Wednesday, May 28, 2008

What's on tap for this year?

Every non-profit organization lives and dies by its programming. In fact, the fiscal responsibility of these organizations is commonly evaluated by how much of their funding is spent on programs that benefit the communities or groups that they serve. Museums are no different.

To be quite frank, Riddick's Folly's programming is somewhat lacking. Our annual History & Heritage Weekend is the most visible of our programs, and certainly the most involved. It spans two days, features a cast of more than a dozen reenactors and interpreters, and tells the Civil War story of Riddick's Folly in a more human way than any guided tour or video could. And yet, the other 363 days of the year (364 this Leap Year), we're left to scratch our heads and wonder what we're up to.

We host a series of American Girl events throughout the year. These events feature the characters from the popular American Girl book series (and yes, all of these should have little copyright logos next to them; maybe even a hyperlink... wouldn't that be nice?), and receive modest attendance. However, their relationship to the Riddick family and its history is, at times, a stretch. In June, we'll feature Kit, an American Girl story set during the Great Depression. Sure, some family members lived here during that time period, but our institutional mission limits our scope to the 19th century Riddick family home, and Kit missed that by about thirty years. The Felicity program this fall pre-dates the house by about seventy years, so we're not doing so well with this.

So, um, what is that we do exactly? We do offer guided tours of the museum, five days a week, and we're working to expand our offerings on that tour, but that still leaves a lot of calendar for some public outreach. Here are some ideas we've had.

We'd like to partner with our friends, the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society and the Suffolk Art League, to host a summer camp for young boys and girls. Essentially, we'd each offer a series of one-day camps and the children's parents could choose any or all of them for little Billy or Suzie (please, please, don't name your kids "Suzie"). For example, we could offer tea parties and sewing lessons or Civil War era military drill, while the art museum hosts various art lessons, and the historical society could do a hands-on show-and-tell with some of their unique items. Lots of possibilities here.

During the holidays, we'd offer candlelight tours of the museum and send out carolers in 19th century costumes through the surrounding neighborhoods.

We can host public concerts of period-appropriate music in partnership with the Virginia Symphony or local community music groups.

How about a cook-off using 19th century cooking techniques, tools, and food products? Tell me you wouldn't want to judge that contest.

With some of the rich family stories available to us, why not work with local theater groups to stage them? We could put on monthly or seasonal plays based on factual events and family stories. What was it like for the Riddicks to come back to their home after the Civil War and start life anew?

These are just some of the ideas we're working on, but your suggestions are welcome, too!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Volunteer Training

Riddick's Folly is hosting a volunteer training session next Thursday, May 22nd from 3:30 pm to 5:30 pm at the museum. If you or someone you know is interested in learning how the volunteer program works at Riddick's Folly, this is your chance. Please call the museum at (757) 934-1390 to let us know you're coming.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

For more than just horses

We call it a garage today. But before the horseless carriage, there was just the carriage, and for your carriage you had a carriage house.

The Riddicks had a carriage house. Indeed, most wealthy families in the 19th century would have. Because Riddick's Folly was their townhouse, the carriage house was likely only large enough for three or four carriages, plus the horses and the related tack. However, though horses may have been stabled in the carriage house, it was far more common for horses to occupy a separate barn, so this will take some research on our end. But even if horses did live there, they were not the only residents of the carriage house.

In many cases, the carriage house had living quarters on its second floor or attic for the servants (read: slaves, prior to the Civil War) who would tend to the animals and who would drive the carriages.

We don't know exactly when the Riddicks' carriage house was torn down. In all probability, it was in the early 20th century when carriages were bowing out in favor of their horseless successors. Nonetheless, the carriage house is gone now, save for a portion of its foundation still visible in a small ravine behind the house.

In trying to tell the Riddicks' story, there are a number of angles we're not covering. If you come to tour the home, you'll learn about Mills and Mary Taylor Riddick, their son Nathaniel, and his daughter Anna Mary. But those were just four of the dozens of inhabitants of Riddick's Folly, and their life here for nearly thirty years was made possible by slaves, and after that, by servants they would have employed to maintain the lifestyle to which they were accustomed. Our tour doesn't talk about the slaves very much. Save a mention here or there, slaves are in our tour what they were in the 1850s -- invisible.

To be quite bold, we want to rebuild the carriage house. This is the perfect environment to tell the story of the slaves who were kept separate from the family in nearly every way, including where they slept. While the female servants would have slept in the house on the top floor, the male servants lived in the attic/top floor of the carriage house. They may have had fairly nice accommodations as far as slaves go, but the bottom line is that their living space was directly above what amounted to a barn with all sorts of barn-like sounds and, shall we say, smells.

Rebuilding the carriage house offers all sorts of new challenges. The first, and most significant, is the construction itself. In theory, we could build on the remainder of the original foundation, but the stability of that foundation has not been investigated. Also, the City of Suffolk owns this building and all the land on which it sits, including the land on which the carriage house would rise. The City of Suffolk is very good to us, and we'd be remiss to imply otherwise, but any new construction would have to go through them. The second challenge is that we don't know exactly what the Riddicks' carriage house looked like. Judging from a few 19th century drawings, and the dimensions implied by the remaining foundation, we can make a pretty good educated guess at its size, but anything else is going to be speculation based on research of similar structures.

The third challenge may go without saying, but we'll go ahead and say it -- it won't be cheap. Because we'll be using it for exhibit space, it will have to meet all kinds of requirements for climate control, electrical needs, accessibility... the list goes on.

We'll post more information as we have it. This project is a long-term one, so for now we have to just enjoy the notion. But suffice it to say, this won't be your grandfather's carriage house.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Inaugural Post!

It's trendy, no? Blogs, I mean. They're everywhere. Even blogging about how trendy blogs are is trendy. We get it. We give. Uncle. So, why another blog?

Actually, there's a better question. Why another house museum?

Hold up, hang on, wait a sec. What do house museums have to do with blogs? Well, keep reading; we'll get there.

There's a belief, perhaps somewhat justified, that there are too many house museums in the United States (although I'm not sure expanding the criteria for judgement into the global scene makes the situation better, save that countries without houses of any kind might help to improve the ratio a bit). In fact, no one is even quite sure how many there are, that's how many there are. The last, best estimate was between 7,000 and 10,000. You could raise a child, send him to college to get a degree in museum studies, pull some strings and land him an Executive Director's gig in less time than it would take to see them all. And by then, who knows how many more there would be?

So the caged rabbit-like propagation of the house museum must mean that they're popular. That might be true if every house museum told the stories of our founding fathers as Monticello and Mount Vernon do, or anybody remotely famous and/or significant for that matter. But they don't, and a tour of your local house museum ought to confirm this fairly quickly. Their propagation seems more to do with people in communities who, out of civic pride or just sentimentality, can't or won't let go of That Old House on _____ Street. Did anything important happen there? Who cares?! It's both old and in our town.... Significant!

Sadly, obviously, it's not always true. As you read this, many, most of those house museums are struggling for visitors, money, and professionalism. Too few people can accept the too true fact that not every house is worth saving; indeed, not every house can even be saved.

What decides the fate of these houses, paradoxically enough, is that same community. If the people are committed to the cause of preservation, nay, of telling their story, the museum will survive. It may never be well-run, but it will run just the same (albeit like my old `92 Ford Taurus which had the unnerving tendency to leak a strange, red fluid that smelled a little bit like lemons). In most cases, however, support is not community-wide; it comes from a small band of people with limited money, energy, and time. The result oscillates between a pre-professional organization telling a very important local story to no one in particular, and a well-furbished club house for its saviors who would deign to let anyone cross its threshold and touch something.

It is the search for relevance that truly defines these homes, then. If the house is relevant to its community, it will garner support. However, if the house attracts no visitors because its focus is on its community, is it doing any good telling a story everyone knows, preaching to the choir, as it were? Today's house museum sails through those tumultuous waters between the Scylla of alienating the local community and the Charybdys of ignoring its mission. It's daunting, though not as daunting as a Scylla and Charybdys metaphor.

So, the house museum is in a bad way. Some have gotten out of the game by renting out space for offices, events, and the like. Better the home still stand and be used by someone else than be razed, they feel. Others find themselves closing their doors and hoping for better times. This leaves a scant few keeping the straight and narrow.

Riddick's Folly, so far, has been fortunate to be among the latter-most category. In fact, we have several advantages over some of our peer institutions. We receive generous funding from the City of Suffolk, Virginia. It doesn't cover our entire budget, but it makes up a goodly portion, and without it, we'd be hurting as so many others are. Moreover, the City owns the building itself, and they maintain its exterior and mechanical work at no cost to us. Once again, a huge advantage as these costs make up the bulk of the financial obstacles before other house museums. The local community has at least a general awareness of Riddick's Folly, and even if they are not directly supportive, there is some faint murmor of pride amongst them at the four-floor, Greek Revival behemoth that greats visitors to the city along Constance Road.

Despite the significant advantages, we have to wonder about the good we're doing. Riddick's Folly sees between 3,000 and 5,000 visitors a year. While this is actually pretty good for a house museum, it's not great for a museum in general. To be sure, we won't pay our bills on admissions revenue, but no museum truly does. Riddick's Folly has the luxury of time -- time to find its purpose, and time to find out how to accomplish its goals.

Despite this, we have to wonder how long the community will support us if we do not reciprocate the good will. We hold and use their funds and their donated items in the public trust, under the notion that we will serve our community by displaying, preserving, and interpreting these things in telling the story of Suffolk, the Riddick family, and their town home mansion. To do any less would be unfaithful at best, and criminal at worst.

We do try, but the challenge is to be relevant, I said. Be relevant to the community, and be relevant to those with an ever-increasing variety of choices of what to do with their spare time. Go to the movies, go golfing, go ride a bike, go to the library, the mall, the arcade (do they still have those?), the bar, the sporting event... you get the idea. How do you hook people?

It becomes more difficult as most of us perceive the historic house tour to be a grueling endurance exercise, a test of the will to stay awake while someone drones on about a piece of furniture you can't pronounce, made in a city you've never heard of, by a man no one remembers (actually, at this point, reading this blog post may evoke similar feelings). Most people emerge from a house tour bleary-eyed, unsure of what happened to the last hour of their lives, vaguely aware of a seemingly well-educated man or woman talking down to them for not knowing what a "pallisade" is.

See, the thing is, people don't care about furniture. I don't mean they all live in tents and sleep on blankets. I mean that furniture is impersonal. I don't relate to a cellerette any more than I relate to canned tuna. What I relate to is other people and similar experiences. I can heat up a meal in the microwave in a few minutes (the joys of being a bachelor), but the Riddick family had to keep a fire going in their kitchen all day, every day just for the flexibility of having a meal within two hours of requesting it. Who kept the fire going? A slave who actually slept in or next to the kitchen. This would be like the Kenmore service technician camping out in my pantry, just in case. See, I can relate to that (please don't ask how).

The bottom line is that we have to do what we do as well as we can possibly do it. We have to capitalize on our strengths, isolate and minimize our weaknesses, and then do everything we can to let people know we exist. In the end, maybe we'll get some extra bodies in the door. Or, we may only get some extra eyes on our blog. Either way, it's progress.

Progress. I guess that's what house museums have to do with blogs. And I think that's quite enough for a first post.