BOOK REVIEW: A Call to Arms — the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums

Take it from me, it’s not easy being a change agent, especially in cozy, sleepy fields that prefer comfortable stasis over anything that hints of transformation.  It’s hardly a recipe for popularity.  Moreover, screaming from the virtual rooftops that change in a particular area is not only important, but that failure to change could be fatal, has the tendency to draw the sort of visceral, reactionary rhetorical fire usually reserved for tax collectors in April or bad drivers during rush hour.  But heritage organizations in general, and historic house museums in particular, are in the midst of just such a crisis, one that might well determine the fate of those who seek to preserve our past.  A recent Institute for Museum and Library Services study found that there are more than 35,000 cultural institutions in the United States, more than half of which (55.5%) are related, in some way, to history, from your local historical society to behemoths like George Washington’s Mount Vernon.  Those organizations, however, account for only 18% of the total funding collected by cultural institutions.  If one removes the revenues generated by the “big three” sites—Monticello, Mount Vernon, and Colonial Williamsburg—from that equation, the rest of the 19,000 organizations are left to split up the remaining 8% of the funding pie, and that pie is shrinking as the primary sources of heritage revenue, from visitors and donors, shift their priorities.  No matter how one slices up the numbers, it is clear that the status quo is unsustainable.  So historic house museums—“the sleepiest corner of the museum world”—are in dire need of a wake-up call, or perhaps even a collective electrical cardioversion.

Enter Frank Vagnone and Deborah Ryan’s new Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, a book that is precisely what the doctor ordered for a patient on life support.  Although the authors describe it as “equal part manifesto, guidebook, and laboratory of ideas,” the work, to shift metaphors, is really a call to arms, a rallying cry for those who deeply care about carving out a future for our history.  Tellingly, neither Vagnone nor Ryan are the products of a Public History or Museum Studies program.  Vagnone, the director of a distinguished list of cultural non-profits, and Ryan, an Associate Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at UNC Charlotte, have academic backgrounds in architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning that inform their experience as heritage professionals.  But that’s the key to the fresh perspective provided by their Anarchist’s Guide and its undeniable strength— like Alice tumbling into a rabbit hole, the fundamental difference in their perspective on the often insular and odd world of historic house museums is from the outside looking in, just like the visitors on whom such sites so heavily depend.

Consequently, the book is aggressively (and refreshingly) empirical, with little room for, or patience with, abstract theory.  In a brisk 263 pages that includes several useful appendices, its main chapters are organized around “Markings” that shape the operations of every historic house museum (or, in Anarchist’s parlance, HHMs): Community, Communications, [Visitor] Experience, Collections/Environment, and Shelter.  The authors then break down each Marking into practical components, drawing on a legion of relevant, informed observers to set up problems as “Rants,” followed by supporting “Evidence,” and concluding with a “Therefore” of possible solutions.  For example, one Rant criticizes the “ubiquitous” use of costumed interpreters at sites, the Evidence further illustrates why it’s problematic (because it creates an automatic distance between interpreter and guest, when inclusion and connection is what’s needed), while Therefore lays out a new way of looking at the method (strongly suggesting that HHMs think twice before whipping out yet another Gilded Age maid’s outfit).  By organizing the book in such a way, Vagnone and Ryan concisely cover a great deal of ground, from the changing demographics of museum visitors, to their expectations, to the ways in which museums are arranged to render their experience more meaningful.  In doing so, the authors consistently reinforce their underlying themes of inclusion, engagement, and provocation as the Holy Trinity of revitalizing a moribund field, and that stand in direct opposition to the predominant mindset of exclusion, distance, and rigid didacticism that pervades and undermines many of today’s HHMs.  But another important theme is utility; the authors clearly do not intend for the book to merely appear on syllabi, but to be a toolkit for practitioners, so the takeaway points from each Marking is summarized in a rather handy appendix that includes an evaluation chart that should be used by every HHM to kickstart a discussion about its present and future—even whether it has one.

And that’s where this book will ruffle more than a few feathers.  Vagnone and Ryan might be many things, but faint of heart is not one of them.  Cultural executives invested in the status quo will, I suspect, strenuously, even vociferously, disagree with their no-holds-barred approach to ostensibly sacred subjects, such as interpretation and collections management—the subject of some of the Anarchist’s most biting, and trenchant, observations (the “Narcissism of Details” and the description of the mythical “room-setting fairy” that seems to visit all HHMs in the dead of night are especially memorable).  There is plenty in the book with which historic preservationists, curators, and education directors can and will disagree, as it is packed with crisp critiques of dominant, outdated methodologies in a wide range of practice areas.  But that is part of the Anarchist’s goal: Wake up calls must be loud and clear.  Throughout the book runs a leitmotif of frustration with those who insist on ignoring the realities that might well, and probably should, spell the end of many HHMs, so the time for comforting ambiguity is long passed.  It is in that sense that Vagnone and Ryan are the most constructive anarchists that one will ever encounter.  They have, they admit, primarily set out to start a discussion, to establish an environment of questions and questioning, for HHM staff and guests, complete with an alternative vocabulary of acronyms and terms of art, that seeks to destroy the existing paradigm in order to create a new, more productive and sustainable—and flexible—way of thinking about how and why we preserve the past, from its physical survivals to its ephemeral, and flawed, memories.  They also include a splendid toolkit of activities that will help any HHM, or heritage site, conduct its own research to encourage and underpin reform and innovation.

Such an ambitious book is not without its effective shortcomings, although to dwell on them would miss the point.  Some readers might get lost in its occasionally complex new vocabulary, such as acronyms like “N.U.D.E.” (Non-linear, Unorthodox, Dactylic, Experimental) to inform improved docent communications, especially when docents are increasingly hard to recruit, but the language is not glib; the terminology is informed and thoughtfully shaped, with no illusions about its implications.  Other readers might find a bit discursive, and therefore easy to dismiss, the authors’ tendency to reach into the Fine Arts or other areas for examples that support their arguments, but, again, Vagnone and Ryan are clearly most interested in what works, wherever it might be found, not what’s convenient.  For me, the book’s weakness, if a weakness it can be called, is its inattention to important aspects of the business end of HHM stewardship, such as Board relations, fundraising, member management, or other insights into more mundane, but crucial, budgetary matters, even though a useful, if all too brief, discussion of funding for historic preservation is included. But those are hardly fatal flaws and merely suggest there is reason to hope for a second volume.

In the end, the Anarchist’s greatest contribution might lie beyond HHMs, for it certainly contemplates the broader field of public history.  Certainly every HHM should use the book to begin a frank review of its own circumstances by asking the questions it poses, even if the answer is “no,” and initiating activities it recommends. (Interestingly, Vagnone and Ryan might put a whole cohort of consultants out of business given its presentation of do-it-yourself strategic planning.)  Agree with it or not, the Anarchist’s approach should at least inform the perspective of every student and practitioner in the heritage industry, especially when it comes to full-frontal contact with the messiness of the past and the nature of effective engagement with the present.  In that sense, the authors have perhaps succeeded beyond their ambitions and therefore a great deal of credit is due to them.  After all, Harvard, an institution that practically defines the entrenched establishment, has chosen to use the Anarchist’s Guide as the basis of its new foray into Public History.  However, by presenting new ideas that challenge the fundamental perspective of others, the Anarchist’s Guide invites criticism, if not confrontation.  But, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, while there is no progress without change, all change must begin in the mind.  It is not overstating the situation to opine that Vagnone and Ryan, in the Anarchist’s Guide, have launched a important campaign for change that might well determine the future of the past by starting a discussion that is long overdue.  And in that fight, I am not only pleased to applaud them, I am happy to join them.  But hold on tight, because the Anarchist’s Guide will send you—and your nearest HHM—on a bumpy ride, if you’re lucky.