journal of museums aotearoa
Reviewed by David Reynolds
New Zealanders have long been great joiners. Check the Museums Aotearoa directory and you’ll find we’ve also been quite effective at establishing small museums - an eclectic mix of over 140 house and local history museums, where the building housing the collection, sometimes a pioneer cottage or country house but just as often an adapted post office, dairy factory, court, school or fire station, is also a major artefact in the collection (or should be).
We acquired the heritage bug big time in the late ‘60s (in the first big search for national identity?) - when we baby boomers decided it was not so bad living in quaint former slums and set about buying cheap Victorian housing and adapting it to late 20th Century needs. We were quite good at that, and came to believe we could just as easily restore the old gum store at Maungakaka or the runholder’s ‘big house’ in Canterbury and open them successfully to the public. Interest in house museums was higher back then, when the Historic Places Trust was first acquiring and opening signifi cant early houses as museums. Many local history groups followed suit and, at a rough count, 40% of small museums with MA membership are house museums or collections of domestic buildings relocated in more or less ‘historic’ villages.
Today the performance of small museums in attracting repeat or new visitors has dropped back to a fraction of what it was thirty years ago. Few house museum operators attract enough visitation and funding to maintain and renew interpretive programmes and displays at regular intervals. Dependency on grant money is a fact of life and only the very lucky may have an endowment to ensure that their building envelope is sound, weatherproof, and maintained at appropriate intervals. For those managing the quarter of museums identified in the 2007 Museum Sector Web Survey, operating on annual budgets of less than $5000, this book could be a revelation.
Historic preservation consultant Donna Ann Harris undertook the research for this AASLH study at five US institutions, and has produced constructive guidelines aimed at board and staff members of historic house museums owned by not-for-profit organisations struggling with insufficient funds or personnel to sustain their site at the level that the historic building needs and deserves. Harris’s message is prudent and pragmatic and the operating circumstances surrounding her case studies of house museums that have successfully made the transition to a new owner or a new use will be very familiar to many small museum operators faced with serious questions about the sustainability of their museum.
Those presently contemplating change in their museum’s direction will find particular value in the case studies dealing with transition management, asset transfer and merger, and the return of buildings to private ownership with restrictive covenants such as the Heritage Covenants available in the Historic Places Act. For those who have never contemplated reviewing their corporate goals, let alone writing them, this book could cause more than a few sleepless nights.
Te Ara - Journal of Museums Aotearoa; Volume 32; Issue 1 & 2; December 2007
NEW SOLUTIONS FOR HOUSE MUSEUMS; ENSURING THE LONG-TERM PRESERVATION OF AMERICA’S HISTORIC HOUSES.
LAST UPDATED: 28/06/2010