Ready, Set, Museum Anarchy!

 by Olivia Cothren, Historic House Trust Manager of Development and Special Initiatives

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Overview:

The grant received from the New York Community Trust (NYCT) will allow the Historic House Trust of New York City (HHT) to conceptualize, develop and launch an “Anarchist Plan” at the Lewis H. Latimer House to maximize strategic, social and economic impact in Flushing, Queens.  HHT will assemble a diverse Anarchist Guide Team comprised of HHT Staff, HHT House Staff, Latimer House Board members and caretaker and Edward I. Koch Fellows to work collaboratively on this project.  The project will equip Latimer House with tools for sustainability by introducing a new model of operation that will engage the community through shared authority, stimulate all the senses during a visit, reflect habitation instead of static exhibition, and propose new preservation standards.  Ultimately, HHT aspires to position Latimer House as an essential community resource that bridges past and present and unites diverse audiences by acting as a center of social history, explorative experience and common identity.

Basic Philosophy of The Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums:

The Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums originated from an April 2012 lecture given by Franklin Vagnone.  This philosophy calls for the holistic reexamination of the current historic house museum model and the establishment of a paradigm from the perspective of human habitation.  This philosophy empowers historic sites to face issues affecting the field—including declining visitation, financial instability, and mounting preservation costs—by rejecting the static, museum-style exhibition and docent-led interpretation of the past and embracing a community- and visitor-driven, sensory, tactile and dynamic model of operation. The four guiding principles are as follows:

  • Community: prioritizes relationship-building and developing narratives with local communities as the key to successful reinterpretation and reorganization of historic houses. To begin the Anarchist Guide process, houses must employ a “reverse affinity groups” approach. Through this process, house staff members identify and work with community groups that have little connection to their site and use community interests to reconstruct their narrative and operations, thus making sites relevant to local communities. Collections, narrative and research will no longer solely dictate tours and programming. Using reverse affinity groups, houses may begin to take on expanded functions such as soup kitchen, community meeting room, space for learning new skills/languages/trades, exhibition gallery, etc. These changes will be melded with collections and narratives to create an entirely new model for connecting communities to their local historic sites.
  • Experience: promotes loosening the boundaries that separate visitors from the house and increases sensory engagement. Just as inhabitants had free movement throughout their house, so too will visitors. Nothing will sit passively in cases or behind velvet ropes; everything will be accessible.  Engaging senses through light, scent and sound installations will bring the house to life and encourage visceral, immediate connections. Simply put, historic houses should feel like houses, not museums.
  • Habitation: introduces changes to historic house interiors to better reflect habitation.  Traditional furnishings plans are rejected. Instead, a fluid mix of collections objects and reproductions will provide a tactile experience and relay the anachronistic realities of historic interiors typically shunned by period rooms. The specific things that populate the house will often be switched or replaced, like in any house, to suggest the rhythm of household life—seasons, celebrations, births, deaths, change in general.  Objects must contribute to both the historic context and current vitality of the space, not deaden it.
  • Shelter: questions expensive, pure notions of preservation.  Instead of restoring every house according to the highest standard, houses must adopt a spectrum of condition and be honest about the illusion of authenticity. Multiple theories of preservation and conservation should be employed at one historic house and preservation work in action should be exposed to visitors.  Unpreserved parts of a building can become areas of teaching and inspiration rather than remain off-limits.  Lastly, houses must embrace the fabric and energy of the current built environment instead of operating in an imagined, pastoral past.

Project Site:

Several factors make Latimer House a strong site for conducting a comprehensive Anarchist pilot.  Currently, Latimer House has no Executive Director or staff. The house’s location in the center of a diverse residential community, the willingness of its Board and caretaker to test new ideas, the lack of collections and programming, the current low visitation and a compelling narrative that includes diversity, aspiration and technology renders Lewis H. Latimer House a prime host for its pilot Museum Anarchist initiativse.

What Got Us Here:

  • Development of the Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums (lead by Franklin Vagnone with significant collaboration with Deborah Ryan and Olivia Cothren & the HHT Staff)
  • Extensive lectures and speaking engagements on the Anarchist Guide (Franklin Vagnone, Deborah Ryan)
  • University level courses on the Anarchist Guide at universities including Columbia University, Cooperstown Graduate Program, Parsons The New School for Design and University of North Carolina at Charlotte (taught by Franklin Vagnone, Meredith Horsford, Olivia Cothren and Community Engagement specialist and UNCC Professor Dbeorah  Ryan)
  • Pilot of Anarchist program concepts with the Morris-Jumel Mansion Museum in May 2013 (lead by MJMM Interim Director Carol Ward, MJMM Board President Jim Kerr, Caroline Drabik, Jonathan Mellon and Franklin Vagnone)

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The Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums: LatimerNOW team members. Historic House Trust Staff, Advisory Committee & Edward I. Koch Fellows .

Basic Outline of Project Activities:

  1. Conduct interviews and make selections for Edward I. Koch Fellow positions (COMPLETED)
  2. Assemble Team for Kickoff Meeting and initial assignments (COMPLETED)
  3. Review conceptual framework of Anarchist Guide
    1. Conduct community engagement efforts in Flushing and surrounding neighborhoods (including participating in community board meetings, liaising with community leaders and businesses, partnering with local nonprofits, conducting oral histories, etc.) and research into the life and work of Lewis H. Latimer and family
    2. Use community engagement information and Latimer research to create an “Anarchist Plan,” which will guide the development of Anarchist furnishings plan/new narratives and uses/programming/ambiance, etc. at Latimer House
    3. Conduct ongoing community outreach and assessment
    4. Adapt plans as needed based on project feedback and evaluation
    5. Document and disseminate results using diverse methods

 Expected Outcomes

  • Increased site accessibility and community presence, including more and longer open hours, greater visitation and use of the site, and more representation of the community in Latimer House’s narrative and programming
  • Increased physicality and interactivity at Latimer House, such as less restricted visitor movement through the house, handling of objects by visitors and the creation of light and sound installations
  • Noticeable changes to interiors at Latimer House, such as the introduction of reproduction items and the presence of “clutter,” when appropriate, to suggest the space’s prior habitation
  • Increased emphasis on community and information engagement at Latimer House, such as the establishment of social media and the presence of community-driven themes within narratives
  • Noticeable changes to preservation at Latimer House, such as embedding information on the house’s preservation within the narrative, the presence of varying degrees of preservation at the house and the exposure of preservation in action

7 responses

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  7. We’re now a year out from this post. Can you provide an update, especially on the progress towards the expected outcomes? (I am a museum professional who is honestly curious. This approach seems very promising, but is it panning out?)

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