CRM Journal

Book Review

New Solutions for House Museums: Ensuring the Long-Term Preservation of America's Historic Houses

By Donna Ann Harris. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2007; xi + 260 pp, illustrations; paper $27.95.


The historic house museum is perhaps the paradigmatic historic site, the most common way for Americans to encounter local history. Even as the number of new historic house museums is accelerating, these institutions face dire challenges in deferred maintenance, funding, board and volunteer participation, visitation, and perceived relevance. Over the last decade, preservation leaders have increasingly focused on the precarious status of many historic house museums. In this book, Donna Ann Harris, a preservation consultant with more than 20 years of experience, provides a critical resource for boards, staff, and volunteers at historic house museums, who need to consider whether creative alternatives to the house museum model may allow them to better realize their fundamental obligation—the preservation of the house.

The first part of the book provides context on the current problems many house museums face, as well as step-by-step explanations of the processes that boards can go through to evaluate the sustainability of their historic house museum. In a fascinating portion, Harris recounts the establishment of early historic house museums, such as Mount Vernon, and notes the interpretive challenges that house museums often confront. In a very clearly written chapter on the legal and ethical issues boards face, she underscores the importance of their stewardship responsibility even as she demystifies it. She uses fictional case studies of house museums facing such problems as recruiting board members, funding educational programs, and maintaining a connection with changing neighborhoods to embody issues she explores throughout the book.

Harris then devotes one of the longest chapters to a thorough explanation of the decision-making process that boards, concerned about the future of their historic house museum, should undertake. A valuable resource in itself, this chapter includes concrete and specific advice, incorporating flow charts and checklists, as well as a sensitive discussion of the difficulties inherent in any kind of organizational change and suggestions for strategies that can help ease transitions. Harris then provides a typology of the solutions she will explore, arranging them on a spectrum according to the magnitude of change involved, and illustrating the advantages, disadvantages, and applicability of each approach through a reader-friendly question-and-answer format.

The real-life examples that make up Part II of the book reflect a wide range in geographic location, organizational size, and collaboration with other nonprofit groups, government agencies, and private individuals. Harris's research included interviews with the leaders of more than 50 historic sites. She presents a dozen case studies to illustrate a variety of solutions for struggling historic house museums, including asset transfer and merger (the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum with the Atlanta History Center), short-term leases (Heritage Branch of the British Columbia Ministry of Community, Aboriginal, and Women's Services), long-term leases (the Resident Curatorship Program at Hazelwood, Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission), and even sale to a private owner with easements (Robert E. Lee Boyhood Home).

In her analysis of each example, Harris examines the decision making process, recounts the challenges that participants faced and their reflections on the experience, and assesses the relative success of the new model. Each concludes with a section called "How to Use this Case Study," which helps the reader understand the potential relevance of complex situations. Frequent cross-references in the text connect the examples in Part II with the procedural parts of the book, helping readers to use this text most effectively. A well-organized and thorough bibliography that includes general works on historic preservation and management, as well as materials specific to each case study, adds to the value of the book as a resource manual.

Harris calls on those charged with the stewardship of historic house museums to look beyond the standard model. Many such museums, she explains, were founded by default once an historic home had been saved, but this template does not represent the best strategy for the ongoing vitality of many historic houses. She urges board members, staff, and volunteers to reflect on the case studies she offers here and to assess whether their own situation is sustainable.

Some of the models she presents may be anathema to traditionally-minded boards, but she combines a passionate commitment to preservation with a clear-eyed look at current realities. She reminds board members that their primary duty is to the preservation of the house, and sometimes the best way to "do right" by the historic resource in their charge is to find a new use. Her tone, however, is not fatalistic but realistic, and her series of inspiring case studies suggests that bringing a more creative and entrepreneurial approach to historic house museums results not in loss, but rather enriches the possibilities for the structures themselves, for local history outreach, and for strengthening community.

Michelle McClellan
University of Michigan