When I was an undergrad, I resided in a neo-gothic building that was built in 1931, and ate in that dormitory’s dining hall, which is often compared to the Hogwarts Great Hall. I attended classes in historically and architecturally significant buildings. Later, I worked in those same buildings, planning and executing many events where students, faculty, alumni, and members of the community gathered, learned, and celebrated. Eventually, my husband and I married each other in one of those historic buildings. In short, I lived in these buildings. Their historic and architectural significance was in the background for ten years of my life. They continue to be the background for everyone who continues to live and work on that campus.
Frank & me at our wedding
I am baffled, then, by the sentiment expressed in The End of History Museums: What’s Plan B? by Cary Carson, in which the author expresses dismay at the use of historic buildings and house museums as event venues. Carson bemoans the fact that this kind of usage of a building “relegate[s] the centerpiece historic house or site to the background – educationally and often literally.” But why do we preserve these places if not to use and enjoy them? What good does treating a building as an untouchable temple do, other than serve as one method (out of many) of preserving that building? Carson is wrong here; events can help connect the community to their heritage through use of a historic building.
An alumni reunion dinner set at the Oriental Institute
Carson quotes a complaint that house museum offerings are “disconnected both from current issues and from their own communities.” This is a problem that could be solved by inviting the community into the building on their own terms. Why ought not the Emily Dickinson Museum host poetry club meetings or poetry writing workshops? Events such as these would continue the narrative of the historic building and help the community make meaningful connections with the building. To take an extreme example, the White House has not been closed off and turned into a temple of learning. We still put the President of the United States there and expect him to govern from the Oval Office. The current President is continuing the narrative of the White House, and the building is more interesting and more valuable because of it.
Boston promotes these kind of connections effortlessly. Increase Mather is buried in my backyard; I walk through the site of the Boston Massacre at least 3 times a week; the daily cannon shot from Old Ironsides rattles my windows every morning at 8:00 a.m. Bostonians don’t visit their historic sites; they live in them, as I used to live in the buildings on the University of Chicago campus. History and the present day thrive through coexistence.
History museums can thrive, too, if we are willing to let ourselves live in them.