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An 'Anarchist's' Plan to Reinvent the Historic House Museum

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Photo of Dyckman Farmhouse by <a href="http://testofwill.blogspot.com/">Will Femia</a>.
Photo of Dyckman Farmhouse by Will Femia.

In the Arsenal building in Central Park, where he has an office, Franklin D. Vagnone keeps a pie chart. The chart, with five segments, is called the "Evaluation Matrix," and it is the culmination of years of Vagnone's theorizing about what makes an effective historic home.

Each section of the "Evaluation Matrix" has headings. That's where the businesslike organization ends and Vagnone's trademark quirkiness and plainspeak take over: subheads include "Transcend the Object," "Dig Deeper," "Learn by Doing," Avoid the Narcissism of Details," and "Keep it Real." The chart even suggests that historic houses employ N.U.D.E. tour guides—guides that are Non-linear, Unorthodox, Dactylic, and Experimental.

The porch at Dyckman.

The matrix is one piece of a larger project for Vagnone, who is the executive director of New York City's Historic House Trust and the co-author of the Anarchist's Guide to Historic House Museums, published this month. Vagnone sees a potentially dire future for the historic home as funding and visitor numbers decline. "One of the problems with house museums is you keep kind of circling back to the same people who come….Eventually they are going to die and there's going to be no one coming to your parties," Vagnone says.

He wants nothing less than to revive interest in the house museum.

Museums don't need to think about "changing the color of their garment…what they need to do is completely change their outfit. It doesn't have to be difficult," Vagnone says, without a trace of irony. "It just has to be a massive philosophical shift."

Vagnone's interest in historic homes began early. Growing up in Charlotte, North Carolina, he joined a junior historians' club and entered a statewide competition several years in a row, eventually winning a medal for a model of a Victorian house made out of glue and uncooked spaghetti. "I've always loved the house, the scale of a house," Vagnone says.

After receiving his bachelor's degree in architecture and anthropology at the University of North Carolina and a master's degree at Columbia in architecture, he worked as an architect for private firms, where he often helped to construct additions to existing residential properties in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina. Eventually he transitioned to the management side, becoming the executive director of an organization dedicated to the preservation of Bryn Athyn Cathedral in Philadelphia. From 2006 to 2009, he headed up the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks, a private non-profit where he had a role similar to his current one.

Not long after he started his job at the Society, someone threw a brick through a window of one of the colonial houses he oversaw. That incident made a deep impression on Vagnone. "What it told me was that there was no love for this historic house," he says. "Everyone had been so concerned with the history of the house that no one thought about the neighborhood." The incident spurred him to have the house's colonial revival garden replaced with a vegetable garden and to bring in neighborhood kids to learn about gardening and horticulture. They set up a farm stand to sell the vegetables they grew and to showcase other local producers.

Vagnone and Meredith Horsford, executive director of the Dyckman Farmhouse.

"There's nobody in the field who loves historic houses more," said Franny Eberhart, a board member of the Historic House Trust and adjunct professor at NYU.

Vagnone describes himself as "a gay Southern dyslexic trashpicker." (Aside from houses, his other passion is to create collages and sculptures out of found objects and trash.) More and more, he thinks his background might have something to do with his desire to "find the cracks within the system" and break with traditions that are outdated.

Vagnone is "one of the most important people in historic preservation right now," says Jon Prown, the president of Chipstone Foundation, which helped to fund a grant to the Historic House Trust. Vagnone, Prown says, brings an intellectual energy to the field that's hard to match.

The process of thinking up the Anarchist's Guide began several years ago, after Vagnone and his daughter visited a historic house museum in Delaware. Vagnone, who was working in Philadelphia at the time, was on this particular tour for fun. The tour guide stopped to talk about the woman in a painting. Vagnone and his daughter thought it was a really ugly portrait and decided to snap a picture of his daughter mimicking the woman in it. The tour guide yelled at them and made the pair stay in the front for the rest of the tour. In a little notebook in the car, Vagnone scribbled what would become his future book title: "The Anarchist Guide to Historic Preservation: Why Historic Houses Suck" (his title has since been tweaked).

Soliciting visitor feedback at the Dyckman Farmhouse.

In the Anarchist's Guide, Vagnone and his co-author, Deborah Ryan, lay out a grading system for historic homes: 160 questions that historic house managers can use to evaluate their approaches. Questions include:

Does your HHM's [Historic House Museum's] physical interpretation reflect the culture and interests of your immediate neighborhood?
To what degree does the larger community trust you?
How committed are you to moving past a fact-based narrative (i.e., dates and family genealogy) towards a more emotional experience?
How comfortable are you with invoking a more liberal interpretation of furnishings...instead of taking an approach of blind adherence?

"Traditionally preservation has been focused on the kind of fancy house, the rich person, the white politician or something like that," Vagnone told me. Visitors go to historic houses to get a glimpse of "the very essential fundamental quality of what makes life for us" in the homes of these historic people. But often, "there's absolutely nothing about it that reads [as though] a real person lived there."

The historic house is limited by the biography of the home's famous inhabitant, and by the specific purpose historic house museums were created to serve. The first historic house museum is considered to be Mt. Vernon, George Washington's plantation, where the founding father had more than three hundred slaves at one time. Historic house museums continued to pop up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, intended to teach new immigrants about American values and patriotic duties. Many of these museums, Vagnone believes, have failed to evolve with the times.

"House museums are a difficult issue," says Andrew Dolkart, a professor and the director of the historic preservation program at Columbia University. "Some house museums are moribund places." While some historic house museums still generate interest, Dolkart says that a lot of them have lost popularity, grown stale, or been neglected altogether.

At Dyckman Farmhouse.

In his role at the Historic House Trust, Vagnone has a kind of laboratory for historic house museum experimentation. Through cooperation with the boards at different New York City house museums, he's already introduced a slew of new approaches and activities, including a pilot "tinkering studio" and "social justice salon" at the Lewis Latimer House, the home of the black inventor who was a collaborator of Thomas Edison's. The salons enable local organizations to hold meetings and seminars in the space, in line with Latimer's legacy as a community leader.

Vagnone says that historic house museum managers tend to stay away from politics, and yet providing a space for charged political conversations is a way to bring historic houses up to date. And the same goes for the tinkering studio, which invites children and young adults to come in and work on arts and crafts and small-scale science projects. The hope is that the entire house one day could transform into a workshop and that visitors will pick up tools and objects and make something on the spot under the supervision of handy tour guide-instructors.

At Dyckman Farmhouse.

Vagnone has also encouraged a focus on the neighborhood's immigrant history at the Old Stone House in Brooklyn, the central place where the battle over Brooklyn was fought during the Revolutionary War. At the Morris-Jumel Mansion, the former home of a British loyalist, Vagnone has supported ideas tested by the current director, including biweekly yoga classes.

One of Vagnone's best test cases is the Dyckman Farmhouse, a Dutch colonial-style house in Inwood that recently reopened after hiring a new executive director. That director, Meredith Horsford, was formerly Vagnone's deputy at the Historic House Trust and contributed to the ideas within the Anarchist's Guide. The farmhouse, along with three other homes (the Wyckoff Farmhouse in Brooklyn, the Bartow-Pell Mansion in the Bronx, and the Old Stone House in Brooklyn), has received $5,000 to test out innovative ideas, as part of a Historic House Trust initiative funded by the 1772 Foundation in partnership with the Chipstone Foundation.

The kitchen at Dyckman Farmhouse.

The Dyckman Farmhouse receives about 6,000 visitors a year, and Horsford and her team are trying to up those numbers. Not surprisingly, Vagnone, at a planning meeting for the house, is willing to do whatever might be necessary to make the house more appealing, even if it means starting from scratch: "My first thought is, I wonder if you took everything out of the house and it's a brand new house. What would you talk about? What stories would you tell?"

The Dyckman team has ideas: they've removed the wrought iron art deco barriers that had blocked the doorways into some of the rooms for decades. They are introducing Spanish text into the museum's interpretive materials. This fall, museum studies graduate students from Cooperstown will troubleshoot some potential aesthetic changes to the home.

Spanish text in the interpretive materials is one strategy the Dyckman Farmhouse staff has for increasing visitor numbers at the museum.

For many directors of historic homes, especially in urban areas, the fundamental question is how historic house museums can maintain relevance. How can a house built in the 1780s by a rich landowner whose family came from Westphalia become meaningful to the present-day surrounding community, in this case a Spanish-speaking Dominican neighborhood? How can historic house museums acknowledge the colonial past, including slavery?

The free black man and woman who lived at Dyckman Farmhouse appear at the bottom of the family tree.

At Dyckman, the staff members pondered ways to show the perspective of the free black man and woman who had lived in the house and were listed at the bottom of the family tree that was on display in the museum. Little information about them remains in the in-house archive. In the discussion, another example of Anarchist Guide-style thinking emerged: "What if we literally take that [family tree] and flip it upside down?"

These kinds of ideas are provocative in the historic house community. At some of his talks around the country—and even once before a New York City board—Vagnone says he has been confronted by audience members, had listeners walk out of his talks, and been called "a menace," "nuts," and an "idiot."

But other historic house directors agree with Vagnone's belief that historic houses have the power to be cultural assets and to stay relevant, and Vagnone can list examples of house museums done right. He remembers a visit he made to the Martin Luther King Jr. house museum in Alabama, where he was surprised to see cigarette ashtrays in most of the rooms. King was a chain smoker, a detail Vagnone loves because it shows that King was a human who had vices like the rest of us—and he did great things.

To Vagnone, historic houses should be more than places of static learning. Visitors should experience how a home's residents lived, not just learn about it. And there are too many rules, Vagnone believes, imposed on the curation of a historic house: even the structures themselves are renovated too much in an attempt to mask the passage of time. The result is a Disneyfied version of a home's inhabitants and a whitewashed version of history.

On Vagnone's blog, Twisted Preservation, he questions the traditional approach of keeping historical objects and structures sacred. Why, he wonders in one post, do so many historic sites have obscure and random details ("a narcissism of details")? In trying to instill a sense of mythology, a plaque or sign at a historic house museum might read that a site was "the first house to have indoor plumbing in the area" or that "George Washington slept here."

He writes in another post:

What is sacred?
Perhaps nothing? Perhaps everything?
How then, does one honor and memorialize without fetishizing?

To Vagnone, the answer is ultimately simple: "Treat me like the way you would treat me if you invited me over for dinner. That's what I want…in a house. I mean I want to experience your life and want it to be meaningful….It's not cerebral. Just let me feel it."

· The 20 Oldest Buildings in New York City [Curbed NY]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]