Bringing Historic House Museums to Life

In the process of working on a paper for my US History survey class, today I visited the Powel House, located in Philadelphia’s Society Hill neighborhood. Jennifer Davidson, the Site Manager, gave me a wonderful tour, including lots of sage wisdom about the front lines of public history in addition to the regular historical tour material. The Powel House has had a relatively narrow interpretive focus since it opened as a historic house museum in 1938, focusing primarily on the time period (1769-1798) in which Samuel Powel and Elizabel Willing Powel lived in the house and played host to famous friends such as George and Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin (Samuel Powel was part of Franklin’s Junto), Benjamin Rush, and even the Marquis de Lafayette.

 

The historic house museum (HHM) world is in a period of uncertainty. Perhaps the endeavor was always an uncertain one, but there seems to be a narrative of crisis about the format of the HHM that is somewhat recent. In the foreword to Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums by Franklin D. Vagnone and Deborah E. Ryan, Gretchen Sullivan Sorin locates this crisis at the nexus of several qualities of HHMs: 1) Many HHMs are created out of a preservationist’s interest rather than a need in the community or field, 2) HHMs seem to be ever proliferating, with multiple houses attributed to the same individual all claiming authenticity and authority, 3) Preservation work tends to be an inherently conservative and change-averse field, and 4) Visitors are looking for more engaging, entertaining experiences rather than sedate sitting rooms where the furniture is off-limits. Even when HHMs try to engage visitors in innovative ways, their niche interpretive focuses and sometimes eccentric curation can result in the experience parodied in one of my favorite bits from Gilmore Girls.*

This is not to say that HHMs have not adapted to appeal to a broader audience, argues Sorin. Interest in social history resulted in HHMs that focused not on the great men and women of society (such as the Powels) but on common people who led well-documented lives. An emphasis on artifacts and authenticity–two major draws of traditional museums according to David Thelen and Roy Rosezweig in The Presence of the Past, their survey of Americans’ reckoning with the past.

At the Powel House, the interpretive shift has led to more information on the people who occupied the house after the Powels, both those that helped restore and maintain it and those that endangered it. Before Frances Anne Wister bought up the property and restored it, the previous owner, Wolf Klebansky, had sold plaster-work and other architectural details of several rooms to museums such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

 

The stories of Wister and Klebansky are told in some of the few bits of text interpretation at Powel House but they may have more of a starring role in the near future, if Davidson has her way, along with a pantheon of the house’s other residents. A select few got to see a foretaste of what this new direction might look like during Philadelphia’s Fringe Festival. The Philadelphia Opera Collective partnered with the Philadelphia Society of the Preservation of Landmarks (Wister’s organization, which still operates Powel House) to put on Shadow House, a site-specific opera which brought many of the past residents to life as they sang about their experiences in the house. In my short experience of the piece (I was primarily manning the refreshments table as a volunteer), I found it over-stimulating, but I also found it terribly exciting. The audiences who saw the 10-performance run of Shadow House were invited in to the house’s history in a way that the daytime tours couldn’t offer. I can’t wait to see more site-specific theater in historic/heritage sites.

 

*I love all of the #publichistorymoments in Gilmore Girls. The hamlet of Stars Hollow is always trying to increase its appeal to tourists, usually through heritage events and gimmicks. And the diorama display? It closes after all of the town’s residences have seen it and the proprietor realizes no one else will pay the admission fee. #tooreal

UPDATE: The process of trying to find the relevant clips led me to pitch a crowd-sourced list of Gilmore public history moments, which led to starshollowhistoricalsociety.wordpress.com . Check it out!

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