The success of a house museum depends upon the interpretive plan for the site—the story that the house will tell, including place and time, characters, and context—the draw, if you will. But what does one do when a house has been “rewritten” several times over? This is what separates the nimble curator from the rest: an interpretive challenge. The short answer is, one must choose. The story that can be made most compelling through the resources available—the historic objects intact, the funding obtainable for restoration, or even simply the logistics of the space—is the story best suited for a house museum.
Rienzi staff and docents recently heard from one of the most experienced curators on the subject we could find: Julius Bryant, guest curator of the Kenwood House exhibition on view this summer at the MFAH, and former chief curator at English Heritage. Bryant, who is now Keeper of Word and Image at the Victoria & Albert Museum, addressed an audience at Rienzi on the representation of historic house museums. As curator of some of England’s most renowned historic homes for over 20 years, he had a few stories of his own . . .
Bryant’s first tale was of Chiswick House and Gardens. Built in 1729 as a Palladian villa, the estate was designed as a grand pavilion for the art collection of the Third Earl of Burlington, surrounded by sumptuous gardens. (Does this story ring familiar?) In 1920 Chiswick House came under the management of English Heritage, preserved as merely an architectural site with no interiors intact. Upon his arrival as curator, Bryant endeavored to restore the site to the “Golden Age” of its first owner. His first goal was to locate the original William Kent furniture that was designed for the house, and return it to the estate. With some luck and plenty of ingenuity, he was able to recover several authentic Kent pieces (see image 3 in the slideshow). Where original furnishings could not be restored, period-correct alternatives were put in place. Textiles and wall coverings were re-created to the original designs. (Bryant was careful to note that in this instance reproductions are appropriate, as furniture coverings and other textiles are intended to be changed over the life of a home.)
A creative museum revision Bryan spoke of was Down House, the home of Charles Darwin. Under Bryant’s leadership, the site, which had been a mix of exhibit cases, documents and scientific artifacts, was restored to the period of Darwin’s early family life. Based on the memoirs of children who grew up there, and historic photographs of the interiors, the house was remodeled to a 1870s home. House museums should not be presented as “shop windows to be looked at,” Bryant warned, but should create an entire atmosphere. In Down House, Bryant sought to present each room as a “stage setting” for the visitor to experience.
Bryant shared a few of his own tricks of the trade with Rienzi curators, noting that contrast within a house can make it feel bigger, such as going from a bright room into a darkened space. He also suggested that one of the best ways to preserve antique furnishings is simply to resurrect the old housekeeping regime and reinstate it (proving once again that the real heroes were the servants downstairs).
And so I pose the question: What is the interpretive plan you’re living in?