Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Next Generation House Museums

I just got back from two full days at the Buford Pusser Home and Museum in Adamsville, TN. It was amazing, as always, and we ended up completing an inventory of their artifact and archival collection. It will still require some fine tuning, but the team of people we had working on itemizing all of the artifacts, detailing a description, and evaluation the condition, they were able to cover an amazing amount of ground in only two days. While I do not enjoy doing focused, detailed work like creating an inventory and then doing the data entry, I can appreciate the benefits of going through that process. After laying hands on and describing everything in that house, I know have a very solid grasp on what they have and how to organize the interpretation of the museum in a fundamental way.

Megan Akerstrom, fellow public history grad student, doing an inventory in Buford's den

While we created a heritage development plan for them last year, which covered our recommended thematic changes to how the rooms are currently organized, I can now tell them how to make that vision a reality on an item-by-item level. I've appreciated this approach ever since my first assignment as a graduate research assistant at the Albert Gore Research Center when I was a public history MA student at Middle Tennessee State University. My first assignment was to update the Gore Center's internal finding aid for where each of their collections was located. It didn't need much of an update, but after that I knew where each collection was because I had laid hands on each one. So, while that kind of work is still not something that I look foward to (I'd rather talk about it, organize a workshop about it, or do some other "big picture" related job), I can fully appreciate what putting in the time and effort will get you.

Doing this work at the Buford Pusser museum also helped me to understand the story in a visceral way. It was a total immersion experience into that man's life and the home life of his family. And that was possible because of their fantastic collections. As my boss keeps saying, "They are covered up in authenticity." But because they have so many wonderful items, the museum is a bit disorganized. It is not that the museum is bad, but it could be better. At the same time, the sheer number of items and the great interpretive value of each item makes it overwhelming in thinking about how to organize the museum. And the result is that artifacts have ended up in some odd locations in the house or without interpretation that makes sense to outside visitors (but is recognized by the people who are fully immersed in the story). With the new inventory, I think that this could be easily fixed with another hands-on work day out at the museum (look for that to happen sometime this summer).

Another issue that this museum brings up for me, though, is the idea of a contemporary house museum and the new trends in house museums. My original training in museum management said that museums are contained spaces. Basically you did your best to freeze the site in time and instituted artificial controls to keep the site frozen, and therefore preserved. This meant disabling passive environmental systems and installing HVAC, removing all plants from the house, never allowing food inside a museum, etc. Last fall I went to a session at the National Trust for Historic Preservation meeting in Tulsa where a panel of preservationists and scientists from the UK's National Trust discussed their findings related to those techniques. Their conclusions were that we haven't saved buildings by imposing modern technology onto them. In fact we're implementing a whole new set of preservation issues and they recommended that using the buildings as they were originally intended was the best course of action.

Shortly after that meeting, I represented the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area at an Alliance of National Heritage Areas meeting in Asheville, NC. Our hosts, the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, showed us around the area and took us on a full tour of the Biltmore. It had been years since I was there and after my training and the information from the Trust meeting, I saw the experience in a whole new light. The Biltmore does not have HVAC; instead they use the passive environmental systems that were originally designed for the house. They cook food in the kitchen (and it smells great), and they adorn the house throughout the year with live plants and bring in cuttings (or whole trees at Christmas) from the grounds. In short, they still treat it like a house. And it works.

Technology museums insist on keeping their artifacts in working order and often show them at work (be it a car or an oil rig) as part of how they teach about why shouldn't history museums do the same? There are limits, but I'm interested in exploring those limits. And one of those places where I think it is appropriate to put that philosophy to work is at the Buford Pusser Museum.

Fellow grad student, Liz Smith, grabbing a donut in Buford Pusser's Kitchen

The '70s equipment in the kitchen all still works, including Buford's Sub-Zero built-in refigerator (he bought the display model and got a great deal on it, but he was till very proud of it). In your own home, you would keep it clean, but you would still eat in it without being overrun by why not in a museum like this? I think that continuing to use the kitchen in this museum keeps it feeling like a welcoming home. It only adds to the authenticity of the setting.

On top of this, I have to do a complete mental shift to thinking about contemporary houses as possible museums. Graceland is a similar site and I keep making comparisons between the two museums. Buford's house is a middle class version of Graceland, but there are similarities (apart from Elvis and Buford being friends). Being a historian, I tend to think of antebellum mansions as historic house museums, but there is more to our history than that. I would love to do a whole other research project on the issues of contemporary house museums...and perhaps I will in the future.

Megan and Liz posing with Dwana Pusser Garrison (daughter of Buford and Pauline Pusser and Adamsville City Commissioner)

No comments:

Post a Comment