Historic House Museums: the good, the bad and the ugly (literally)


Greetings from the other end of the mighty Susquehanna! Over the last few weeks I’ve been researching that favorite of all museums…Historic House Museums! Specifically I’ve been researching how historic house museums can utilize/develop/enhance/think up earned income streams and thus hopefully become more sustainable and less dependent on public or private funding. 

I’ve learned a lot and have had many of my preconceived notions challenged. And even though it does seem to be true that you can’t throw a stone without hitting one, there are definitely some really great things going on in historic house museums. I’m really enjoying experiencing some of the quirky aspects of each historic house museum (and yes, it seems they each have one), from the large stone shrine to a later owner’s horse behind the Nathan Hale Homestead (I’ve already put in an order for one for my horse), to the millions of arts and crafts tiles covering floors, walls, ceilings and even furniture in Fonthill (nothing says home like concrete), to speed dating at the Noah Webster House (I’m not sure if Webster would have even allowed ‘speed dating’ in the dictionary let alone his house).

But then there are the great ones: 

 Wyck House, a nondescript Quaker house in Philadelphia, produces veggies, herbs, flowers and eggs (soon) from their interpretive grounds and sells them every Friday on their sidewalk. They are the only source for local produce in their economically depressed neighborhood and they fully participate in public assistance food programs. So yay for reinvention!

I also really liked the thriftyness of the Mifflinburg Buggy Museum (I had never heard of them either before finding their great little website). They were able to use two local grants to create several streams of earned income including a video tour of the buildings and grounds to facilitate ADA accessibility which they now produce and sell, a local artists rendition of the site which they’ve made prints of to sell and they processed a collection of glass plate negatives in their collection which they also now reproduce for sale and licensing. The MBM began as an all volunteer organization in the late 1970s and since then they’ve restored or rebuilt 4 buildings, created a collection, and built a modern visitor center, and they’ve only just recently hired their first director (take note Meredith Historical Society…it can be done!).

Currently I’m looking for some sites to ‘try out’ my developing checklist of potential earned income opportunities. If anyone has a favorite site or if there are any interesting earned income streams at any of your internship sites let me know. Hope everyone is having fun and staying safe!


One Response to “Historic House Museums: the good, the bad and the ugly (literally)”

  1. gretchensorin Says:

    Amy, your research shows that the size of the site is not important. It’s the creativity of the staff and perhaps the board in considering what types of activities are mission focused and can generate revenue. As you move into the testing phase keep in mind that some of your suggestions will take a long time to germinate–building a garden or getting a site used as a film venue are not things that will necessarily happen quickly.

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