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.
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).