P R O J E C T S . A N D . M U S E U M . C R E A T I O N S

Keynote presentation to the Conference of Pennsylvania Federation of Museums and Historical Organizations, Harrisburg June 4-6 2005

First of all I’d like to introduce the International Committee of Historic House Museums (the brand name is DEMHIST) which I’m representing as president.
Demhist was created by ICOM at the General Conference in Melbourne in 1998. Its aim was to promote a special kind of museum, that is the house museum, till then considered a “poor relative” of the classical kind of museums such as Fine arts or Decorative arts Museums, or Historical Museums, depending on the collections exhibited.
In other words, Demhist was created in order to show that house museums have a specific identity of their own and should not be confused with other museums. So house museums have their own particular tools and strategies to narrate their stories to the public.

Like all Icom’s other Committees, Demhist is open to professionals and volunteers involved in the management of house museums. I’m thinking of people interested in sharing problems and solutions connected with the restoration and marketing, as well as the relationship between house museums and their surroundings, between the interior furniture, decoration and collections, and the buildings themselves.
Every year Demhist organizes a Conference . The conference held in Lisbon (October 2005)has the aim to discuss how to restore correctly not only the objects, that is the patrimony exhibited, or the building, but to preserve the inner meaning of the house museum, as well. That is, how a house museum can preserve its role as privileged witness of a society, of an artistic taste, of an historical period, of a whole life. In this sense, our next conference takes up the main theme of Icom’s last general conference in Seoul (2004), when it was pointed out how the aim of the Museum is the preservation of the tangible (objects, buildings, collections) and the intangible (that is rituals, tastes, meanings ..), that is the whole range of human heritage.
I think that a house museum is potentially one of the most precious means of preserving our cultural identity, but only if it is able to bring together its tangible and intangible patrimonies.
I know that I’m talking to professionals actually aware of the importance of HMs, considering that the America Association of Museums – in its Statute – lists “HMs” among the Historical and Cultural heritage of the Nation (I don’t know any other National Association of Museums that have done the same).
Just as the American Association for State and Local History has created a Directory of Historic House Museums, which contains about 3500 entries.

I ’d now like to introduce the main project launched by Demhist in 1999 – a project that is still going on. It is called a “categorization project” or ” order out of chaos”.
What does chaos mean ? Why do we need to create categories? What for?
The starting point is: there is an enormous variety of house museums open to the public today. To take a few examples, let me remind you of some of these: royal palaces (Europe is overflowing with this kind of HHM), houses of artists, writers, houses of public figures (statesmen, entrepreneurs, scientists…), houses representing social classes (farm workers, factory workers, miners….), houses of fine arts collectors, and so on.
The only element shared by the above listed HHM is the idea of a dwelling place, but there is nothing else to link them. In fact, how could I consider Versailles or Palacio Real de Madris in any way comparable to the little house of Emile Zola in France, or to the mansion of Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston, or to Hillwood in Washington or to the modest house of Giacomo Puccini in Tuscany?
In my opinion, it would be a mistake to think that “all” house museums are the same or, even worse, what visitors experience is the same.
Each of these different kinds of HHM offers to the public a different communication, a different way of interpreting both its “Great History” and the ordinary everyday stories that took place inside it. Every house museum has an identity and a message to pass on, and the important thing is what message it intends to pass on: a lot of house museums prefer to stress the social role and importance of the person or family who lived there; others underline the artistic taste of the owner and the quality of the objects that surrounded him or her; others again decide to place the stress on the urban and social context where the house was built.
But this extraordinary range of HHMs runs the risk of creating confusion in two areas: first among the visitors, who don’t know what kind of experience to expect (will I find a place of pilgrimage devoted to the memory of a famous person, or a mirror of a society or an example of “re-enacting history” where I’m involved in a story played by actors or by simple volunteers?); second, it will create confusion among the professionals, who are not able to share experiences, problems or solutions (about for example, restoration, educational programs, management) unless they can find another house museum with a similar identity, that is, another house museum with a similar museological approach.

It is with the aim of creating order out of chaos that Demhist has launched this categorisation project.
The first step was a written form (Download the Categorization Form) to be filled in with the basic data of the house become museum and with some information about choices related to some museological activities, such as restoration, exhibition, didactic approach, and the “reading key ” proposed to the public (the form is published in the proceedings of the Demhist annual conference in Genoa 2000) .
I’d like to go through this form with you:

The first part asks for general information about the museum, such as the name of its director and the year it was set up, thus focusing on the institutional side.
This information is useful for later questions too, where the goals and display choices of the particular house museum are concerned (see, for example, questions 3 and 8). A house that became a museum a hundred years ago, for example, will have had goals consistent with the cultural and social climate of the time, as well as being in line with its historical and artistic theories - which were different from today’s.

The second part of the form asks for general information regarding the house before it became a museum. These details provide a framework we could call “architectonic” , where the various types of historic houses can be organized.

The third part consists of eight questions, and is the most detailed part of the form, in that it deals with the house as a historical entity. The first section concerns the fixed and moveable patrimony, in order to identify where the original aspects have been preserved, and where subsequent integration has taken place. It is important to underline the fact that “1b” refers to integration that has taken place since the house became a museum, that is, choices made by the directors and curators who have defined the museum identity of the. This section of the form, together with the data emerging from it, will allow those in charge to organize and define their museum based on whether they accept a policy of integration or not. This choice in fact determines a precise museological policy and consequently what kind of approach will be used in communicating with the public.
The third and fourth sections deal with criteria where exhibitions and restoration are concerned. Here again the aim is to identify choices that may have influenced the original global content – understood both in terms of objects and of “atmosphere”.
The fifth and sixth sections refer to the archives and historical material related to the house and its patrimony, while the seventh and eighth sections are meant to collect information specific to the identity of the historic house in question.
In the seventh section are questions relating to suggested or preferred ways of interpreting the whole artistic-architectonic complex, together with what means of communication are used to underscore such interpretations.
In the eighth section a synthesis of the goals of the museum in question is requested. This is the only place where an extended answer is required, since most of the form is meant to collect information that can easily be analysed and compared, even across language barriers, in order to create this network of typologies of historic houses existing today.

This form should be followed by a second similar form able to rank the house museums in homogeneous groups like, for example, houses of collectors, musicians, artists, entrepreneurs and so forth.

Coming back to the professionals, this project offers two opportunities:
First -Help towards achieving the main targets, e.g.
Defining the mission
Creating good community relations
Selecting the best strategies for public and educational programs
Successful marketing
Acceptable alternative uses for Historic House Museums

Second -It introduces local museums to a national and international network of Historic House Museums
The net can be used to share experiences and/or to create national and international tourist itineraries with other similar House Museums

Since the project started, Demhist has been receiving completed forms from all over the world. For this reason our second step will be a data base organizing all the “materials” and circulated by the net. This data base will be useful for professionals and also for future visitors to our museums, who will then find it easy to choose the kind of house they want to visit.

This project has opened the door to another Demhist activity, that is the search for a broadly accepted definition of “house museum”, because the original definition presented in Melbourne reflected what we can call a “European” vision. This vision stressed as its pivotal point the original relationship between the building and the contents (furniture, collections, decorations, and so on …). A vision not completely shared by other colleagues whose cultural approaches may give greater emphasis to aspects of the house museum closely linked to the personality and social role of the owner. For this reason such approaches will pay less attention to the original interiors than to the deep roots that bind and anchor the house museum to the local area.
It is now time to try and find a definition together, and with this aim Demhist is organizing a forum on the web in order to encourage a debate to produce the most satisfying definition for the HHM. I’m sure that it will be useful side by side with other similar projects that may be in progress.