In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section House Museums

  • Practical Management Issues and Sustainability
  • Organizations

Anthropology House Museums
Andrea Terry
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 March 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0243


House museums are dwellings that are museumized and account for 10 to 15 percent of all museums around the world. Their location, design, construction, and size are often informed by various sociopolitical factors related to issues of class, race, and gender. House museums are a particular subset or “species” within the museum taxonomy, which includes art galleries, natural history and ethnographic museums, history museums, gardens, and zoos. They operate as residential structures preserved, restored, or rehabilitated as public institutions to represent and interpret for the visiting public a particular period. Their institutionalization is informed by strategic decision-making processes. Upon selection for museumification, they are then preserved, conserved, or restored and subsequently staffed by managers, historians, curators, interpreters, and trained volunteers who draw on extensive and meticulous historical research to validate the respective house museum’s institutional authority for the public. Museumized houses function to entice, receive, and engage visitors. House museum visits offer visitors encounters with a particular place and time in what Bennett 1995 (cited under Introduction: Museums) refers to as an “exhibitionary complex.” House museums offer immersive contexts, furnished period room displays in situ to portray “household values.” House museums deploy the lens of domesticity with period rooms, furnishings, and guided tour routes to showcase historic routines and practices in the past and, by extension, make abstract concepts, such as the nation, collective and/or individual identity, and/or the primary characteristics of the locality associated with the shelter’s historical functions known and/or familiar to visitors. House museums first appeared in the world’s cultural landscape in the 1830s in both Europe and the United States, enshrining major political, literary, and society figures and their households. See also Mandler 1997 cited under House Museums, Critical Literature. The opening up of stately country houses in Britain to visitors provided entry to all into the trappings of aristocratic culture, setting the trend for the museumification of Great Houses, including American presidents’ houses, writers’ dwellings, collectors’ residences, plantation museums, and the like. The formation of folk, open-air, and “living history” museums, such as the 1891 opening of Skansen—a seventy-five-acre outdoor museum staffed with period costumed guides, farm animals, musicians, and folk dancers in Stockholm, Sweden, brought about a wider awareness of vernacular housing. The work of social historians, social justice advocates, and community groups from the 1980s onward have fostered the addition of tenement housing, industrial barracks, and cottages to the house museum movement. Not all houses, however, are home.

House Museums, History, and Heritage

House museums first appeared in the world’s cultural landscape in the 1830s in Europe and the United States, enshrining major historical figures, places, and events. Scholarly studies of house museums, their respective formations, and the larger historical preservationist or heritage movement were initially couched within larger studies of European and American historical museums, as considered by Hosmer 1965, Bennett 1995 (Museums), Duncan 1995, Leon and Rosenzweig 1989, and Samuel 1996. The architectural structure, Schwartz 1996 argues, provides the setting so that the museumified venue validates or “authenticates” the artifactual arrangements located around and within it. To produce a “historically accurate” representation that visitors find credible and convincing, museum workers typically rely on historical scholarship that validates the appearance of period rooms and the arrangement of period objects. The preserved, restored, or reconstructed period rooms are routinely interpreted in guided tours in such a way so as to suppress the fact that these spaces have been strategically designed to convey specific values, concepts or convictions. Houses museums operating as heritage sites indicate the (re)construction of symbolically loaded places intended to restore faith in the future. These sites transmit mythic histories or, more broadly, heritage, providing material, visual, and ideological connections with the past. Simply put, they often romanticize the past, evoking in visitors a sense of nostalgia: a yearning, according to Stewart 1993, for a time and place that never actually existed. The material legacy of history, as a result, becomes heritage when it is pressed into both sociopolitical and economic service. Dwellings that have outlived their utilitarian existence become museums, and so they are re-interpreted, recontextualized, and reincarnated as local and/or national symbols; this political service in turn facilitates an economic function as heritage sites are marketed based on their symbolic value, which then become commodifiable in the context of the tourist market. As Hewison 1987, Lowenthal 1996, Lowenthal 1985, and Smith 2006 explain, the formation, development, and appeal of heritage sites depend upon an artificial (re)construction of the past produced in the present for public consumption. Smith 2006 explains further, pointing out that heritage can also be used to actively question received ideas about identity, offering opportunities for multilayered performances. These performances can include visiting, managing, interpreting, etc., all of which are acts of remembrance. These acts also offer opportunities to negotiate, confront, and even grapple with a sense of place, belonging, and understanding in the present.

  • Duncan, Carol. 1995. Civilizing rituals: Inside public art museums. London and New York: Routledge.

    Approaching art museums as “civilizing ritual,” Duncan examines how palatial and private dwellings were turned into art galleries. Chapter 2 charts the Louvre’s transformation as a royal collection within a princely gallery turned into a state art museum. Chapter 4 examines how donor memorials, houses filled with art collections, come to be managed by governments in both Britain and the United States and opened to the public.

  • Hewison, Robert. 1987. The heritage industry: Britain in a climate of decline. London: Methuen.

    Critically examines the advent of mass tourism in Britain. Characterizes the “heritage industry” as offering sanitized, inauthentic history to a suggestible audience of heritage tourists. Views the growth of this industry as a corollary to Britain’s decline in the post–Second World War era as a global superpower. The heritage industry thus came to play a vital role in Britain’s economy.

  • Hosmer, Charles. 1965. Presence of the past: A history of the preservation movement in the United States before Williamsburg. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

    Distinguishes house museums as foundational institutions in the Colonial Revival. While art museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York were compiling collections of American Art, in the early 1910s, some organizations acquired entire houses of primarily architectural significance with the intention of restoring them to receive visitors. These houses of “superlative architectural interest” included the Pierce-Nicholls house in Salem, Massachusetts, and the Moffatt-Ladd house in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

  • Leon, Warren, and Roy Rosenzweig, eds. 1989. History museums in the United States: A critical assessment. Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press.

    These essays form the first-book length critical assessment of history museums in the United States. They cover a wide range of history museums, including historic house museums, battlefields, living history farms, and local, state, and national historical museums. The collection aimed to stimulate dialogue and debate regarding the nature, scope, limitations, and possibilities of historical interpretation at museums. John A. Herbst’s chapter “Historic Houses” is of particular interest.

  • Lowenthal, David. 1985. The past is a foreign country. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Lowenthal explores how societies in Europe and North America over the past two centuries approach, use, construct, understand, and distance themselves from the past. He defines heritage as a socially constructed and thus complex phenomenon. Successive generations reinterpret artifacts and records to validate 21st-century attitudes and so people use or develop heritage for visitors to make sense of the present based on the past.

  • Lowenthal, David. 1996. Possessed by the past: The heritage crusade and the spoils of history. New York: Free Press.

    Heritage requires fabrication to inspire fealty. In its attempt to keep outsiders at bay, people come to exalt heritage not because it is true but because it ought to be. Moreover, heritage often sets myth above truth. Imperfections in heritage sites include, for the author, upgrades, updates, or reading back from present qualities that we want to see in the past, jumbles, selective omissions, contrived genealogies, and claims of precedence.

  • Samuel, Raphael. 1996. Theatres of memory: Past and present in contemporary culture. London: Verso.

    Examines how heritage in Britain became entangled with conservative politics and entrepreneurialism: and subsequent to that, how heritage sites were developed to encourage attachment to rituals of citizenship.

  • Schwartz, Hilliel. 1996. The culture of the copy: Striking likenesses, unreasonable facsimiles. New York: Zone Books.

    Schwartz’s book examines copying and camouflage, replication and reenactment, doubling, redoubling, and the “one made many.” Technology has facilitated the ability to preserve and restore; as such, restorations attest to the accomplishments and power of progress. Schwartz also credits women with the promotion and practice of simulations in living museums. She argues that women have sustained our ethic of reversibility.

  • Smith, Laurajane. 2006. The uses of heritage. New York and London: Routledge.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203602263

    Drawing on case studies from United States, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, Smith argues that heritage value in both objects and places can deploy values significant to displaced, dispersed, or diasporic communities. In her examination of heritage as a multilayered performance—be it a performance of conserving, interpreting, or visiting—Smith points out cow the construction and activation of heritage sites can act as a form of empowerment.

  • Stewart, Susan. 1993. On longing: Narratives of the miniature, the gigantic, the souvenir, the Collection. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822378563

    Nostalgia, Stewart explains, is “always ideological.” The past represented, captured, and/or projected in historic novels and tourist sites, exists only as a narrative and is thus “always absent.” As a result, representations of the past reproduce themselves as affective lacking, perpetual absences deliberately constructed and, by extension, socially and politically motivated.

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