Musing on House Museums
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Written by Kay Burns
The “house museum” is a particular type of museum in the realm of museology. Like most museums, the aim of the house museum is to preserve and interpret history. But unlike most purpose-built museums, the structure itself is an artifact as well as a museum.
In an attempt to explore the premise and the pitfalls of house museums, I turned to a book called Uses of Heritage by Laurajane Smith (2006); specifically, the 4th chapter, “The ‘Manored’ Past – The Banality of Grandiloquence”. Although the chapter focuses mainly on the British “Country House”, Smith’s research sheds light on the broader concept of house museums. I was able to glean some perspectives on the idiosyncrasies of house museums in general, which has led to questions to consider as the Lougheed House Re-Imagined project progresses.
One of the things Smith examines is the word “heritage.” She states: “a truth universally acknowledged [is] that heritage is intimately concerned with the expression, construction and representation of ‘identity’.” We seek to understand how we are represented within the heritage sites we visit, whether that representation is affirmation that we belong , or an assertion that we don’t. What is the drive to observe how the elite has lived – a lifestyle not available to most people? ? Does the visitor who doesn’t see themselves in the museum interpret the site with awe or with some kind of disdain?
Smith speaks of the idea of “heritage” as a doing rather than being, an action, not a place, or perhaps more simply, a verb not a noun. While re-imagining the Lougheed House permanent exhibit, it is important to realize that history is a living, breathing entity; it is constantly changing and evolving as the world changes around us. If we only accept history as a static thing, then our exhibits have no meaning for our changing audiences. Looking back on a fixed representation of a moment in time tends to suggest “a past reconstructed as more gentle and elegant than the present [and more desirable?] – a sense of elegance apparently personified by the country house.”
The notion of doing heritage also relates to questions of performing identities. Visitors are both audience and performer at heritage sites. Smith states: “The performativity of the visit is also about remembering – specifically about remembering your social place in English society.” She speaks about the country house as a ‘theatre of memory’ in which the performance of remembering is about the past but also about the creation of new memories on site.
It is common for house museums to have formal gardens as part of them, which provide an introductory ambience prior to entering the home. Smith speaks of it as “expressing control over nature and a sense of social orderliness,” which sets the stage for “the inequities of the social relations between the different classes” that are further emphasized within the house itself. As they approach the site “Visitors may be invited to view the façade of the house and wander through the gardens and terraces that surround the house and imbibe the … delights of the botanical collections. They may enter the house, usually through a side, lower or trade entrance, which itself sends a message of social place and social exclusion…” At Lougheed House the front entrance is rarely used, and museum visitors enter through a basement door. Many practical reasons necessitate that lower access, but Smith’s comments do make me pause to consider the tacit connotations of that entry location.
Many of the country homes in the UK and in the colonies represent wealth that has been “drawn from the brutalities of acquisition and commercial exploitation of British colonies. In addition, although it is not clear how many, a number of elite families and their wealth owe much to the British slave trade.” A complex colonial history is at play in Lougheed House too in relation to HBC, CPR, and land acquisition.
The lives of servants are rarely presented within house museums in anything more than in a perfunctory way at best. This is partially evident in the “lack of social commentary and the exclusion of working areas of houses on the visitors’ tour.” Smith indicates “these absences are typical of house museums generally and work to make women, servants, slaves and estate workers invisible, which excludes the house from the wider historical and contemporary social contexts in which it resides.”
Featuring servant areas as visitor spaces at Lougheed House is difficult due to accessibility issues, but we are undertaking new research into the servant staff to enable better representation of their lives within our exhibits. And we are discovering challenges with that investigation. It is almost impossible to find information about the people who lived on site as servants to the family. Even though one or two census documents (1901 and 1906) list some servants at the House, it is a challenge to find any further details. The next blog post will address the search for the histories of two Lougheed House servants, Mary and Jemima Blair.
Historic houses tend to cultivate a sense of “otherness”. Class distinctions evident historically are preserved through visitor engagement. Conservation practices and stories associated with house museums continue to elevate the prestige and class of the original owners to the loss of stories of those who served the family (servants, children’s nurses, carriage house staff, gardeners, etc.). How can this house speak to a larger history than the anticipated versions that perpetuate stories of privilege upon which it was built? Of its 130 years, Lougheed House was home to the Lougheed family for only 45 years. Further stories regarding other occupants will expand the re-imagined stories as the new exhibit evolves.
Kay Burns, Exhibit Coordinator for Lougheed House Re-Imagined, is a multidisciplinary artist who shares her time between Calgary, AB and Newfoundland. She has a strong interest in alternative museology and playful and innovative ways of presenting history and artifacts. She founded a tiny museum on Fogo Island, NL in 2016.