Radicalizing the Museum

In the quiet moments at the beginning and end of the day at the Awesome Historic House, as I enjoy the quiet ambiance of the home of a wealthy white man of the 18th century, I begin to wonder what the hold up is.

Everyone in the museum field knows that attendance at the vast majority of historic sites and houses is down (heck, even Colonial Williamsburg has seen drastic declines in attendance since the 1980s). Everyone is talking about what we need to do differently. But few, if any, sites are actually trying anything radically new!

Now, I’m actually very strongly opposed to the “self-guided” tours that are often offered up as an alternative to a guided tour led by a blue-haired little old lady who just wants to tell you about her family’s connection to the house and what year each piece of furniture was made in. I think self-guided tours are essentially useless. Visitors learn almost nothing, there’s no way to ask questions, and no way to create a memorable experience.

But something needs to be done at these sites! I’ve recently started wondering why we can’t do something radical. Something that forces visitors to confront the past as it actually was. Not our carefully sanitized, cleaned-up, don’t-make-anyone-uncomfortable version that most historic sites and houses rely upon. When the Main Rich White Guy of the Awesome Historic House died in 1780, there were more slaves on the property than white members of the family living there. The slaves are mentioned in passing, but never focused upon. Why can’t we mix things up? What about a day in which the house is populated by the servants (yes, we know the family had a number of paid or indentured white servants) and slaves, with the Main Rich White Family absent?

A lot of sites use the “We don’t want to make our board angry” excuse. I think that’s a BS excuse. If board members get pissed and resign, get new, more open-minded ones.

People worry that they’ll lose visitors if they do something radical. Guess what? You’re already losing visitors! Doing something radical will get you attention, and will at least make you memorable. And being memorable is something that the vast majority of historic sites are not managing to do right now. Most visitors just think “If you’ve seen one Old Rich White Man’s house from the 18th or 19th centuries, you’ve seen them all.”

If historic sites want to remain viable in the future, they all need to start finding a unique niche. And I think to do so, they’re going to have to start interpreting their sites in radically new ways. (And guess what, DC-area sites? You have a huge, incredible resource right in your back yard–reach out to the history or theater departments at Howard University! Build relationships with the African American community! They will help you look at your site in new, radical ways!)

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