by Frank Vagnone
On a snowy winter day Caroline Drabik, Historic House Trust Director of Curatorial Affairs, and I boarded a train to Albany, NY and then drove through blizzard conditions. Not because we’re gluttons for punishment – we were on our way to facilitate a professional seminar and think-tank at the SUNY Oneonta Cooperstown Graduate Program (CPG) in Museum Studies as part of the LatimerNOW Historic House Museum project.
So what did we brave the weather to talk about? The concept of HABITATION.
We asked the participants – “If you had to create an historic house museum of where you lived, what would it look like?”
It wasn’t as serious and dry as it might sound. I promise. Our first activity was to view one-minute smartphone videos that somehow expressed a personal concept of “habitation” for each participant. (Links to these coming soon.) The number one word for my video was “Chaotic”. The videos were pretty varied -they ranged from someone’s perspective of his beloved cat to a romp through someone’s morning routine (tooth brushing included).
“Gabby’s” perspective of HABITATION.
The morning consisted of discussing various concepts that the videos teased out and how those concepts could become parts of a new innovative way of interpreting historic house museums.
We then broke up into three groups – each taking an aspect of the Larimer House’s history:
- Latimer Family in their home.
- Latimer House as a boarding house. (The family did that to help pay bills after Lewis and his wife died.)
- The Latimer House as a cultural venue.
The ideas that grew from these group conversations were fantastic and they quickly were written on the whiteboard. Overlapping concepts, dovetailing ideas and expansive thoughts about what the Lewis H. Latimer House could (and should) be quickly arose.
Here are the most blogworthy findings:
There aren’t a lot of African American historic sites in the U.S. — Latimer, his family and their legacy are an essential part of the site and any future interpretative changes need to recognize that.
Special consideration needed to be given to the larger population of Flushing, Queens with a goal of achieving some sort of relevance for the Chinese American population of the area.
There is a difference between the PHYSICAL nature of habitation and the MOTIVATIONS for that physical nature of habitation.
That means that we can still honor Lewis H. Latimer and his family’s legacy without producing a traditional collection-based historic house museum. (i.e. – “Explore” signs instead of “Don’t touch” signs)
Figure out what the MOTIVATION is and then produce programming to express that motivation.
INVENTION – INSPIRATION – CREATIVITY – those are the motivating themes for the new and improved Lewis H. Latimer House
So how does that translate from the classroom to the Latimer house in Flushing?
Based on the concepts above a few programming and interpretive themes and ideas kept re-appearing.
- A “Tinkering Studio”
- Creative/Inventive Studio
- Hands-on making
- Resident inventor/artist space
- Latimer Scholars
The entire day was full of fantastic ideas & conversation. We are now back in New York City letting our LatimerNOW team hear about the ideas – and how we can use them in our next steps for this project. Stay tuned!
HABITATION one minute smartphone video by Franklin Vagnone, Executive Director of Historic House Trust of NYC