When I am working with a historic house museum, or really any type of museum, I get confusing signals. I always want to ask, ‘What business are you in?’ Some museums seem to be in the business of ‘preserving artifacts,’ leaving little room for interpretation and telling stories. Others seem to be in the business of ‘creating narratives,’ and yet their stories can be internally focused. I’m always looking for examples of museums that are in the business of ‘engaging communities’ … whether visitors, scholars, donors, or those who live and work nearby. This focus on people rather than things, and living people, not just the people of the past, can be the spark that will keep museums relevant today and in the future.
(Ro King, Trustee, The Menokin Foundation, and Chairman Emerita, Indonesian Heritage Society, quoted in AG pp. 50-51.)
Franklin Vagnone and Deborah Ryan’s Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums (Left Coast Press, 2016; hereafter AG) begins with the premise that the majority of America’s historic house museums are managed in ways that are socially and financially unsustainable. The best way to address this deepening crisis, the authors contend, is by creatively engaging one’s neighbours on their own terms. This community-focussed approach is not for the faint of heart, since it involves interrogating (and very likely overhauling) one’s institutional mandate before embarking on a protracted, untidy process of listening, discussion, critical analysis and experimentation.
AG is liberally peppered with quotations from museum professionals expounding a commitment to community engagement, including the words that open this review. Vagnone and Ryan show us how such wisdom might be put into practice through a range of innovative techniques tested in their own classes and workshops. As indicated in an appendix on research tools (AG pp. 199-225), these techniques include video mapping; movement and activity diagramming; Imagination, Excitement and Energy Graphs; Sound Mapping and Anarchist Tags. Many of these methods of grappling with the particulars of historic house experience could be described as cheeky, scrappy, quirky, provisional, experimental and—in ways that I hope to unpack in a future post—tactical.
For all their strangeness, none of these techniques of interrogation and engagement ever seems gratuitously novel or subversive. By daring to try out new methods of institutional critique the authors have given themselves (and, by extension the curious administrator) permission to engage in what might be undignified activities with embarrassing results. But the cost of these experiments is always low, and the risks are really nothing as compared with the risks of ignoring actual visitor experience, or waiting around for the world to meet you on your own terms.
Museum Anarchism is evolving at the speed of social media (AG, p. 221). The authors make clear that their techniques of analysis and engagement are subject to revision, and indebted to continuing conversations with “a wide, geographically-dispersed audience of like-minded professionals” who share both their frustration with the status quo and their determination to change it. The conversations have taken place by way of Wikiplanning and (since 2012) the Anarchist’s Guide LinkedIn discussion board. Vagnone also hosts the Twisted Preservationist blog, and he’s been featured on many media including this delightful conversation with Carol Bossert where he describes the hilarious origins and basic tenets of the Anarchist movement. For an illustrated version of the same story see AG, pp. 17-21. A subsequent Bossert conversation features both AG authors.
I don’t need to summarize the contents of this remarkable book, because it’s done quite beautifully in a chart that you can link to by clicking on the image below (PDF).
Starting at 12:00 (COMMUNITY: Acknowledge a Discontent) the five sections and 32 subsections in the Anarchist Chart correspond to chapters and ‘markings’ in the book, which you will need to digest in order to rate your own historic site on a scale of 1-5. Once filled in and colour-coded, your chart will look something like this:
In case you were wondering, Frank Vagnone is Executive Director of New York’s Historic House Trust, where he is blessed with the support of a remarkably forward-thinking Board of Trustees. Deborah Ryan is a registered landscape architect who teaches at UNC Charlotte. Tellingly, Deb’s involvement with the Anarchist project (AG pp. 20-25) involves childhood enchantment with old houses, study under environmental historian John Stilgoe, and impatience with “old white guys” shouting down fresh perspectives at faculty and community meetings.
Vagnone and Ryan’s provocative book is currently the top Museum Studies new release on Amazon, and it is destined to have a lasting impact. I’ll have more to say about this study on future blog posts and audiocasts, including reflections on Museum Anarchism’s links to community-engaged urbanism and its lessons for the heritage community at large. In the meantime I will simply say that if your job involves engaging a diverse public in any aspect of material history you’d be crazy not to buy this book.