Friday, November 27, 2009

Conference on "Progress & Peril of Historic Sites"

When the public thinks of imperiled historic sites, it probably has in mind the venerable urban structure facing the wrecking ball or the battlefield contending with sprawl and encroachment. Perhaps a stately mansion has fallen on hard times: notably, Edith Wharton's The Mount, caught in a scissors between colossally poor budgetary choices and general hard times last year. Most recently, we learned of the crisis at the far less well-known Montgomery Place in Annandale-on-Hudson, which Historic Hudson Valley was reputedly thinking of selling.

What the public perhaps does not understand is that virtually every historic site is facing hard times and harder choices. The small ones are most in jeopardy: under-resourced to begin with, many have to contend with unsustainable business models, soaring costs for upkeep, inadequate display and storage facilities for incoherent collections, and presentation models and missions more suited to the era of the Model T and Life magazine than Facebook and the mashup.

Preservation professionals have in recent years heatedly debated the very need for our profusion of small house museums. Has the genre outlived its purpose? And even if not, do we really need so many of them? Could not their limited resources be put to better use? Would the few genuinely significant articles in their collections not be better sold off or distributed to institutions that know how to conserve, study, and present them to larger audiences? It comes to resemble the debates about social history a generation or more ago: what is the real benefit, for either the researcher or the rare reader, of yet another study of a single English village?

The Worcester Historical Museum and Historic New England are sponsoring a conference to deal with precisely these issues next week:
Can You Change In Time? Progress & Peril of Historic Sites

A one-day conference
Click here for the agenda.
December 3, 2009

Thursday, December 3, 2009 9 to 5 P.M.
at Trinity Lutheran Church,
73 Lancaster Street, Worcester, MA 01609

The state of historic house museums and sites has been a topic of increasing concern to professionals, volunteers, and community leaders for nearly a decade. Small budgets impacted by difficult financial times, level or diminishing visitation, and confusing stories herald the need for change — of message or mission. Is it time to change? Is there an alternative for your historic house/site?
Our own local organizations are quite aware of the challenge and determined to act sooner rather than later. For example, the Amherst Historical Society & History Museum, whose board I recently joined, held its own public-input and visioning session already at the end of the spring. Representatives of the major sites in Amherst and Northampton will be making presentations in Worcester. I'll be there just in order to watch and learn. I hope to report back here in the near future.

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