Closing a House Museum: From Lemons to Lemonade

Posted on: September 23rd, 2011 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 2 Comments

Written by Tom Mayes

When, where and how can an organization consider closing a historic house museum? What are the legal, ethical and public relations considerations? Last week, at the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) Conference in Richmond Virginia, I had the privilege of joining several experts in the house museum field to explore these critical questions. The panel, entitled, “From Lemons to Lemonade” included former National Trust Vice President for Historic Sites, James Vaughan, Ken Turino from Historic New England, Cindy Boyer from the Landmark Society of Western New York.

While all the speakers emphasized that they are long-time supporters of historic house museums, they – and the audience – readily acknowledged the crisis facing historic house museums and the need for organizations to explore a range of future alternatives. Closing a house museum and returning the building to private use may be the best preservation alternative in some cases. For instance, a new private owner may have the capacity to eliminate the backlog of deferred maintenance and provide ongoing care. As Jim Vaughan said, “[m]ost historic house museums were created because the property was threatened with demolition, not because the community had a crying need for a house museum. If preservation is the goal, and the organization can no longer preserve the house, then it should consider alternatives.”

But how to go about it? What are the legal and ethical concerns that should be considered?

The Historic House Closedown Checklist is a helpful tool for organizations to use when considering the future of a historic house museum. The Checklist addresses several key legal concerns, including the following issues:

  • Is the property restricted or held in trust?
  • Are the collections restricted?
  • Is there an endowment, and is it restricted?
  • Will the organization need to seek the approval from heirs, the state Attorney General’s office, or a probate court?
  • Will the organization’s decision need to be guided by “public trust” considerations, and if so, how?

Consultation with a qualified attorney is crucial to guide the organization as it assesses options and transfers a historic site.

There are also several useful publications about navigating the ethical concerns in closing a house museum, such as AASLH’s Repurposing of a Historic House/Site, (incorporating comments from the National Trust) and an article by the American Association of Museums titled “Death with Dignity.”

All the panelists recommended protecting a historic property with a preservation easement as a key part of closing a historic house museum. The National Trust’s Best Practices for Preservation Organizations Involved in Easement and Land Stewardship discusses closing a historic house museum and recommends that “the preservation organization fulfill its mission by ensuring that the property is adequately protected before conveying it out of public ownership, usually through a historic preservation easement.” As Ken Turino discussed during the panel, Historic New England’s stewardship program protects former historic house museums that were deaccessioned. Read more about preservation easements on the National Trust website.

The Best Practices publication also recommends meaningful consultation with other stakeholders as part of the closing process to avoid the experience of the Robert E. Lee Boyhood Home, which was closed with little notice, resulting in adverse publicity and a review by the Attorney General’s office. Preservationists can take notes from the Landmark Society of Western New York’s successful closing of the Campbell-Whittlesey House. After extensive internal and external communications, the Society held a commemorative memory event that provided the community with the opportunity to share memories of the museum.

Closing a house museum is not simple, nor without controversy. But with careful attention to legal and ethical standards, it may be the best solution for a historic site. We can celebrate the preservation success of carrying the house through what may have been its most threatened period and finding a new solution when a house museum is no longer sustainable.

AASLH 2011 Conference attendees can listen to the session online.

Tom Mayes is Deputy General Counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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2 Responses

  1. Ginny MacKenzie Magan

    September 23, 2011

    I have always had a bit of a hard time relating to historic house museums, though because my mother was a fan, I was taken to many as a child. In fact those visits probably inspired an early interest in history and architecture–so they can’t be all bad.

    But I always feel that they are a little less than alive, so sterile and removed (as they must necessarily be) from “life.” A well-preserved and respected lived-in house can tell much of the story of the past, and at the same time, the story of today and tomorrow. And really, all history IS is the todays and tomorrows that have passed. I adore houses–they’re without question my favorite architectural form. Houses that are no longer homes, not so much.

    Thanks for listening, and for all the National Trust does!

  2. Jennifer Esler

    September 27, 2011

    Glad to see this topic has evolved since my 1996 article on the subject in Forum magazine. It seems more important now than ever before. The more I work in the preservation field the more that I see that what once was the dominant culture is changing, and therefore our collective interest in what to preserve. Thinking about historic house museums as an adaptive reuse of a building is helpful because then another use for the historic structure can be envisioned. I like the checklist–very helpful for folks grappling with the tough work of closing a historic house museum.