Redesigning the House Museum Experience

This week I had the opportunity to visit the Octagon House Museum. As mentioned in many of my previous blog posts, I’m currently interning at Gadsby’s Tavern, and they are part of the Historic House Museum Consortium for DC, Maryland and Virginia. The HHMC has quarterly meetings at their different partner sites, and this quarter’s meeting was held at the Octagon House.

I’m sad to admit that I’ve passed the house many times, but have never been inside. All I knew about it  – from museum studies chatter and sporadic Facebook posts – was that at one point it had been a temporary white house, and it was reportedly, haunted. I was eager to learn more, especially after learning that the house was staffed by only two people!  After a brief HHMC meeting, the Octagon’s director, MSTD grad Teresa Martinez, led us around the museum’s rooms. The overarching theme of her presentation – how they were doing things differently.

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I would describe the museum as a collection manager’s worst nightmare and a visitor’s dream museum (especially if they have young children). With the exception of two items, the museum does not have any barriers, ropes, or vitrines. Visitors are allowed to touch and interact with almost everything in the collection – they are even encouraged to sit in chairs, lie down in beds, and try on reproduction dresses. The reasoning behind this? They want to be unique in the historic house community, and bring something new to the table. In addition, the collection is a mish-mash of items from the 1800s with vague provenance, and many of their items are duplicates or part of a set. They figure that almost nothing can be hurt beyond repair or replaced in a reasonable amount of time. And the trade-off: Visitors get to experience the house as it would have been experienced – as a home. A physical space where people lived, slept, and ate. The more visitors can connect the house to their own personal experience, the more they will actually learn. This trend is actually quite current for the historic house museum community, with recent publications like the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums by Franklin D. Vagnone gaining popularity. There is also a great blog post about this by Ron M. Potvin on the AASLH website: “House or Home? Rethinking the House Museum Paradigm.”

Of course these techniques bring up further questions – what about the security of the items? Will this cause visitors to feel they are entitled to touch things in other museums? What if something is broken beyond repair? But in the two years that the museum has employed this approach, nothing has been stolen or broken.

From googling or searching on the web – I would’ve never known what great and innovative things the Octagon was doing! I would love to see an increased digital presence for the museum that reflects their unique perspective, though I understand the inherent limitations to a staff of two and a large governing body (The Octagon House is the headquarters for AIA, the American Institute of Architects).

 

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6 comments

  1. This was honestly shocking. At one of my internships my supervisor was very much about protecting the collection so this is such a wild concept to me. It’s nice to know that nothing has been stolen or broken though. Did you find out anything about the amount of visitors they get?

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    1. Great question – I forgot to mention they only get about 400 visitors per month. The situation would definitely be a lot different if we were talking about a place like Mount Vernon where they get millions of visitors. But because they have relatively low visitation, they’re not worried as much about the wear and tear of the objects.

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  2. Hi Stephanie! I have been to the Octagon House for a tour before, and thought the idea of allowing visitors to interact more with the objects of the house was awesome. It really helps to bridge the authoritative barrier between museum and visitor in that so much of exhibits are usually protected from the public by ropes or cases. Plus, I think the ability of visitors to interact with objects in such a way does allow them to relate to the collections of museums more intimately- after all, the majority of museum collections, in very basic terms, are simply the things in our world that we as people have used in the past, or still use today in some form or another. And there are millions of people throughout the world who still live in what are technically historic houses! I definitely don’t mean those things should not be cared for properly, and I think especially in the case of historic houses, the value of and access to objects in the houses goes up depending on its history. For example, I don’t ever see a policy like that of the Octagon House being implemented at Monticello or Mount Vernon due to who owned them and the significant amount of traffic they both get daily. I’d say there’s definitely always risks to a policy like this in historic houses; however, as you allude to, people in general are usually respective of objects in museums and historic houses, and when you have a large collection and not much traffic, policies like that of the Octagon House are possible, educational, and enjoyable.

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    1. I’m glad someone else has also had the chance to experience the museum! And I definitely agree, the Octagon has a unique opportunity in terms of their fairly low visitation and a mixed bag collection – a place like Mount Vernon just gets too much traffic and their items are too important to GW’s story. In the director’s presentation she made the point that this is definitely not for everyone, and it won’t work everywhere – but it’s a great example of how you can use your weaknesses and turn them into strengths.

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  3. The collections lover in me was initially a bit alarmed by this approach, but as I continued reading your post, I realized it makes a lot of sense. I really like the idea of experiencing the house as a sort of lived in space. A lot of times historic houses are beautiful, but feel a bit limited due to all of the ropes and barriers. It seems to be much easier to picture life in the house with the opportunity to touch the objects. I’d love to know what visitor feedback has been and if people feel comfortable in this setting when other museums have conditioned them to do the exact opposite. I’ll definitely have to visit and see for myself!

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  4. Hi Stephanie, I read an interesting article a few days ago that reminds me of your post. Vincent Michael argues that the house museum concept doesn’t work, and never has. He speaks specifically to the conservation question, too:

    Then there is the conservation problem: A home designed for a family or two is not well suited have tens of thousands of people tramping through it each year, and famed sites like Fallingwater will need a $10-$20-million rehabilitation every 20 years or so. Hundreds of small house museums have survived by deferring maintenance, fomenting an even more expensive future reckoning

    Thanks for your interesting post!

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