Historic homes of famous old white people was one of the first ways Americans began remembering their past. But they have tons of problems. Largely, those problems can be summed up in the word boring. These were originally created, such as George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, as ways to revere great past leaders. And they were ways to save old homes from destruction. But they always largely served an old, white, conservative audience, telling stories of continuity and comfort for people who wanted to hear them. These stories almost never included slavery, dispossession, violence, or anything other than fitting some obscure 18th century figure into narratives of American greatness.
But that doesn’t really play anymore. Most historic home tours are awful, saying nothing about the times and really nothing about the person either. They are just houses full of antiques, fussy and musty. So I love this story on a self-described “anarchist” rethinking the historic home and trying to make it relevant again, attempting to bring in local communities, creating signs in *gasp* Spanish and generally trying to tell stories about real human beings.
One of Vagnone’s best test cases is the Dyckman Farmhouse, a Dutch colonial-style house in Inwood that recently reopened after hiring a new executive director. That director, Meredith Horsford, was formerly Vagnone’s deputy at the Historic House Trust and contributed to the ideas within the Anarchist’s Guide. The farmhouse, along with three other homes (the Wyckoff Farmhouse in Brooklyn, the Bartow-Pell Mansion in the Bronx, and the Old Stone House in Brooklyn), has received $5,000 to test out innovative ideas, as part of a Historic House Trust initiative funded by the 1772 Foundation in partnership with the Chipstone Foundation.
The Dyckman Farmhouse receives about 6,000 visitors a year, and Horsford and her team are trying to up those numbers. Not surprisingly, Vagnone, at a planning meeting for the house, is willing to do whatever might be necessary to make the house more appealing, even if it means starting from scratch: “My first thought is, I wonder if you took everything out of the house and it’s a brand new house. What would you talk about? What stories would you tell?”
The Dyckman team has ideas: they’ve removed the wrought iron art deco barriers that had blocked the doorways into some of the rooms for decades. They are introducing Spanish text into the museum’s interpretive materials. This fall, museum studies graduate students from Cooperstown will troubleshoot some potential aesthetic changes to the home.
Even these fairly moderate changes drive the conservative old people who run these museums crazy.
At Dyckman, the staff members pondered ways to show the perspective of the free black man and woman who had lived in the house and were listed at the bottom of the family tree that was on display in the museum. Little information about them remains in the in-house archive. In the discussion, another example of Anarchist Guide-style thinking emerged: “What if we literally take that [family tree] and flip it upside down?”
These kinds of ideas are provocative in the historic house community. At some of his talks around the country—and even once before a New York City board—Vagnone says he has been confronted by audience members, had listeners walk out of his talks, and been called “a menace,” “nuts,” and an “idiot.”
Not only would stories like this be more interesting and challenging, but they would make more people care about history. Yet making more people care about history seems to actually be opposed by a lot of the people invested in these museums, not if it means making Spanish-speakers and poor people and LGBT communities finding things they can relate to in these places.