This is not an indictment against house museums. Let’s get that right off the table. They are valuable in that historic preservationists and historic home owners can get ideas and inspiration for doing their own buildings. House museums keep alive our history by reminding us of our past. At the recent Powder House dedication, Senator Baddour reminded us all that History can be lost in a single generation. The Bible talks about the obligation to teach the Law to every generation to avoid it being lost. Conversely, if we don’t educate about Newburyport history, it will be lost in a single generation especially as new people move into our community.
What I am referring to is the fact that establishing house museums has not achieved a societal shift of appreciating ‘old things’ and historic architecture. Williamsburg was a giant house museum of sort and for a time being, the styles learned there swept the nation but it didn’t encourage preservation.
Americans have a fascination for the next new ‘thing’. They consequently seek it even if the new thing is inferior to the old.
Against that backdrop, we are surrounded by these house museums and yet the thirst for the newest gadget continues. We, of course, have the Cushing House but we also have the Swett-Ilsley House, the Dole-Little House, the Spencer-Pierce-Little Farm, the house museums of Amesbury, the house museums of Rowley and Salisbury and so on.
On top of all this, the cultural habits of Americans has made house museums actively suffer. Sites began to notice that there was a shift in tourist’ habits. Summer vacations used to mean getting into a car and stopping at historic places and museums along the highway. Vacations, even in tight times, have increasingly involved air travel or mass transit; which effectively skips over roadside attractions. Coupled with the recession and the turmoil that followed, many house museums found a big drop in revenue from admissions and donations and even from grants. Many even suffered from retail shop sales. Finally, the lack of historic preservation in their own neighborhoods threatened to make them totally irrelevant to modern society!
One organization that has successfully counteracted this is Historic New England. They have 36 house museums. They began to counteract the failure of promoting historic preservation by doing aggressive seminars and workshops to teach people the importance of preserving their homes and even more important, actually HOW to preserve their homes. Other house museum organizations are doing the same. This kind of outreach is really making a difference.
I encourage the reader to become historic homeowner members of Historic New England. They provide free access to all their museums but they also make their vast resources of knowledge in historic preservation available to you personally!
Such a fountain of experience is what is needed when tackling such a complex thing as an historic home.