The “Period of Significance” Trap

The other week, I had a chat with a colleague that got me thinking about the challenges of historic house museums in an entirely different way. I’m working with him as a peer reviewer through the American Alliance of Museums. Alas, virtual visits are still a thing this year–which can be such a handicap when trying to properly assess a museum and its community.

But the good news for this particular site is that I have been there before. About 5 years ago. As a tourist. So, I have some knowledge of the site, but the memories are a bit hazy. Prior to our meeting, I had read up on the site’s history so it was fresh in my mind. Part of our conversation went something like this:

Him: “We’re working on updating the tour. We’ve always really focused on the early period.”

Me: “Does the tour even mention the abolitionists that bought the property and sold land to freed slaves? Even though it’s been five years, I feel like I might have remembered something like that.”

Him: “Nope. And that’s part of the problem.”

And that got me to thinking: how has the “period of significance” or “time capsule” style of interpretation limited historic houses? And how could that be cutting us off from audiences?

When we started the reinterpretation project at Millermore, one of my recurring themes was that this building was a home for 100 years–but we’re only talking about the 1860s. My slightly inappropriate joke was that William Brown Miller (the patriarch, and really the only name we used with any regularity) wasn’t even the most interesting white man that ever lived there. Houses evolve–and the people living and working in them change. If we’re only capturing a few years in a building’s life, what are we missing?

Of course, it’s far easier to stick with one narrow band of time. I can hear the counter-argument that visitors might be confused if multiple time time periods are explored within one house. And it certainly helps narrow a collections plan or furnishings plan. But who among us doesn’t have family heirlooms next to stuff you bought last year at Ikea? Does a static time capsule really help bring history to life?

In Millermore, we didn’t make a lot of changes to the furnishings of the rooms–though that was something in the long-term plan. Our primary curatorial shift was to talk about different themes in each room–themes that helped capture the full century of this building’s life before it became a museum exhibit.

There are historic houses that are stepping away from the “period of significance.” The Bush-Holley House in Greenwich is one example. What others are you aware of?

As we continue to rethink museums and historic houses, I hope we’ll be able to step beyond the period appropriate rooms with “items of the period” to a place where we can share stories and make connections. Is it time to start thinking of rooms within a historic house as individual exhibit galleries? Does every historic house need a bedroom? After all, there’s probably the least amount of change in how we sleep than anything else.

I also can’t help but think of some of the historic houses that are developing a hybrid tour model. Spaces where you have a guide for a bit but then are let loose. A favorite from several years ago is the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace, which I wrote about here. A more recent example is the Mary Todd Lincoln House, which I visited last June.

Exterior of Mary Todd Lincoln Home in Lexington

They had a staff member stationed on each floor, but it was otherwise self-guided. There were great interpretive panels that told a fairly complex and full history of the Todd family, as well as the very mixed opinions regarding Mary. Most importantly, the interpretation wasn’t just about the most famous member of the family.

Label about slavery

I asked the guide how much of this shift was a result of Covid-19 protocols. He said that some of the interpretation work had started pre-pandemic, but the pandemic really pushed them away from a traditional guided tour. He doesn’t think they’ll ever return to that traditional tour–and I thanked him for that!

An example of their period room. No barrier! Great cards highlighting key objects in the room.

All of these methods open up a historic house to more stories, a broader audience, and a far more interesting experience. In other words, what are we missing by treating these historic spaces as just a house, locked in time?

It’s something I’m going to continue to ponder, both in this current peer review project as well as future work with clients.

Published by Melissa Prycer

Professional history and museum nerd, among other things. Working to help build a better museum field and a better Dallas. Formerly Executive Director at Dallas Heritage Village.

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