December 11, 2017
It may not come as a surprise that some historians and museum professionals are not always quick to adapt to change, but that’s only some of us. There are others out there, like today’s guest Frank Vagnone, who not only are capable of adapting, but thrive on inverting the status quo of museums and public history. Frank and I spoke about the book he co-authored, The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, his position as the President and CEO of Old Salem, and examples of good ways for house museums to defy expectations. There’s anarchy in the USA, the U.K., and beyond on this week’s PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] It may not come as a surprise that some historians and museum professionals are not always quick to adapt to change. But I assure you that’s only some of us. There are others out there like today’s guest, Frank Vagnone, who not only are capable of adapting but thrive on inverting the status quo of museums and public history. Frank and I spoke about the book he co-authored, The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, his position as the President and CEO of Old Salem, and examples of good ways for house museums to defy expectations. Keep calm and preserve on. Because this is PreserveCast.
From Preservation Maryland Studios in the historic podcast district of Baltimore, this is PreserveCast.
[Nick Redding] This is Nick Redding. You’re listening to PreserveCast. We’re joined today by Franklin Vagnone, who is labeled as a domestic-archeo-anthropologist. And we’re going to find out what exactly that means. He’s consulted, lectured, taught, and for our purposes among other things and a long list of experiences, he also co-authored The Anarchists Guide to Historic House Museums with Deborah Ryan. The book, which outlines concepts on how to make cultural sites more relevant and expand audiences and rethink the visitor experience. And he’s currently the President and CEO of Old Salem Inc., which is a National Historic Landmark site – consisting of 100 acres of land, over 100 buildings, multiple museums – in North Carolina. We’re just so excited to have you with us today Frank. This is going to be a lot of fun.
[Frankl Vagnone] Oh, yeah. I appreciate you guys even thinking of me, so I’m glad to get started with our chat.
[NR] So let’s take a step back. I’m eager to get into The Anarchist’s Guide. I’m a big fan. I will throw my biases out there at the onset [laughter]. But how does one become a house museum anarchist? What was your path? We say the path to preservation. But I guess in your case, what was the path to anarchy?
[FV] Yeah, I would say very odd. So I have an undergrad degree in Architecture with concentration in Anthropology. And then a Master’s degree in Architecture from Columbia University. So I practiced architecture. I had a firm where we did all sorts of scales of projects but we ended up concentrating a lot on residences. At that point we moved to Philadelphia and I took on my first job running a historic site, which was the Bryn Athyn Cathedral. And it was at the point that I really started to shift my thoughts away from creating architecture to creating experience within architecture. And I slowly kind of evolved into returning to houses and residences through historic house museums running the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks, which was a handful of house museums. And then citywide tours and then the Elderhostel program as well. And then I moved to New York City for eight years. And I ran a New York City’s Historic House Museums and Sites that are held within the city park system. And then I’ve landed down here in Old Salem. So what that does is give you a sense of how my trajectory was a little odd in that I come through architecture. But my experience has allowed me to look at preservation and historic house and heritage site management from a kind of outside perspective and it’s because of that outside perspective then I think I really became frustrated by the lack of community and visitor engagement and involvement. Even though I was doing everything that was professionally correct, it still wasn’t engaging the audiences the way I knew that they could be engaged. And so it was really out of that frustration that I became an anarchist.
[NR] I mean, we kind of I guess buried the lead here but the title of your book kind of comes from this idea that we need to almost blow apart what our current thinking is – or maybe it’s no longer current because of this book – but what our prior or previous thinking was on how to interpret these places. Probably most of the listeners to this podcast have been to a historic house museum or are familiar with how they’re run and familiar with the experience. But I’d be curious to hear how you would describe it for someone who has never been to an American historic house museum. What is sort of the standard situation? What’s the standard way in which you would find a house museum interpreted? And maybe that kind of sets the stage for what it is you want to blow apart. What is it that you would find if you were to visit a house museum nowadays?
[FV] The first thing I’d like to push back on a little bit is the term “blowing apart.” For me it’s more “inverting” because the experience when going to a historic house or a heritage site has always been much more about the preservation of the building and then the restoration and preservation of the artifacts and then the historic facts of the narrative. And then you finally get down to the visitor at the bottom end of this thing, which is just kind of force-fed all of this information. We very rarely think about what that visitor experience is like from the visitor perspective. I know we’ve done tons of research on visitor experience. We have visitor experience specialists in the museum field. But very rarely do we ever really think about what the visitor wants mainly because what the visitor wants doesn’t necessarily fit into what our museum best practice is. And so that’s kind of the precursor to what the experience is when you go to a house museum or a heritage site. And another thing I’d push back on is this is not just American because as you noted at the beginning, I’m lucky enough to consult and travel and speak internationally. And I have to tell you, I’ve had these exact same experiences whether I’m in Sydney or Melbourne or London or Janesville, Wisconsin, or Winston Salem, North Carolina. It doesn’t matter. You know we call it – Deb Ryan, the co-author of Anarchist’s Guide and I – we would call it the hallway tour. And that is they’d let you in the hallway but nowhere else and everything else was chained off. And they would proceed to tell you the long family history trying to convince you why that house and that family were the most important thing ever to have been preserved. And here you are, you’re probably traveling around to Mount Vernon and Monticello and the Gamble House and just everywhere. You’ve seen all these house museums and you’re at this tiny little house museum and they’re trying to convince you why the deputy lieutenant of Maryland’s House is the most important house that’s ever been preserved. And so a lot of things just don’t really ring true, neither the experience nor the information that is shared with you. And so that’s really a kind of internationally-felt experience at heritage sites.
[NR] Well, let me jump in here. I have a question for you then on that, which is did this model ever work?
[FV] Yeah, it’s a really good question because – well, interestingly, there’s several components to that. One is that financially, did it ever work? And the other one is was the experience ever compelling enough to maintain it as a kind of permanent business or stewardship model? I probably think that the answer for financial is, no. This was never really financially a long-term sustainable model. It’s just that philanthropy was considerably different in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s than it is now. And so you had large families that went ahead and funded these things because they felt like it was a valuable thing to establish a national identity whether it’s Rockefeller or whomever else. In terms of the management style of the organization, I mean, society in the world was considerably different. They were single income households. Families were situated and organized in different ways. Women weren’t given as much opportunity as they have now. And so it’s not the same social model where you could have someone work because they wanted to work and didn’t need the money. And so today, we have double-income families. We have after-school programs that parents have to deal with and pre-school programs and retirees that are still working because of 2008. And there’s lots of changes to the world around us that have just made both the business model and the stewardship model no longer work for heritage sites. And so that now’s the time to really reconsider those.
[NR] So obviously, someone who’s interested in this, someone listening to this, who’s nodding their head and maybe works at a site that is experiencing these problems or they’re becoming more prevalent or more noticeable because of all these different issues that sort of exacerbated them, the best thing they can do is obviously pick up a copy of The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. But if you were to try and encapsulate what the message is, how would you distill it down? I mean, obviously, you said maybe repositioning the visitor experience. But what is the message of the book? What is the takeaway that you would hope people would gain or glean from your writing?
[FV] Well, it’s a really simple one and that is: don’t look to museum best practice to solve the problems. In fact, look to the visitors and look to what society is telling us they want. So for me it was – and Deb as well – the book was allowing a kind of safe space for people who are running these sites who are interpreting these sites to look at them in new fresh ways and not be bound by what came before. Because in many ways, as we just mentioned, what came before is not a sustainable model. And just tweaking that model is just not going to make it okay. You really have to invert the whole process and understand it from your perspective. So the book’s not telling you exactly what to do. Rather the book’s really suggesting to you to think for yourself. What’s your audience? Who are your constituents? What are the contemporary stories that your site can speak to? So there’s lots of things in that book that force your hand as a museum professional to reconsider the most fundamental things that you work on. And for those of us that are running history sites, we’re talking about pay and labor relations and board constituency make-up and all of these things, which are behind-the-scenes efforts at heritage sites. That the world has changed so much that we’re having labor strikes at living history sites. These are things that were unheard of even just 10 years ago but certainly back in the ’50s. So these are the sorts of things that that book is pushing all of us to reconsider. And when the book first came out, some people were critical of the book saying that there were no new ideas in the book and I kind of responded laughingly. Deb and I would say, “Well, of course, they’re not new ideas, it’s just that not many of us are doing them [laughter] and we’re not doing them collectively and comprehensively.” So I think the book’s value and as you said it’s value may have run out, I don’t know what the shelf life of this book is – that it allows everyone one place to flip through to see these ideas and to understand that things have to change and you can move in this direction if you felt like you wanted to.
[NR] Yeah, I think there’s quite a bit of shelf life. We recommend it often to a lot of our partners and peers here.
[FV] Deb will be happy that you said that [laughter] so thank you.
[NR] Why don’t we take a quick break here? When we come back maybe we can drill down and hear from you about some specific examples or things that you’ve seen in the field that give you some hope for the future here and talk a little bit more about this and all things related to historic house museums and the management of history sites and historical organizations when we come back here on PreserveCast.
[FV] Sounds great, thanks.
And now it’s time for a Preservation Explanation
[Stephen Israel] If you’re a regular PreserveCast listener you might remember that a few weeks ago, Episode 46: True Treats Candy and the Age-Old Sweet Tooth with guest Susan Benjamin to be exact, I promised you all a two-part preservation explanation segment about the history of Native American music. Well, Mama Steve didn’t raise no liar and so here comes Part II. We left of talking about drumming. The drum is a group of musicians and different kinds of percussion instruments in pre-Columbian Eastern Woodlands Native society but drums and the occasional flute weren’t the only instruments available to the pre-Columbian residents of Maryland. There was also the human voice.
Now based on contemporary observations of early European visitors to the continent we know that singing, dancing, and drumming were usually combined into one event. And even further, based on the performance style and traditions we have today that have survived through oral history, we can get an even better picture. Participants would gather in a circle with the dancers in the middle – sometimes around a fire and the main drum. (And as a reminder, that meaning multiple players all around one instrument playing as a tightly practiced unit – would be off to the side.) Members of the drum and the dance circle would all sing. Stylistically, we know that the melodies of songs tended to descend with each section of sung music starting at a high pitch and ending low. Singers in the Eastern Woodlands culture, in particular, tended to use a call and response style of singing in which a leader would sing a line followed by a repeated chorus from another singer or group of singers. Sometimes the lead singer and group overlap, creating a distinctive effect referred to by some of the schmaltzier music scholars as imitative polyphony.
Another important element about the vocal style we know based on modern tradition is that songs usually had a lot of vocables, that is specific sung syllables that were not part of any language and were intended to be purely emotive. At least in the modern tradition, these vocables are sometimes determined beforehand not improvised but that doesn’t mean the singer can’t come up with one on the spot if they’re in the mood. That’s about all that I can share right now but if you want to learn more go to a Pow Wow. There are pan-tribal Pow Wows all over the United States and Canada and seeing the music live will do more than I ever could to explain it and you wouldn’t just get to hear the music and see the dancing but the fry bread… Ohh… Explain… Preservation Explanation… PreserveCast. That’s right! We’ve got to get back to Frank and Nick on PreserveCast!
Do you have questions? We may have answers. If at any point during this podcast you’ve thought of a question that you have for us or maybe one of our guests, we’d love to hear about it. You can send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll try and answer it right here on the air on the next episode of PreserveCast.
[NR] This is Nick Redding and you’re listening to PreserveCast. We’re joined today by Frank Vagnone who is a domestic archeo-anthropologist. And we’ve been talking about all things related to both his book, his career, and how we can take historic house museums and make them more relevant and improve the visitor experience. Not only here in the United States but we were also talking about how this works internationally. Frank, we’ve talked about the framework of the book, what’s it’s kind of providing, the safe space it’s providing for people to have these conversations and to begin to move the conversation a little bit. Do you have a couple of favorite examples or even just a favorite example of some bright spots? Some things that really make you happy and maybe optimistic about the future of these places perhaps prompted by this book or just things you’ve seen happening in the field?
[FV] Sure. I mean, I think I’m really lucky that I’m able to travel around and experience a lot of these places. Not just American house museums – although a lot of innovations are happening in our heritage sites. But it does seem like European examples as well as even Australian examples are moving at a kind of much more quick pace about innovations. Some of the really most interesting sites and work that I’ve seen were in Australia. We spent three weeks there kind of jumping around from place to place and I’m able to bring those ideas back. And for instance, we’re even trying one of them at the Single Brothers’ House here in Old Salem. It’s from a concept that I experienced in Sydney. And then also in the United States I think a lot of house museums are tinkering with these ideas. Whether they’re having contemporary art exhibits or happenings at the house. They’re beginning to take down the rope. Some people are introducing reproduction furniture. I will say that one thing that the book makes very clear – and it’s something that Deb and I say all the time – real change takes more than just tinkering with something. You really need to reconsider it at a really fundamental level. And so sometimes I see house museums in the United States maybe just taking the ropes down and thinking that that’s going to be a totally engaging tour. Or having really engaging programs, really interesting compelling programs. But then when you come back for a tour it’s a hallway tour. And so rather than answering your question about specific examples, I would say what I see is a kind of spotty use of ideas. And what I want to do is push for a more comprehensive reassessment of what these sites are doing and what they can be.
[NR] Well, I know you’ve pushed back on a couple of questions I have and let me join in the fun and push back for a second which is a lot of that sounds great. I used to manage a historic house museum and we tried to do a lot of those things. We moved to reproduction furniture. We got rid of all those boundaries and all that kind of stuff. But one of the big challenges whether it was the place I worked at or any of these places across the country, you mentioned it earlier, which is the funding model has changed and philanthropy has changed considerably. And even if you are doing things that are pretty exciting and engaging different audiences and talking about really big weighty issues and using the historic house museum as a place for those discussions to be had, there’s a lot of funders who are just, it’s like, “Ugh, we used to do that kind of stuff. We don’t touch those anymore. That’s is not what we do.” How do we get funders to step up? Does that take the same shift? I mean, it just seems some of these museums are trapped in the sense that they would like to do some of this stuff. But getting the attention of the big funders can still be very difficult.
[FV] I have to agree with you on one hand, and on the other hand, I’ve had more funders tell me we don’t fund preservation or heritage sites because it’s just a black hole. I think the funders have been burnt by heritage sites and as much as they want to fund a really good program, there’s not a real commitment from the heritage site side of that equation. And what they’ve learned is it may fund one or two special programs; but when you actually get there it doesn’t change the site itself. Or that you’re changing kind of environmental things like you were saying, reproduction furniture and taking down the chains. But your story is not compelling, your story is not changing it. There are times that I see funders re-engage in sites or where there’s a sincere and comprehensive reassessment of what they do and how they engage and what the narratives and the stories are. And I have had funders personally who have told me they no longer fund house museums sites. That after we started to do our innovative work – whether it was Latimore Now at the Lewis Latimore House or Shatter Cabinet, which was four sites of ours in New York City – that the funders started to come to us and ask for us to present to their board about the changes that we were doing. So I have to say that it may be that some sites are only making changes because they’re being forced into it and other sites may be making those changes because they sincerely want to affect people in a different way. And I do believe that funders can see the difference.
[NR] So what’s happening at Old Salem that people should be watching for? I think we’re all pretty excited – at least I was in a very nerdy history way – to see you land at Old Salem. What can we expect out of Old Salem? What have you been charged with by the board there? Do they want this radical transformation that you talk about?
[FV] When I was first approached I was – here I am an out, gay-partnered man living in New York City just publishing a book called The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, and Old Salem rests in the middle of North Carolina, which is embroiled in the middle of the HB2 issue, the LGBTQ issue. And when they first contacted me, I kind of laughed at them. I said, “I’m the wrong person. You really don’t want me.” And we went back and forth. And I asked them to read the book and to read the blog and they kept coming back. And they said, “No, this is exactly what we want. We realize that what we have is valuable. But the only way that value will be seen and experienced is if we change our methodology, we change what we’re doing. And we want systemic deep change and we believe that you’re the person that can help us do that.” And so that’s why I came down here because they really want Old Salem to be a test site. Not to, as you say, kind of blow it apart and put it together. But really reassess how they can convey the information and then how that experience is formulated. So I started actually almost a year… it was December so its been about a year. And I have to tell you that even for me – and I like fast change – the change at Old Salem has been incredibly fast and incredibly supportive. There hasn’t been a single thing that I wanted to try or bring up that it hasn’t been just absorbed immediately and tried. So if you came down to Old Salem right now, you’d see that we have totally transformed the Single Brothers’ House as I was mentioning to you earlier. It’s a totally immersive experience, totally changed out what the environment is like. We’ve established a new program called Hidden Town where we are one year into comprehensively finding where all of the enslaved dwellings were throughout the entire town. We’ve already started to incorporate Hidden Town narratives and stories of the enslaved throughout all of the stops in Old Salem. We now have a universal access program for people who are impaired either cognitively or physically. And we are introducing new types of ways through all of the buildings – including MESDA – that people can start to engage our collections in just a really immediate tactical way. Those are just a few of the things that are going on now that I’m even surprised by the speed with which they have occurred. And we’re not even done with the first year, which is pretty cool.
[NR] So there’s I guess what you’re saying is there’s a lot of reasons to come back and visit Old Salem. People who are listening to this, they should get on the road and get down there and see what you guys are working on.
[FV] Well, I am biased, of course. But the stuff that we’re doing here… I think people are already starting to see that this is a really vibrant and fertile site right now because I was asked to speak about what we’re doing at Old Salem… Just came back from Bali and I spoke at the International Conference of National Trusts. And then we also just came back from London where we spoke at the International Council of Museums and the Historic Royal Palaces of London, speaking about Hidden Town Project. And then we were also asked to speak at the University of Virginia and the most recent Slave Dwelling Conference talking about our Hidden Town Project. So I feel like people are really paying attention to what we’re doing. Because as I told you I think it’s somewhat rare to see a historic site, an organization so deeply commit to innovation and change that there’s a really compelling presence about it. And so for me I am so excited to be here just because of the ability to work with everyone down here on seeing how possible it is to transform a fairly traditional site into new more modern methods of communication and narrative and dialogue without losing its real substance and meaning. So that’s a really interesting thing for me to be involved in.
[NR] Absolutely. Well, Frank, if people want to get to know more about you, obviously they can pick up the book. But you mentioned the blog. I know there’s a lot going on at Old Salem. What’s the best way for people to follow your stories and your thinking on what’s happening, both at Old Salem and beyond?
[FV] Well, in addition to Old Salem and you mentioned it that also I’m president of my own cultural consulting firm Twisted Preservation. And so Twisted Preservation also has a website, and on that website, there’s a blog attached into it and that’s where my “One Night Stand” blogs are posted. And so all of my social media’s also tied to the Twisted Preservation website, so you can kind of track where we are throughout the world and the kinds of things that we are trying and looking at. I mean, right now Twisted Preservation is working on a really interesting project for New York State Department of Historic Preservation. It’s a “Gay in the Gilded Age” for Staatsburgh [State Historic] Site. We’re studying ways that house, this mansion actually can convey – and the behavior of the tour and experience of the tour – what it was like and the issues involved with being gay during the Gilded Age. And so this is one that we’re particularly active on right now and we’re excited about.
[NR] That sounds really interesting. And [there are] a lot of parallels and a lot of potentially interesting background for people who are trying to do that work all across the country. I know a lot of that is happening in Maryland right now so something to follow on Twisted Preservation. And before we let you go, the final question we always–
[FV] Uh oh. Uh oh!
[NR] This is the difficult one.
[NR] You’ve been prepped in–
[FV] Don’t ask me what my favorite site is. Wait a minute.
[NR] Yes. You’re favorite historic building or site. This normally causes a lot of pain in everyone that we speak with, but we need to know what your favorite place is.
[FV] I know. Okay, and you’re just not going to believe me and I say this, but it’s true. My favorite site is the one that I’m working on right now and the site that I am really working on right now is Old Salem. And the level of change and innovation that is occurring and will be occurring in the following year is just spectacular. I mean, in the eight years that I was in New York City no single site was I able to experiment with at the level that we’re experimenting at Old Salem. So it’s really hard for me to say another site when my energy and activity and excitement is involved with working with the staff here on these things. I mean Single Brothers’ House is just an incredibly good piece. We’re reinterpreting [John] Vogler. Through Hidden Town we have found out that Vogler had an enslaved domestic living in the attic. And Vogler’s one of our house museums in Old Salem and so we’re totally reinterpreting Vogler and we’re going to be using the perspective of that enslaved domestic once we find more information about her and her name and all using it as the new form of interpretation and making it tactile and engaging. Like, these are the sorts of things that are really interesting to me so I’m sorry but that’s my answer right now and I’m sticking to it.
[NR] Yeah, if it was any other place we might push back [laughter] but Old Salem is pretty cool so we’ll let it stand. Frank, this has been a real pleasure. We’ll have to have you back on again maybe next year. See how things are moving in Old Salem. Maybe we’ll come down and take a field trip to come see what you’re working on down there and I hope for the sake of all of these great historic sites that the energy is continued because we need you all across the country so hopefully you can keep up the travels and getting around to see these places because you’re making a huge difference and we appreciate it.
[FV] Oh, that’s really nice and I know Deb’s going to love to hear that as well. So thank you all so much and thanks for thinking of me in this conversation.
This podcast was developed under a grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, a unit of the National Park Service. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Preservation Maryland and the Maryland Milestones Heritage Area and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the National Park Service or the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
This week’s episode was produced and engineered by Ben and Stephen Israel. Our executive producer is Aaron Marcavitch. Our theme music is performed by the band Pretty Gritty. You can learn more about them at their website: PrettyGrittyMusic.com, on Facebook, or on Twitter @PG_PrettyGritty.
To learn about Preservation Maryland or this week’s guests, visit: PreservationMaryland.org. While there, you can check out our blog and learn about what’s current in historic preservation. We’re also on Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, and Twitter @PreservationMD. And of course, a very special thank you to our listeners. Keep preserving!
Frank Vagnone shares his thoughts about museums and preservation freely on his blog called Twisted Preservation. It’s also the name of his consulting firm that is known for their experimental – yet research-based approaches to problem solving in the greater museum fields. If you like Frank’s ideas, you may also like Museum Hack.