Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Re-Thinking This Old House

Creative leaders in the museum, entertainment, architecture, and archaeology professions gathered at Wilton House Museum for a day of ideation and dialog on future museum interpretation and programming.  Inspired by our mission statement, strategic plan, and the findings of our recent paint analysis investigation, Chipstone Foundation sponsored this Idea Day to offer advice and suggest paths to relevancy.  Participants, Jon Prown, Carl Lounsburry, Sumpter Priddy, David Crank, Donna Harris, Franklin Vagnone, Mark Wenger, and Sylvia Yount offer advice and suggestions on ways to invigorate our museum interpretation and programming.

Experiences, theories, and concepts filled the day’s conversations.  It was particularly reassuring to find that Wilton is not alone in the struggle to remain relevant in its community.  Like so many other historic house museums, we are rethinking the standard house museum interpretation that was established over fifty years ago.  As the community around us continues to evolve, so must we.  To those ends, we opened our minds to what was offered throughout the day.

As Director of Education three concepts resonated with me: access to history, dialog with visitors, and questions over answers. Equipped with our mission statement, we are better poised to experiment with exhibitions and interpretations.  As museums are considered the leading repository for historical resources and research we are better prepared to provide a more complex understanding of our past.

All three of these concepts were experimented with at our new March re-enactment, Washington at Wilton.  Along with the modern carpets and stanchions, most of the historic chairs were removed from the Wilton's study and replaced with period reproductions so that visitors could sit in the room and converse with George Washington.  The response from visitors was overwhelmingly positive.

In addition to the changes made to the historic setting we also asked visitors to put themselves in the shoes of a small farmer on the eve of the Revolution and decide whether or not they would leave their farm to fight for liberty.  The dilemma of personal security versus the potential benefit for the greater good was brought up in the discussions with Washington and the other re-enactors.  With the pros and cons debated, visitors cast their votes as well as defined what liberty meant to them.  What was most surprising about the voting was that it was not overwhelmingly in favor of war with Britain.  Rather, the votes were evenly split between war and peace.

For the past month, Wilton's study has remained devoid of the obvious modern intrusions that were removed prior to His Excellency's visit.  With the reproduction furniture remaining in the room, visitors are invited to have a seat in one of the designated chairs when they enter the room.  By sitting in these chairs visitors are introduced to a new perspective of this historic space.  In setting the study in this manner and inviting visitors to engage in it, we have stepped away from the vignettes of a by-gone day and welcomed our audience into a more true representation of this space.

As we continue to experiment with this evolution in our interpretation visitors are welcome to add their voice to the conversation.  What is the future of the historic house museum?  How do we remain good stewards to our collections, create historically accurate settings, and increase visitation?  What do you want out of your experience?