the solutions comes in the form of a well-chosen case study: Historic New England, Margaret Mitchell House and Museum (Atlanta, Georgia), and Casa Amesti (Monterey, California) are three of them. With each of the eight examples, Harris explains the administrative history of the property, the nature of the governing board, the peculiarities of each situation and, most importantly, the reason why the solutions embraced by each case study fits that particular group. Each example comes with a section titled “How to Use This Case Study,” which is especially helpful if the reader is trying to match his or her situation with a particular set of circumstances.

So as not to tip Harris’s hand, I only list a few of the eight solutions that she discusses in detail: sale to another nonprofit stewardship organization (or private owner) with easements, creation of a study house, merger with another house museum organization, or lease to a for-profit entity for an adaptive use.

Harris comes well positioned to write such a book and to summarize some of the issues that have dogged many public historians. Having attended several of Harris’s presentations at museum and public history annual meetings during recent years, I have anticipated her published work that has been generously funded by innovative donors—The Pew Charitable Trusts and the James Marston Fitch Charitable Foundation.

A Columbia University School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation graduate and twenty-year veteran as historic preservation executive and project manager, Harris has wrestled creatively with the dilemma that has faced or will soon face many who work in historic house museums. She has written an especially critical handbook for museum trustees, staff members, and volunteer leaders who are currently struggling with long-term plans for the health of their structures and sites.

Besides this audience, however, I recommend that the book be considered required or recommended reading as part of any number of public history classes. Learning well these proposed alternatives-to-museums will stand our students in good stead as they prepare to manage the nation’s historic houses in the coming decades. Those graduates who are familiar with the concepts and with the application of multiple strategies for preservation will be not only more employable, but they will also be more effective stewards of the built environment.

Donna Harris has done a great service for historic house museums and the people who are passionate about them. The solutions and strategies for their“saving” are not always new, as the author acknowledges, but she presents the strategies in a well-organized and very understandable format. Perhaps just as importantly as making the information extremely accessible, the author helps remove a certain guilt about asking for help with regard to maintenance and ongoing management. And she does not flinch from telling organizations that they are in for some difficult times.

Cynthia Brandimarte Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

Here is the citation. The Public Historian, Summer 2008, Vol. 30, No. 3, Pages 101–103 Posted online on September 5, 2008. (doi:10.1525/tph.2008.30.3.101)