There’s something special about house museums. I think few would deny the sense of intimacy and pilgrimage that so easily comes from visiting the home of a much-loved historical figure. But there’s also a definite tension about such places, in how someone is recorded and represented, how we connect with our heroes. What is it that separates a house from a museum, and do we like those separations? What, indeed, is a house museum?
Those were the questions at the heart of a two day conference run at the Wallace Collection last week by the Museums and Galleries History Group ‘Houses as Museums / Museums as Houses’. Across five panels and 17 speakers, we heard about every conceivable type of house/museum from wide geographies and chronologies: from William Hunter’s anatomy museum in 18th-century London to Vizcaya, an extraordinary pastiche of 18th-century Venice built in 1930s Miami.
In her personal, sensitive keynote on the pleasures and paradoxes of house museums, Helen Rees Leahy got us to consider all the questions behind her current project to open Elizabeth Gaskell’s Manchester home to the public (opens 5 October). In a thought-provoking and witty round table discussion Abraham Thomas, director of Sir John Soane’s Museum, Giles Waterfield, historian and director of Royal Collection Studies, and Nicholas Tromans, curator of the Watts Gallery, outlined how the contemporary resonance of such houses as spaces of education or social change might be brought to life by programmes and collaborations today.
What emerged from all the papers, for me, was how many emotions can be bound up in a house museum. Each is a portrait of someone, where objects (relics), narratives and senses of period space are brought together to give a sense of intimacy. As Nicholas Tromans put it so beautifully, they are small enough to fall in love with, in a way that a large universal museum could never be. They are spaces that we feel we can inhabit, which breathe the character of their famous owner. Sophie Forgan got us to think anthropologically about the house as an artefact that shapes its occupant, and Caroline Morris gave us the powerful image of a house as the protective shell of its owner.
But we also expect these houses to shape us as visitors. Lydia Brandt discussed the striking idea behind the early opening of George Washington’s Mount Vernon as a house museum, that the house would influence its visitors to become good American citizens. The central question, then, is how life in such a house is captured and presented. Should we reconstruct interiors, or simply evoke where original contents are few and far between? What point in the life of a house should we return to? What is the relationship between a building and its contents? Jeremy Aynsley spoke fascinatingly about different period approaches to reconstructing and interpreting houses left by the Bauhaus school in Dessau.
Perhaps there is no simple answer to the question of the house museum precisely because every one is individual and idiosyncratic, and every visitor has a unique experience. They are about personalities: of the owners, builders, curators, and visitors, all tied up together. I am left, fittingly, with a very personal list of much-loved places that I would describe as a house museum and many new places to visit.
Hollow memorials? the problem with artists’ houses (Martin Oldham)