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!