Tuesday, November 29, 2011

House Museums and the Revitalization of the Inner City (Part 2)

In my last post, I laid out some rather optimistic plans for a new Philadelphia house museum that would interpret the history of the city's African American community. The site, I argued, would be well situated to do critical public history on "the tough stuff of American memory" while also serving as a community center and as a starting line for neighborhood economic revitalization.

Seems pretty ideal. So why hasn't anybody tried it, yet?

I can't say for sure, but I can suggest a few reasons -- based on this week's readings, as well as my own conjecture -- why it would be tough to do.

First and foremost, the contemporary professional discourse on house museum perpetuation suggests not opening new house museums, but finding new uses for existing spaces. As Marian Godfrey notes, "both rural and urban [house museums] have [found new and economically vital lives] as art galleries, bed and breakfasts, and conference centers, used and appreciated by the public daily." A Philly-adjacent example of this trend, as cited by Godfrey, is the John Audubon House in Montgomery County, which recently switched from a fully-functional house museum to a space preserving only Audubon's bedroom and converting the rest of the house into an art center (while placing preservation focus on the house's exterior alone). [1]

Second, and perhaps most important, postindustrial cities -- though ideally situated to do critical public history that addresses important historical and contemporary themes -- often fail to accomplish such full interpretation. As Stanton points out in her case study of Lowell, "truly critical perspectives increasingly struggle to make headway against the layered social and economic forces . . . that serve on so many levels to dampen them" [2]. Given that Philadelphia has recently been the site of controversy between "truly critical perspectives" on history and a gauntlet of "layered social and economic forces . . . that serve on so many levels to dampen them," perhaps it would not be such a great site for a radical house museum like the one I have in mind.

This may sound like a conservative retreat from inciting the next public history controversy. It probably is. I guess I'm not one of the "progressive public historians" that Stanton so ably studies in her book. It just seems to me that an effort to create the city's first African American house museum, however exciting and however ideally poised to make a vital contribution to the city's historical community, is bound from the outset to fail -- or at least get stymied and become ideologically impotent along the way.


[1] Marian A. Godfrey, “Historic House Museums: An Embarrassment of Riches?” Forum Journal, Spring 2008, 14-15.

[2] Cathy Stanton, The Lowell Experiment: Public History in a Postindustrial City (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006), 228.

1 comment:

  1. Devin, there is one house museum in Germantown that has some elements of African American history, especially regarding slavery. The Johnson House does an interesting mix of Quaker and "freedom seeker" history, at least in the History Hunter's education tours. I've included a link to the Johnson House section of the workbook that accompanies the tours.