How can museums scaffold playfulness?

During Christmas, I enjoy catching up on trends I may have missed throughout the year as I observe the family gift exchange with my in-laws. This year, one family member received an adult dot-to-dot book—an apparent innovation on the popular adult coloring book. It looked intricate, engaging, and beautifully designed—and very appealing as a way to relax and get creative in a relatively low-stakes way.

Given the popularity of the adult coloring book, a dot-to-dot book for adults isn’t surprising. Creating art is both productive and soothing. Also, coloring and dot-to-dot books provide the scaffolding needed for adults to create something cohesive and aesthetically pleasing simply for its own sake.

Recently, I started working at Historic Ships in Baltimore as a part-time Museum Educator. This experience has been really valuable for me because it has opened my mind to the power of hands-on learning in cultural and historic spaces, something with which I had little prior experience. At Historic Ships, the Educators offer a variety of programs that allow visitors to engage actively with history by performing real tasks such as turning a ship’s sail, raising cargo, or running a gun drill.

As with coloring and dot-to-dot books, these activities might not seem, at first glance, likely to appeal to adults. They require some level of risk, vulnerability, and openness that most of us don’t entertain in our daily state of guardedness and fatigue. But they can nevertheless be pitched and scaffolded in ways that are captivating and engaging.

Adults, like children, love to be playful, but museums and cultural institutions, I believe, sometimes struggle to entice them to experience these instincts fully. I explored this question in an earlier post, asking how museums could invite adults to play in their spaces and with their content, and suggested some initial thoughts based on personal experimentation and relevant posts by other bloggers:

  • Include adult content and design choices
  • Provide platforms for sharing
  • Scaffold to ensure success
  • Ensure the visitor’s contribution is meaningful to the institution
  • Make it fun

Returning to this question, I would now suggest a couple of additional points:

  • Make the process (not just the outcome) meaningful and challenging. After observing programs at Historic Ships, I’ve noticed numerous opportunities for give and take, genuine challenge, and critical thinking with visitors.
  • Treat visitors with unconditional positive regard. This is a concept developed by psychologist Carl Rogers that advocates an enduring and fundamental acceptance of clients’ contributions. This attitude on the part of the museum is valuable in establishing the trust and safety required to solicit visitors’ participation in an activity. It means responding respectfully and encouragingly even when a visitor asks a question that seems obvious or silly, giving real thought and consideration to all visitor contributions, and accepting all levels of participation as valid and worthy.
  • Finally, thank visitors for playing. Participation is an act of generosity, and frequently, courage.
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Image taken at The Matilda Joslyn Gage Home.

One artist’s vision is another visitor’s transcendent experience

Charlotte York of TV’s Sex and the City once described “great love” as a love that “shakes you to your core, after which you are never the same.” I think the same can and should be true of great museum visits—especially first time visits to a new museum.

I had a core-shaking, life-altering museum experience on Sunday when I visited the American Visionary Art Museum, a museum devoted to showcasing the stories and artwork of self-taught practitioners working from places of inner reflection and intuition.

The American Visionary Art Museum experience is a welcome onslaught of color and diverse personal energies, reaching the visitor on multiple sensory, intellectual, and spiritual levels. I recently heard Jake Barton of Local Projects describe great museum engagement as something visitors “fall into,” and this seems apt to describe the complete immersion and fascination I felt from the moment I stepped past the visitor desk into the galleries.

I’ve realized I hold a special reverence for museums that are audaciously, unapologetically individualistic, defying traditional institutional norms and forging new ways of being. (For previous discussion on this subject, see my post about Glenstone.)

The traditional museum is often neat, unemotional, and subdued in its tone. The American Visionary Art Museum, however, lives charmingly and compellingly outside this box. It is intense, passionate, and bursting with opinions; it’s also polished but relatively “unedited.” The overall effect is incredibly respectful, compassionate, and in strong service of the Museum’s social justice mission.

Museums with this kind of passion and self-confidence seem perfectly positioned to facilitate transcendence and spirituality within and among their visitors. My experience at the American Visionary Art Museum supported this theory; the space was vibrant and alive, and reminded me why the museum is my church.

The Museum website lists seven education goals the first of which is: “Expand the definition of a worthwhile life.” The importance of this lesson was imparted to me from an early age by my mother who deeply embraced and celebrated people’s eccentricities. The Visionary Art Museum, with its deep veneration of imagination, intuition, and inner voice celebrates human eccentricity with humor and honesty, serving what I believe is an essential human need to be silly, creative, and vulnerable—and to witness these qualities in others. The experience was transcendent and reconnected me to the example set by my mother, a positive early-life experience.

The Museum takes a refreshingly direct approach to trauma and difference, directly addressing personal tragedy, injury and disability, mental illness, loss, racism, and family dysfunction. This frank approach reduces stigma and emphasizes the gifts that a unique identity and life experience can bring—while celebrating ownership of all aspects of one’s life (both good and bad).

Storytelling seemed to play a crucial role in the interpretation of the artworks, and I emerged at the end of my visit feeling like I’d just surfaced from a great book. Artist’s stories are the frame for interpreting the art, an approach that clearly communicates to visitors that people (and their experiences and visions) are the priority and the focus. The stories function in complete deference to the artist’s frame, ensuring the artist’s experience is unquestioned and the artist is held up as expert and owner.

I recently attended an inspiring session at the recent AAM Annual Meeting: Going Beyond: Empowering Visitors’ Transcendent Experiences (click to download) led by Dawn Eshelman, Charles E. Fulcher Jr., Ben Garcia, Amber Harris, and Lois Silverman. Reflecting on the session handout and my visit to American Visionary Art Museum, I’m reminded of the importance of building ritual into museum experiences and celebrating inner narratives. Also, the ingredient of “surprised expectations” (cited in Charles E. Fulcher Jr.’s Seeing Deeper program) was at play for me during my visit.

Back in college when I was planning a career in social work, I took a child therapy practicum where clients’ inner narratives and belief systems—however peculiar or troubling—were the guiding forces of engagement, growth, and empathy. We know intuitively that this work is crucial for children, but often forget how essential these experiences are for adults. I’m happy to be reminded of this, and to reconnect with a version of myself that is energetic, idealistic, imaginative, and eager to know my own and others’ inner experiences.

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Eshelman, D., Fulcher, C. E., Garcia, B., Harris, A. & Silverman, L. H. (2016, May). Going Beyond: Empowering Visitors’ Transcendent Experiences. Panel session at American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting, Washington, DC.

Dignity & museum labor

Recently, I came across this frank and courageous blog post and I was riveted. I read it multiple times.

Then, this week, I had the good fortune of participating in my first AAM Annual Meeting and I was heartened by the number of conversations centering on museums and labor practices. But I find myself stuck on Miri’s blog post and wondering- … cultural competency, equitable hiring, empathetic practice … Don’t they all start with paying people what they’re worth and/or giving them enough time off to take care of themselves?

I’ve worked in a number of workplaces of varying quality covering a range of fields. A few were rife with bullying and aggression and were flagrantly emotionally unsafe. These issues aside, the most dignified workplaces were the ones that paid fairly for the time and effort put in—even if other conditions were not ideal.

Miri’s blog post points out that advocating self-care rather than addressing structural issues within a workplace is rather feeble. Opportunities like leaving early, attending staff lunches, and participating in staff wellness activities are also common employer strategies for allowing staff to engage in self-care and rest. But how meaningful are afternoons off or workday wellness initiatives if they actually add to staff stress by reducing the time available to complete assignments or by requiring work to be taken home? These strategies might be more proactive than simply telling your employees to engage in self-care on their own time, but they are still mere Band-Aids for unsustainable practice.

Museums pay full price for services such as accounting, IT, and construction; yet they frequently look for ways to cut costs (either by paying as little as possible or by extracting as much time as possible) with respect to artistic and cultural services—the very disciplines that they purport to value and celebrate. Why? Because these are the folks who have little choice but to accept less, or give more for the same amount.

More money (or less unpaid overtime) does in fact make a difficult situation more bearable. While museums are phenomenally important to society, they are not, for example, hospital emergency rooms; in other words, they need not exist in constant crisis. They (should) have the luxury of putting their staff before their collections, and even their audiences—but it requires honest reflection about value.

Scarcity of money or time within museum positions could have serious impacts on diversity as well. Many museum jobs are only viable for applicants with higher-earning significant others, economically privileged backgrounds, and minimal financial obligations or commitments outside work.

What would it be like if resources were allocated and projects were planned in a way that ensured sustainable and dignified workplaces? Audiences might lose in the short-term, but communities might gain so much more by being served by strong, stable museum staffs.

These changes would be difficult for sure—and I don’t pretend to know just how difficult—but I’d like to begin a conversation. If these ideas resonate with you, please reach out to chat further. I hope that the growing conversation around museums and racial and economic justice can explore some of these issues in more detail. The recent changes in overtime rules offer an interesting starting point for some of these conversations.

Museums as opportunity makers

The past couple of months have been extremely busy for me. I’ve definitely neglected the blog. But despite this, I’ve managed to keep up a fairly regular schedule of cultural activities and museum visits. My ongoing “museum anthropology” work feels really important, not just for professional development purposes, but because it’s an investment in my personal development, including my mental health and wellbeing.

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I took this photograph during a recent visit to The Phillips Collection. The prompt was something like “What are you doing to invest in yourself?

Back in early March, I was so fortunate to have the chance to attend the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards honoring phenomenally courageous women taking great risks to address urgent contemporary issues. Later the same month, I attended a much more low key but equally thought-provoking and inspiring panel discussion at the Alexandria Black History Museum on the subject of integrating art into historic sites. And last week, I attended a tour of the mysterious and amazing Dupont Underground with the Emerging Arts Leaders DC group.

Being surrounding by these opportunities in Washington, D.C. and feeling comfortable and welcome enough to take advantage of them is an incredible gift – and the realization has me thinking about how important it is for museums to understand their role as “opportunity makers” for their communities, and the immense responsibility this entails.

Museum visits really are like investments – both in you, the visitor, and in the institution, which provides something of value in exchange for your time, openness, and collaboration. All members of the community, even those who have never visited, should be considered stakeholders—potential partners with something to offer.

Social equity and access are fundamental mandates for community institutions such as parks and libraries. Museums, in theory, are held to the same standards, but frequently fall short, often choosing to focus on their narrow subject specializations and to prioritize collections over people. In theory, all museums want to provide great opportunities—experiences involving beauty, growth, healing, and intellectual engagement—for all members of their community. However, many seem content to simply attract and retain their “default” audiences, visitors who easily see value for themselves in the museum’s offerings.

According to Gretchen Jennings’ concept of an “empathetic museum,” museums that want to be genuinely visitor-centered, responsive, and connected to all aspects of community must develop a culture of empathy—a strong foundation of empathetic and inclusive practice where all community members see clear personal relevance and feel esteem within the museum (see this post on Museum Commons).

To this end, museums as opportunity makers should actively seek to create diverse opportunities for their communities that are perceived as deeply valuable, welcoming, and accessible. All museums, no matter their subject matter, mission, or collection, can work towards this.

As I’ve suggested before, museums, institutionally, have a special asset that traditional social service institutions do not. Museums don’t have to treat their users solely as clients (a unidirectional service relationship). They can actually work in partnership with users, with both parties bettering the other. This has been one of the great joys of my career change from human services to cultural services. And I think this distinction has enormous potential for transformative museum practice that offers genuinely valuable opportunities for all.

The museum’s ‘ask’: 2015 in review

Happy New Year! The dawning of 2016 marks 15 months of Museums with impact. Evaluating and reflecting on my first full year of blogging, I return to my original goals for the blog, articulated in the following mission and vision:

Mission

To facilitate an inclusive, collaborative platform for museum workers, human services workers, educators, students, writers (and hopefully many others) to discuss, celebrate, and build possibilities for creating empowering museum experiences.

Vision

A supportive forum where you can share your successes, challenges, and ideas relating to social service endeavors in the museum, and maybe even develop some collaborative projects.

While the blog hasn’t spawned any large-scale collaborative projects (yet), it has inspired opportunities for community-building and professional dialogue that have exceeded my wildest dreams, and made me feel truly excited about the abundant energy around leveraging culture to help people and communities.

In addition to the incredible adventures that I have had visiting museums, participating in programs, and meeting great people, I have received several emails from people reaching out to discuss ideas and collaborate in small ways. I’m so delighted and grateful that the blog has helped me to connect with new people and ideas. Thank you so much to those who reached out; I hope we can stay in touch in the New Year.

In looking back (and forward), I recall favorite posts from this and other blogs, reflect on recent museum visits, and try to coalesce the big ideas that are percolating for me in 2016.

These were my favorite Museums with impact posts—the posts that still excite me and raise unanswered questions that I hope to continue exploring:

The following were my favorite blog posts of 2014/2015 from other blogs:

Looking at these posts, I seem to be moving into 2016 curious about what museums are asking of their visitors and how these experiences might be empowering, inclusive, empathetic, therapeutic, and community-building.

What might some of these ‘asks’ look like?

  • To play freely like a child?
  • To submit to healthy experiences of discomfort, ambiguity, and doubt?
  • To self-examine and share the findings as part of a larger story?
  • To be ‘complicit’ in a unique experience?
  • To be self-efficacious?

Recently, my husband and I visited the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center in Fayetteville, NY. Gage was a women’s rights and social justice activist who fought for causes including woman suffrage and equality, separation of church and state, and violence against women. This museum strongly epitomizes the idea of a demanding yet supportive (and highly validating) cultural and community space (see photos below).

This recent Twitter conversation is going to be one of my guiding ideas this year as I pursue the importance of the individual person’s story (to the museum).

Imagine a place where you could go to feel totally and completely welcome and valued—as a partner, to feel challenged but efficacious, to feel sparked and excited, and to feel awe and a numinous connection. Could that place be a museum?

The key questions, at least for me right now, are how and what do we ask of visitors and how do we leave the answer open to develop in a way that serves individual and community needs, and is visitor-driven. And what do we also ask of ourselves as institutions in terms of actively serving communities in crisis, modelling congruent values in museum labor practice, and ensuring museums are accessible and welcoming multi-purpose spaces?

A cultural landmark is removed, a community reacts

A few months ago, I wrote this post celebrating the charming grassroots curatorial project thriving on a sidewalk along Duke Street (across from Landmark Mall) in Alexandria, Virginia. I called it the ‘uncurated’ Christmas tree, not because its free-form curation was confined to a Christmas theme (in fact, the decorations changed periodically to reflect the season and were frequently multi-themed), but because it reminded me of my childhood Christmas trees: eclectic, vibrantly disorganized, and organically co-created. The tree was part of my cultural landscape, something that made me feel connected to my neighborhood.

This evening, my husband and I were driving to dinner and were stunned to see that the tree, once growing through the sidewalk and adorned with a random assortment of eye-catching ephemera, had been removed. In its place was a community memorial with notes, candles, even a framed photograph. Comments on Reddit (RIP Duke Street Tree) suggest the tree was likely removed by the City in response to complaints about the tree beginning to encroach on traffic.

The strength of feeling aroused by the removal of this mundane yet wonderful community cultural landmark is humorously heartwarming, and reminds me that grassroots cultural projects are truly valued and celebrated. The knowledge that one or more people were decorating and protecting that tree clearly gave others the feeling that something in their community was being cared for and nurtured (see the notes written on the sign). My husband recalled that the construction project from a week or two ago had navigated around the tree, the workers apparently sensing that it warranted protection and veneration.

Now the tree is gone and the impassioned outrage (expressed on Reddit and in our car on the ride home from dinner) is all at once sad, sweet, and a little ridiculous, but it’s also an encouraging sign for those who hope that art, culture, and place can build community in unexpected ways and that valuable projects can begin not just within cultural institutions, but at a community level (and perhaps grow with support from the institutions).

One reason why art is amazing—and essential to our wellbeing

“The artist is really interested in how …”

If you frequent tours of art museums and galleries you will have heard this phrase used by staff and docents to introduce an artist’s intense preoccupation with an unconventional or unexpected way of seeing, examining, or representing the world.

For example, “The artist is really interested in how the traditional museum curatorial process can be used to comprehend a vast fictional earth”—is how I might have described the focus of Rachel Guardiola’s work currently on display at Arlington Arts Center, which I saw last week.

Is it fair to say that making art is a little like embracing an obsession in the most beautiful and productive way? If so, the art museum/gallery might have another relatively untapped asset in their social programming toolbox.

Deep interest (and the intrinsic motivation that accompanies it) can be powerfully absorbing, calming, and helpfully distracting. Similarly, proximity to this kind of intellectual devotion—especially where the outward manifestation is often beautiful and arresting and exists for its own sake—is probably also good for us for the following reasons:

  • Something about the deep interest that develops into art feels egalitarian and inclusive and maybe helps art-making become more accessible.
  • The explicit connections between an interest and a final product celebrate not just outcome, but experimentation and process. The celebration of process honors curiosity and questioning.
  • Willingness to share an interest with the world requires extraordinary courage. Art-making is an act of confidence and generosity.
  • Knowing that people are working to turn their questions and curiosities into objects of beauty, incisiveness, and humor is comforting. It means that art and culture are valued and protected in the world.

Where do museums and galleries come into this? Perhaps we could include more in our interpretation about what a body of work means to its creator, and open this topic in a way that invites further discussion. What deep fascinations or obsessions does the art spring from? What are the vital driving forces of the work? The question ‘What are you fascinated by?’ could be a great prompt for a public program (art-making or otherwise).

Even imagined content of this nature can be incredibly powerful. The label pictured below is one of many quotes on display at the reopened Renwick Gallery’s debut exhibition, Wonder, which tries to go deeper into the possible ‘process’ of each work, to imagine the artist’s experience, and (in this particular case) to hint at the wonderfully obsessive experience of pursuing something great.

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Perhaps, instead of feeling dismay when we hear a visitor say “I could have done that,” we might feel excited. It could be great if we were revealing enough about the “interest behind the art,” that our visitors felt similarly empowered to pursue their own passions.

The ‘uncurated’ Christmas tree

Every time I drive west down Duke Street past Landmark Mall (towards 395), I am cheered and comforted by the sight of an eclectically decorated ‘Christmas tree’ growing out of the sidewalk by the overpass to the Mall.

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Photo by David Konigsberg

This tree has become a fixture in my mind—a landmark, in fact. Over the past several months, it seems to have cycled through several rounds of very creative decorating—undertaken, I assume, by members of the community.

Lately, the tree has gotten me thinking about museum participation and the varying degrees to which visitor participation is shaped and refined by the museum.

While I love the collaborative museum-visitor model where the museum uses its expertise to guide visitors’ contributions, the tree reminds me that the spontaneous, grassroots, ‘uncurated’ (nothing is entirely uncurated, but you get the idea) approach to creative participation might have some merit.

The tree also reminds me of my own childhood experiences decorating the family Christmas tree. My mom, early childhood educator and committed proponent of unbridled childhood creativity, always insisted that my brothers and I be 100% in charge of decorating the Christmas tree. She encouraged us to start leading this project from a very early age so you can imagine how special our Christmas trees looked as we were growing up: a massive clump of tinsel here; a scribbled, original paper ornament there; a concentration of decorations on the lower portion of the tree where our short arms could reach—nothing like the composed and visually balanced trees that we saw at our friends’ houses. But we loved our trees and were always proud of them.

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Me and my late grandmother by our Christmas tree.

The urge to ‘correct’ the work of someone we see as less ‘qualified’ can be so tempting as to be almost automatic, especially in the case of young children. The drive for appealing and organized aesthetics is also powerful, and understandable. I’m sure some people drive down Duke Street and have to actively resist the urge to pull over and ‘fix’ the muddled assortment of random adornments on our community, year-round, sidewalk Christmas tree.

However, I think we might consider what we are sacrificing when we ‘edit’ someone’s participatory effort. The opportunity to see or learn something new from someone else, the opportunity to be impetuous and to proceed without a plan, and the opportunity to facilitate unmitigated ownership, self-esteem, and pride are just a few possible losses.

I am curious to hear from other museum professionals on this subject. Have you ever offered your visitors an (almost) entirely blank slate upon which to create something for the museum? If so, how did it work out? Did you learn something? Did visitors receive something valuable? Or was the result too jumbled and disconnected to be of value?

Several weeks ago, I dropped in on the DC Arts Center and saw an interesting effort at an uncurated community exhibit: the Center’s annual 1460 Wall Mountables exhibit for which the 1,460 square feet of gallery wall space is made available to community artists wishing to claim a 2’ by 2’ square to personally install their work. When I visited I saw only the blocked out walls and I am still yet to return to see the resulting exhibit, but I’m curious about the wonderful potentials of this laissez-faire, institutionally-detached approach.

When I was in college, I took a course on the topic of play. For one class session, we were let loose on a local day care center and invited to play, create, and display in any way that we chose using the materials provided. One particular room was my favorite; an eclectic mix of natural and found objects along with an open floorspace provided the opportunity to build, collaborate, and dramatize in unlimited ways—both lasting and ephemeral (creations could be left behind or broken down and absorbed into others’ work).

Perhaps I am being overly idealistic in considering the potentials of such randomness and disorganization in the museum, a place revered for its ability to cultivate the exact opposite environment. And maybe, not everyone finds an ‘uncurated’ Christmas tree quite so charming as I do.

However, I still remember what it felt like to work with those materials in that very unique class activity back in college: scary at first, but then therapeutic and very, very satisfying.

Special gifts of the house museum

Recently, blogger, Hannah Lawrence, observed that ‘no matter who you are or what your background, when you are permitted to open grand towering doors you feel a sense of self-indulgent import’ (Exploring with Hannah).

The power of this experience, for me, cannot be overstated. Period architectural grandeur and that incredible experience of opening and passing through a spectacular door is one of my favorite things about visiting a house museum.

Hannah’s comment got me thinking about the unique ways that house museums confer wellbeing on us (as visitors) by eliciting a sense of personal ‘import’—by making us feel special. Maybe they play on our childhood fondness for acting out royal, fairy-tale storylines, or pique our natural curiosity about what it might be like to live among lavish wealth and beauty. Maybe they tap into our simple tendency to romanticize a time or place different from our own.

I think, however, that house museums are more than just palettes for our imaginations and romantic fantasies. A recent visit to Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens gave me the opportunity to cogitate on the source of this experience of ‘specialness.’

The reason why we love opening ‘grand towering doors’ may have something to do with the fact that we are physically penetrating a piece of history. For house museums, the house itself is arguably the gem of the collection, and unlike the other objects in the house (and in the traditional museum), we are permitted to interact with it physically: to push open the door, to walk up and down the stairs, and to hold the banisters. We experience a tactile relationship with history; it’s quite a privilege, and we know it.

The Hillwood Mansion pantry and kitchen was a favorite for both my husband and me. It inspired so much imagination and delight as well as a sense of novelty—the obvious asset of the house museum. And after reading that Marjorie Post’s guests used prized pieces from the collection as actual plateware, I momentarily wished that Hillwood, in its efforts to act as gracious host, had considered continuing Post’s tradition of a functional collection.

However, the lovely moments of ordinariness at Hillwood’s Mansion made the most lasting impression on me. The ‘Snooze Room’ made me feel inexplicably comforted; it felt warm and familial. The placement of the rope barrier meant that I had to crane my neck to see an entire wall of photographs, adding to my sense that I was being treated to the most fleeting (and therefore, special) of peaks into another life.

In the staff dining room, my husband correctly observed that the table looked just like the one from our first apartment together. We enjoyed this simple connection to a vastly different life.

Even the banality of a roped off staircase engendered a childlike curiosity and sense of mystery. What was at the top of those stairs?

This is one of the truly special features of the house museum. It can’t avoid the moments of normality, ordinariness, and everyday life that its historic occupants undoubtedly lived through. These brushes with the ordinary help establish connections and a sense of shared humanity that reach comfortingly across time, culture, economic wealth, and life experience. House museums are places of both exciting difference and reassuring sameness. This striking contrast is less apparent in traditional museums where everything presented typically seeks to entertain, make a point, or expose visitors to something novel.

In the same way that the house museum makes us feel grand and special, we also play an important role in conferring specialness on the house. After all, we are the ones that deem it significant enough to visit, giving it purpose and a reason to continue existing long after its original occupants are gone. In this way, house museums and their visitors share a delightful reciprocity, which, it turns out, is just one of the house museum’s unique gifts.

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