Keeping Cool – or differences in house museums

My museum experience before this summer was limited to visiting various ones and volunteering at an art museum. The art museum in Knoxville was blessedly air conditioned, although the summer sun could cut you and the artwork before the curtains were lowered.

My experience with house museums? Even more limited – I’m from Memphis and I’ve never even been to Graceland! According to Sherry Butcher-Younghans’s book Historic House Museums: A Practical handbook for Their Care, Preservation, and Management, house museums “capture an essence” not found in other historic sites.

There are three types of house museums: documentary, representative, and aesthetic. Graceland, Mount Vernon, Colonial Williamsburg, and Grant-Kohrs are examples of documentary houses – they illustrate a specific time and person or people. Representative museums are examples of a way of life, not tied to an individual even though they are still legitimate. These are seen in log cabins and plantations. An aesthetic house museum is a setting for a special collection in a house. All of them use their location for a claim of authenticity.

I’ve seen an example of that essence found in authenticity here. The Granite County Museum in Philipsburg, Montana has a mock-up frontier kitchen and bedrooms, along with a miner’s cabin. The artifacts are real, but the setting is artificial – even though the museum is housed in a historical hotel! At Grant-Kohrs, the quotidian details are more tangible. An artfully arranged Victorian parlor in the Powell County courthouse would mean less and the bunkhouse shower room would almost be pointless without the context of the surrounding ranch.

However, I have seen a museum that combines a new building with a house museum intensity – the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. It is at the former Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. often stayed and where he was assassinated. But they didn’t leave the building as is – there are additions and only two rooms were left. You walk past Dr. King’s room. Then you go across the street to the other half of the museum – because they also bought the rooming house James Earl Ray stayed in and you can see the spot he allegedly fired from. Combined with the subject matter, the integrity of the historic location makes for a very powerful experience.

However! On a lighter note, it is hot in Montana in July. So very hot – but none of the historic buildings are air conditioned, as that would greatly violate their integrity and be far too expensive. But the Hemingway home in Key West, Florida – well, they’ve got their AC. Integrity doesn’t mean much if you’re injuring guests and artifacts!


Time passes

We’ve finished cleaning the main house and moved on to the bunk house. We’re continuing most of the cleaning techniques we used in the house, but we can keep our shoes on since the floors aren’t carpeted. (I got to keep my belt on and cover myself in 30% DEET bug spray cleaning the horse stalls. The horses are long gone, but the mosquitoes remain.)

Some of our techniques are even more important, as there are great differences between the items in the rooms the cowboys and ranch hands uses and those in the main house. One is age – most things in the house date to 1900 at the latest, used by the Kohrs. There are a few of Con Warren’s books in the shelves, but it’s mostly his grandparents’. The bunk house was used from Johnny Grant’s day in the 1860s through Con Warren’s management of the ranch in the 1930s. Most of the items are from that period. These items also feel and look older than the items in the house. The Kohrs spent most of their time in Helena after 1900, and their stature while alive lent importance to their items.

The kitchens – despite a chronological and class gap – share many items. Those in the bunk house show chronic use and a purpose. They show more of a sense of time and history. The Kohrs house is museum quality and has been for a long time. Not a bad thing, just not as visceral.

There are some items in the house that bring that sense of time and history to bear – the music sheets and magazines are more fragile than the books, so they appear more real and solid as historic evidence of Victorian life.

Don’t Touch That! or the struggles of working in a house museum

My work for the last four weeks has been cleaning rooms and artifacts in the ranch house. We vacuum and dust, using no chemicals except special ones for the windows. Water comes out for the fly specks and that’s it.

We are cleaning the house top to bottom and inventorying all the items within. Soon, we’ll move to the other buildings at the ranch and keep at it.

The house is an artifact – this a house museum (subject of a future post) – which makes for some unusual cleaning techniques.

Here are some important things I’ve learned!

DO wear gloves – we use nitrile because fancy white cotton gloves will catch on things and the oils on your hands damage items.

DON’T wear shoes or a belt – we’re walking on historic rugs and flooring and your belt or anything lose may catch and scratch an item.

DO use proper lifting techniques – sure, protect your back or whatever but follow the rules because these chairs are fragile.

DON’T touch anything!

My god, this is the hardest part of any task. Vacuuming the back of a couch is difficult (there’s a screen that has to be placed perfectly and then moving the vacuum attachment moves the screen!), but not touching the wall is murder! I had to vacuum the blanket on a bed and the part along the wall was the hardest thing I’ve done so far. I had to sit straighter than I’ve ever sat, because I couldn’t touch the wall behind me or the bed in front of me, and don’t drag that vacuum hose!

DO pay attention to your movements and those of everything around you.

DON’T swing that ladder!

DO remember that everything in here is at least 100 years old and needs to be cleaned to keep going the next 100 years.



This is history?

Tuesday afternoon, a very much alive and very much mobile wolf spider skitters off the glue trap as I shriek and ask myself , “What even does this have to do with my degree?”

Wednesday, my supervisor takes a picture of me vacuuming fake food to put on facebook to confuse everyone back home.

Friday, I haunt the tours below while vacuuming the second story of the Grant-Kohrs ranch house. As I jump for the millionth time this week (the floorboard squeaked!), I wonder, “This is history? This is my history internship?”

And it is. All of those events and the ones in between are directly connected to public history. That tour group haunted by Augusta Kohrs (me) vacuuming over their heads is the point, is the history.

Some bugs directly destroy artifacts (beetles and weevils!) while others are food for greater pests (oh those flies). The bug traps and vacuuming are directly related to the preservation of the artifacts and the house museum these tour groups see. As my supervisor Patricia Miller told a school group, “We’re cleaning so your children and your children’s children can see it in the same condition we see it today.”

The fake food? It brings verisimilitude to the kitchen, dining room, and bunkhouse kitchen. And it makes us look like we’re playing house! … I mean history.