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.