By Monta Lee Dakin, Executive Director
Mountain-Plains Museums Association
• Your site is significant. Yet, attendance could be better.
• Your historic site has a great collection, but few see it.
• Your historic site is special, but it seems lost among the dense urban area that grew up around it.
• Entrance fees do not sustain your historic site anymore.
• Financial backers of your site grouse that it costs too much to maintain.
• Staff and programs at your historic site don’t get the funding they deserve and need.
• Staff at your site think the programs are good, but attendance never matches the energy, time and money it takes to put them on.
• Your site has a revolving door with staff because of poor pay and long hours.
• The traditional tourism model is no longer a sustainable business model for your historic site.
Ever find yourself saying these things about YOUR historic site? Most of us who have worked at historic places have. And when we were the staff, we looked hard for solutions to these problems, trying to convince donors to give more money or suffering burnout from too many special events that in the end didn’t bring in much money. Very few of us found a golden goose (or program or donor) to shore up our failing site and most of us left, leaving the headaches of our under-funded yet beloved site to a new and usually younger group of folks. Much to everyone’s dismay, that cycle continues to present day.
While there is still no sighting of a golden goose to report, there may be some relief around the corner. Ideas, mainly. Yet, ideas that could be the springboard to bringing your site back to life and to gaining over-due respectability in your community.
These ideas came out of a forum I attended called Historic Site Stewardship in the 21st Century, held this past April at the National Trust site, Kykuit, in Tarrytown, NY. Thirty senior museum leaders from around the country engaged in dialogue over three days to discuss critical issues facing the many historic sites that are in decline all over the nation. The forum was a follow-up to one held five years earlier at which evidence was presented that proved there was a decline in historic house museums across the country. The recent convening in April built upon the first by broadening its scope from historic houses to historic sites. It considered models of innovation & success for historic sites as well as challenges to their sustainability and possible alternative uses.
Not all historic sites are in decline. Many are, however. And a growing number of them across the country have either closed or struggle to stay open in the face of dwindling interest, reduced staff and lack of funding. Some people have wondered publicly if there aren’t too many historic sites. Others have worried that increasing competition has put many historic sites in survivor mode, causing the quality of their preservation and maintenance to drop drastically. These are the ones that perhaps might benefit from the new way of thinking that came out of Kykuit. This new thinking may make people squirm, but should with time generate new models that are intended to strengthen historic sites and turn them back into places that people love.
What is this new thinking? It suggests among other things that historic sites have been applying inappropriate standards to their operations. Instead of following standards that work well for other kinds of museums such as art museums, historic sites should find their own standards. It also warns that many historic sites will have to make fundamental changes if they are to survive as museums. And finally, it supports a growing belief that historic sites do not have to be a museum to be successful. There are now successful models of alternative uses that can be used to revitalize an historic site without ever having to open the doors for tours again.
Alternative uses may be one of the more controversial notions to emerge in this new movement. However, transitioning to different uses is already happening. Donna Harris’ recently published book, New Solutions for House Museums, outlines eight “other” models besides museums for historic sites for which she presents case studies already in play: study houses, co-stewardship agreements, merger, long-term leases, short-term leases, sale with easements to a private owner, sale to a non profit stewardship, donation to a government entity and reprogram for mission-based use (or adaptive re-use). These different models convey a radical concept for what is becoming acceptable as good stewardship of historic sites: no longer do they need full time staff, daily hours of operation, “velvet-rope” tours, period or display rooms filled with specialized collections, or changing exhibits. The models instead encourage boards, staff and volunteers to consider deaccessioning under-used collections, finding a use that enriches the local community, and thinking creatively to achieve long-term sustainability for the site.
While Harris presents only eight case studies, they are enough to blow the lid off of traditional historic site models because they clearly show that not only do alternative uses exist, they can be successfully used to preserve an historic site. Presenting these case studies in public forums is also akin to throwing down a gauntlet, urging the museum community to give stewards of historic sites permission to do what they must to ensure a building’s future. This unconventional concept may be a little bold for a museum community steeped in tradition. But once it is understood that boldness may be necessary to attain good stewardship, the concept may find ready converts.
Underlying these new ideas and part of their appeal are three fundamental principles: acknowledging that taking care of historic sites is not easy, giving permission to believe that historic sites don’t have to operate as museums to be successful, and re-establishing the ethic that historic sites deserve proper stewardship.
Proper stewardship forms the guts behind this re-thinking of historic sites. It is what it all comes down to, preserving significant sites for the long term. To do less than that should not be acceptable practices in any community. And with new tools coming to the fore -– such as proven models, resources and a regional and national advocacy that supports local efforts --it should start to get easier to revitalize historic sites in ways we never thought possible.
To learn more, attend the session on this topic at MPMA’s 2007 Conference in Fargo this fall.
The planning for this forum was a joint venture of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, American Association for State and Local History, American Association of Museums and American Architectural Foundation. Primary financial support was provided by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the National Trust.
This article was written by Monta Lee Dakin, Executive Director, Mountain-Plains Museums Association based on materials prepared for this meeting and the discussions that took place there. It reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of other conference participants or of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.