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Historical house museums facing struggles

Small budgets, staff make operating house museums difficult

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MARION — The Granger House Cultural Center and Museum in Marion is an example of Victorian Italianate architecture. The restored home illustrates the lifestyle of the middle-class in the late 19th century and opened as a museum in 1976.

The Granger House serves as an homage to Earl and Dora Granger, a middle-class family that moved into the house in 1873, and contains many of its original furnishings, from its furniture to clothing.

It also is an example of a type of museum that’s experiencing hard times. Historic homes make up the biggest sector of museums in the country by far, but they’re also the smallest in size, have the smallest budgets and rely mostly on volunteers.

These types of museums — old, historic homes filled with artifacts of those who lived there years ago — often take one of two routes: freezing in time to showcase the lives of those who lived there during the house’s prime, or being transformed into museums that instead tell the stories of the towns and cities in which they reside.

With more than 15,000 historical house museums in the United States, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, it’s a breed of museum that today is facing an identity crisis. Falling attendance numbers and lack of funding have left these old homes-turned-museums searching for ways to stay relevant in their communities.

And the staggering costs associated with preserving historic homes can be challenging.

According to a 2000 study by the Pew Charitable Trust, the most recent year available, only 10 percent of the house museums studied have an endowment large enough to cover operating costs, 80 percent have more than $1 million in preservation needs and the average operation budget is $100,000 or less.

These are struggles to which the Granger House, one of nearly 50 historical house museums in Iowa, isn’t immune. It finished 2013 nearly $16,000 revenue less expenses, according to tax documents, and recently fired its executive director to cut costs.

“Every house museum like the Granger House is always hard up for cash. That’s just the way it goes,” said Ann Rogers, the executive board’s chairwoman. “I mean, unfortunately, you are chasing ever fewer grants, ever fewer sponsors because of the economy ...

“Hopefully the house will continue. If I have anything to do with it, the house will continue,” she said, adding programming would be revamped in aim to attract more visitors and funding. While the outlook for not-for-profits in the United States has long been bleak — perhaps these small organizations experience greater struggles than their larger, more popular counterparts in the museum world, researchers suggest.

“History museums have this subgroup of historical house museums, and of those museums, they have some of the biggest challenges,” said Heidi Lung, a lecturer of museum studies at the University of Iowa and who teaches a course on historic House management and preservation. “The small staff, often run by volunteer boards, ... have some things that are similar to other museums but because they run on a smaller scale, they have smaller budgets. The costs are significant. They have to keep up a historic property and that can be challenging in addition to maintaining a museum and keeping it open to the public.”

‘What makes yours special?’

As with many historical house museums, the Horridge House in Vinton, a town of 5,000, had to rethink the way it connected with the community to attract more funding and visitors. Those changes became necessary after a strong wind ripped the roof off the house in 2011. Volunteers realized those costly repairs required more community support and an overhaul in the way the house operated.

“When you have other things going on, you concentrate on the immediate and don’t look down the road,” said Sharon Happel, Benton County Historical Society president. “Now we’re trying to. The storm brought it home to us that you can’t live just for now. You have to look toward the future and plan for all unforeseen things.”

Simply offering tours wouldn’t be enough anymore. Volunteers set up an account with a local community foundation, and they’re becoming active online, launching a website and creating a Facebook page.

The house is changing from an exhibit model that depicts it at the time it was built to a revolving model that showcases local historical artifacts, tells the history of the town and offers more programming.

“There’s 15,000 historic homes in the United States, and so we have to try and think, ‘What makes yours so special from somebody else?’ I think what you have to do is tell a little bit about the local history because obviously that’s what people are interested in, if they’re interested in it at all,” Happel said

Even with the enthusiasm generated by the storm, change has been slow. The house’s few, dedicate volunteers either work full-time jobs and don’t have a lot of time, or are retired and not able to do the physical labor that comes with operating a historic house. When volunteers lead tours, they show visitors the rooms most museums might hide away from curious eyes — the storm-damaged roof in the upstairs bathroom, another upstairs room that serves as an impromptu storage room.

“You can’t just tuck everything away and go, ‘Everything back there is perfect,’” Happel said. “It’s not. This gives people an idea of what we still have yet to accomplish, and hopefully, they might be able to help with that.”

For all intents and purposes, the Horridge House is doing everything right to stay viable in the 21st century. Experts say tours alone can’t support pay the expenses of operating a historical house.

“Historic sites and house museums started with a model that, it’s not that it stopped working, it’s that it never really worked,” said Katherine Malone-France, vice president for historic sites at the National Trust for Historic Preservation based in Washington D.C. “It’s an ongoing process of, how do you meet your very significant preservation obligations and at the same time serve your community and remain relevant in your community? I think that’s the dual challenge facing historic sites and house museums.”

‘Huge Boom’

In Mount Vernon, Va., George Washington’s 21-room home would become enshrined as the nation’s first house museum in 1850, setting the precedent for the next movement of historic house preservation. And now there are more than 15,000 of these museums in the United States — an average of about five per county. That’s more than the country has McDonald’s restaurants.

“There was a huge boom of these house museums,” said the UI’s Heidi Lung. “They started to spread and grew like a wildfire. People realized these houses were historical and wanted to preserve them.

“Preservation is in our blood. We want to preserve our past so we understand where we came from.”

But now some researchers and experts are questioning whether turning a house into a museum should be the go-to in preservation, and some have suggested selling properties to private owners may be the best option in some circumstances.

“This is a difficult option for us as preservationists to face, but we need to confront it head on,” Stephanie Meeks, president and chief executive officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said at National Preservation Conference in Indianapolis in 2013. “Seeking alternate paths to preservation is what I think history invites us to do, to tap the same impulses that created our wonderful house museums in the first place,” she said, referring to the importance of adapting to change.

The Cedar Falls Historical Society in 2014 sold its George Wyth House museum to a private owner. When the Viking Pump Co. co-founder’s daughter, Dorothy, died in 1979, the home was left to the historical society, with the request it be a house museum for at least 30 years. And while the society initially tried to keep the house open, it eventually closed, opening only for special occasions.

“We found out that once people saw the home, we didn’t have a lot of return visitors over the years,” said Karen Smith, Cedar Falls Historical Society president.

‘Adapt to Grow’

The Brucemore Estate in Cedar Rapids, on 26 acres and with seven historic structures, is the former home of three affluent families from 1884 to 1981. For the past 30 years, it’s served as the largest historical house museum in the area.

Many operators of much smaller house museums in Iowa look to Brucemore for inspiration and as the gold-standard in the industry. But Executive Director David Janssen said the historic estate has been successful over the years, and so many people don’t see it requires significant financial assistance to keep up with its $2 million to $3 million in preservation needs.

“The costs are enormous ... I think, unfortunately, the community sees us without financial need, and that actually hurts us,” Janssen said.

Last year, 42,000 visitors walked through the gates of Brucemore, but that didn’t generate enough revenue to take on all the preservation needs, he said. That leaves Brucemore in the same position as the thousands of historical house museums across the country — redefining the way it connects to its audiences, working to attract younger generations by incorporating technology into exhibits and finding ways to bring in more money.

“We are trying to redefine the way people in the Midwest experience historical house museums,” Janssen said. “We have to adapt to grow. It’s just like any business, whether you’re a small organization or a large organization. You have to adapt to grow or you die.”

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