Heritage Comment USA

Historic houses take note: innovate or die

Doing nothing to maintain sustainability is not an option

The impending crisis in the future of the historic house museum had previously been discussed in a 2002 conference at Kykuit in the Hudson Valley, a National Trust site which was previously home to four generations of the Rockefeller family

Five years ago I addressed the emerging issue of financial and organisational sustainability at historic sites in my book New Solutions for House Museums: Ensuring the Long Term Preservation of America’s Historic Houses. My hope was to illustrate through 12 case studies that historic buildings once used as house museums can continue as local landmarks with new uses or users.

The impending crisis in the future of the historic house museum had previously been discussed in a 2002 conference at Kykuit in the Hudson Valley, a National Trust site which was previously home to four generations of the Rockefeller family. The same year, the then president of the national non-profit organisation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Richard Moe published a provocative article in the Trust’s Forum Journal entitled “Are There Too Many House Museums?”

Over the last eleven years I have served on countless panels at professional conferences discussing the so called “house museum problem”, as have many others working in the field. The “problem” actually consists of a cluster of issues. Panel members at these conferences often note that there are still new house museums being opened almost every day. Most existing house museums have serious deferred maintenance problems, and few have an endowment of any size to augment their yearly operating budget. The long, slow decline in visitation is routinely noted as evidence of dwindling community relevance.

Stephanie Meeks, current president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, cited my five-year-old book last month in her opening plenary remarks at the national preservation conference in Indianapolis to illustrate how the National Trust is exploring other options for their collection of historic sites. The difficult work the trust is attempting with their sites still puts them at the vanguard in the non-profit owned historic site community. From what I see around the country, there is still no impetus to change in other non-profit historic sites across the country.

Non-profit owned historic sites are all independent and free to make their own choices based on board consensus. While no one knows exactly how many historic house museums there are in the United States, we do know that the majority have no professional staff and are run by local volunteers with very modest budgets, most operating on less than $50,000 per year. For these sites, unaddressed maintenance issues can escalate into costly restoration projects that are simply unaffordable, thus threatening the very existence of the building in question.

The only sector where I have seen any fundamental change to this pattern has been at historic sites owned by the government. Agencies managing historic sites have been forced to come up with other options for their historic sites or face closure and inevitable deterioration due to budget cuts. Both the Ohio and Pennsylvania state bodies that manage state-owned historic sites have lived through withering budget cuts in the last five years and taken direct action to find new users for a number of their historic properties.

The Ohio Historical Society owns 59 historic sites and memorials around the state that encompass more than 300 buildings. Ohio has greatly expanded its successful experience during the 1980s, to seek local partners to manage and operate some of the historic sites in its care. The Ohio Historical Society now has agreements with more than 48 traditional “friends of” organisations, community associations, colleges and universities, cities, villages, local and regional Convention and Visitors Bureaus, local historical societies, local and county park districts, and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, to manage state-owned historic sites and museums. Today, only 11 of the organisation’s 59 sites are operated directly by the Ohio Historical Society.

Radical budget cuts forced the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) to close or reduce hours at many of its historic sites in 2011. Like Ohio, the PHMC experimented in the 1980s with alternatives to continuing state ownership and management of all of their sites. They placed 20 properties with colleges and universities; sold some to private owners or placed properties with other organisations under long-term leases, thus reducing by half the sites managed by the agency. By doing so they provided these sites with 30 years of stability.

Anticipating further budget cuts, the agency began a self-study in late 2007 before the economic crisis began, to develop a forward-looking action plan for sustaining their collection of sites and museums knowing there were financial challenges ahead. Facing a withering budget cut of 31% in 2011, the agency responded proactively. Ten properties identified for closure or for different management in their 2009 “Planning Our Future” report are now no longer managed by PHMC. Each of these sites has been placed with another entity on a year-to-year management agreement, so these sites could still remain open to the public. In most cases, these ten historic sites are being managed by pre-existing “friends-of” groups, which the agency calls “associates” in its agreements.

Both Ohio and Pennsylvania were forced to make hard decisions about their historic sites and came up with thoughtful options that still permit the public to visit these properties if even on an appointment only basis.

Why have non-profit owned historic sites been unable to make changes in their historic site’s use or users like their colleagues at state agencies? I believe it is because they lack urgency. These small sites are accountable only to their governing board and they can put off basic maintenance or repairs, year after year, if there is no money in the checking account. There is little motivation for exploring mergers, partnerships or other management agreements, because urgency is necessary for collaboration and change. I hope in the next five years, we will see more non-profit historic site stewards make the bold moves necessary to ensure the long term protection of their landmarks.

Donna Ann Harris is the Principal of Heritage Consulting Inc, Philadelphia

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