I recently read Vincent L. Michaels’ article “The Problem of the House Museum.” Michaels identifies the problem as the concept of the house museum itself. He argues that the house museum “model” never worked. His argument is a sharp turn away from previous assessments of house museums, like Ruth Gram’s assertion from 2014 that house museums were struggling because there are too many of them, or mine that many of them are trying to do the same thing. Michael’s points out that house museums are ailing because they are simply a bad idea.
His article addresses specifically the house museum “model” in which the museum sustains itself on admission prices alone. He points out that most home museums need a variety of funding sources in order to stay open. He says “you don’t have to look farther” then the numerous times that restorationists had to sell and re-buy the Manigult House in Charleston to illustrate the difficulty that house museums have had in staying open. He posits that Colonial Williamsburg’s success in the 1940s convinced “hundreds of local historical societies” that they could save an old home and make it “their headquarters and museum.”
The issue that struck me in Michaels’ argument was the concept of the house museum model that he introduces. He attributed the idea to the early 1920’s and said “you don’t have to look further then” The Manigault House, but I think we do need to look further. Becuase the “model” presented in The Manigualt House is not a ‘model” it is just a bad idea, and poor planning. If we are looking for a true model we need to look far past the 1920s into the mid 19th century, there we will see a real applicable model that works, and works well.
What is this model? You ask.
Well, dear reader it is none other than the Palladian on the Potomac, the “off-white” white house, the President’s Plantation. It is the mighty mighty Mount Vernon, of course!
When I think of THE traditional house museum the only one that comes to mind is Mount Vernon. It is not only a successful house museum; it is the premier house museum in the United States. It is the place that other house museums wish they could be, and attempt to model themselves after.
It’s life as a museum began in 1858, long before Michael’s 1922 and 1940s examples, when Ann Pamela Cunningham and the rest of The Ladies of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association (MVLA) bought, protected, then preserved the house. Unlike many later house restorations Mount Vernon’s restoration was a huge national event. Most house museums’ restorations are whispers in local newspapers; Mount Vernon’s was a long beautiful love song to the recently re-United States of America.
Today, people visit Mount Vernon in droves, all year long. (The house is opened 365 days a year, weather permitting.) In the summers the plantation’s main staircase creaks under the weight of thousands of Red Hat Society Ladies, 8th graders, summer campers, and tourists from right at home and across the globe. US politicians make a point to go there and international dignitaries visit Mount Vernon on their American tours just to be respectful. (The Queen of England visited a number of times and even put a wreath on Washington’s tomb, and Spain’s king and queen visited just this past September. )
Mount Vernon’s success is partially attributes to its huge popularity. Americans love for Washington. This element can not be recreated, there can only be one Mount Vernon,( no one told these guys…) but the support structures around the museum are ideal and replicable.
Like any house museum Mount Vernon cannot not sustain itself on guest tickets alone. The house has depended on donors since the 1850s. The Ladies of the MVLA cut their teeth collecting contributions from their respective states to fund the home’s preservation and upkeep. Today, Mount Vernon sustains itself on a combination of tickets sales, stores, special events, and a huge marble wall of donors.
There was no moment in time when Mount Vernon ran purely on ticket sales. The house museum model has always depended on diverse lines of funding.
To Michael’s second point, that Colonial Williamsburg inspired Americans to restore homes, I argue nay t’was Mount Vernon. It does not take a long study of museums to recognize Mount Vernon’s, or rather the MVLA’s, legacy in other house museums. The nation’s most sustainable and popular homes all have a society, group, or foundation that owns and raises the necessary funds to insure it continued existence.A quick look the biggies in Virginia—>Monticello has the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Stratford Hall has The Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation, The George Washington Foundation protects Ferry Farm, and Kenmore, and the Montpellier Foundation owns the newest house museum in Virginia, James Madison’s Montpelier. Even Colonial Williamsburg, who he said inspired the poorly planned house museums, depends on multiple lines of funding. While ticket sales are a big part of it, gift shops, special events, lecturers, and donations do help keep the houses open and the streets full of poo.
The house museum model includes a fundraising arm that promotes the home through events, stores, and other attractions beyond the house itself.
While special events and gift shops might seem like new additions t it is only because we like to assume the people the recent past were not as consumerist as we are, (they were a little less) but novelty purchases are traditional in US historical culture. Karal Ann Marling’s book George Washington Slept Here offers some excellent examples of early Washington souvenirs like hatchet pins and post cards that illustrate how trinkets were part of the experience of going to these historical sites.
The ladies societies, special events, dinners, and fundraising events that help sustain most house museums are themselves a reflection of nineteenth century progressive women’s clubs that sought to raise funds for the betterment of any number of people. House Museums in the United States, especially those in the south, owe a great debt to the Women’s Clubs and those rich white First Wave Feminists who declared “I can do things outside of the house that are a benefit to society, as long as they mirror the societal expectations of caring, motherhood, domesticity that I am beholden to at home.”
I agree with Michaels, the specific model of a house museum that sustains on entrance fees alone is a myth, but we need to recognize that “the model” is not what successful house museums do. And for the life of me I can not see where that idea came from, other than poor planning and poor research. There are numerous examples of successful house museums, and I can’t image someone wanting to open one up and not looking to Mount Vernon early on in the planning stage. While Mount Vernon benefits immensely from being a national shrine to the beloved George Washington, the elements of its funding are replicable anywhere that there is interest and passion. Poorly planned businesses suffer the same fate, if you want to own a cafe but don’t know anything about the food service industry, or how capitalism and business works then you are not going to own a cafe for very long.
“The Model” that Michaels points out is not a real thing, it is a misconception that develops when people don’t understand that a “not-for-profit” needs to make money.(not-for-profit means you make enough money to keep the doors open and the workers paid. If you make more money in 2016 than in 2015 the director does not get a bonus, you have to reinvest it back into the museums) The idea of the house museum is not the flaw, the toxic cocktail of being eager and planning poorly is the flaw.
“Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance” -The banner in Mrs. Childers’ sixth grade classroom.
A fun note about house museums
 Right in time for Christmas. http://www.newseum.org/exhibits/online/yes-virginia/
 I don’t work at Mount Vernon and I don’t know if any of those nicknames are really used by anyone, but I am willing to take credit if they catch on.
 http://www.mountvernon.org/the-estate-gardens/famous-visitors. It appears that royal people love Mount Vernon.
 Karal Ann Marling, George Washington Slept Here: Colonial Revivals and American Culture 1876-1986. (1988). You should also check out William Bird (not William Byrd, har har har) Souvenir Nation: Relics, Keepsakes, and Curios from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (2013)
 This is not an actual quote…as far as I know.
 In a google search a few weeks back I found that the Clintons’ home in Arkansas was a museum. I thought this was odd because both of them are alive. Then I discovered that George W. Bush’s childhood home is a house museum too, him and his father also very alive. Which leads to me to ask—do they ever go back for something, like a favorite ornament, frame, or a vase, and how does that mess with the collections? Do they use it like we use storage units?