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.

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