By Odile Rompré-Brodeur
Most of you have probably visited a house museum before. You may remember rooms filled with inanimate objects and furniture representing 19th-century life. They are the former homes of prime ministers and political figures, artists or influential families. Mostly operated by historical societies, not-for-profits or municipalities, many follow the same template. Typically, these museums offer tours and activities, such as high tea, cooking classes or Victorian Christmas celebrations.
For many years, this approach has worked. However, over the past decade or so, these places have faced a very real dilemma. The problem is twofold: how will they stay funded and how will they stay relevant to the current population?
As it stands, house museums are mostly funded through grants and fundraising. But as the federal and provincial governments make cuts in culture and heritage, these organizations are struggling to maintain their sites. What’s more, today’s museum visitors want more hands-on experiences. Period rooms offering a glimpse into what people from the past wore, ate and used as furniture are no longer enough. Lacking resources, house museums have never been able to showcase blockbuster exhibits that other (read: larger) museums feature to entice big crowds. Clearly, the old template is ready for a refresh and it’s time to get creative.
Is transforming an historic house into a museum the best way to preserve it? This is a question that the keepers of historic places – the National Trust for Canada included – must ask. Turning heritages spaces into museums is certainly not the only future we see for historic houses. Both in Canada and abroad, savvy groups are finding new ways to conserve historic places with very interesting results. In Virginia, the National Trust for Historic Preservation partnered with the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture to put the grounds of the Woodlawn Estate, a former plantation, to work for its community. At Woodlawn, Arcadia offers food education and provides affordable, sustainable food to low-income communities. Closer to home, the OSMO Foundation transformed Montreal’s Notman House (once the home of pioneering photographer William Notman) into the “Home of the Web,” a co-working space that offers mentoring and development tools for young tech entrepreneurs.
So what is the future for house museums in Canada? While one clear answer cannot be provided, we must think of ways to re-invent the concept of the house museum, seeking different perspectives to find creative and inclusive solutions, without denying the heritage value of our historic places.
Odile Rompé-Brodeur is a student in the Conservation of Built Heritage program at Université de Montréal. As an intern with the National Trust for Canada, she is developing case studies of house museums.