Worcester Historical Museum

Introductory Remarks

Introductory remarks, William D. Wallace
Director, Worcester Historical Museum  

Why This Conference Now

This year marks the 25 th anniversary of the reinterpretation of Salisbury Mansion, a property owned and operated by Worcester Historical Museum. From 1980 through 1984, the house was restored to its 1830s appearance, based on thorough scholarly investigation. Research was conducted using Salisbury family papers in the manuscript collection at the American Antiquarian Society, physical evidence found on the building’s surfaces, and family items in the collection of the Worcester Art Museum.


Salisbury Mansion at Lincoln Square, 1921


Library before restoration, 1980

The restoration and interpretation were carried out in partnership with expert consultants at the Society for Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England), including Abbott Lowell Cummings and Richard and Jane Nylander. This extensive undertaking represented the best scholarship and material analysis available in the 1980s.

The mansion was a huge success in 1984. The opening weekend attracted thousands of visitors and for a number of years the property and its ambitious schedule of changing exhibitions, programs, and small concerts was a popular attraction in the community. Annual dollhouse, quilt, needlework, and flower shows consistently drew large crowds. Tea-time talks and occasional yard parties had loyal followers.

Salisbury Mansion at its new location on Highland Street, 1995

Today its continued use as a museum is uncertain; there is diminished community support and very few visitors. The house is not large enough to accommodate facility rental or catering functions so the museum is seeking the best and highest use of the property for the foreseeable future. Its purpose in hosting the conference is to seek answers to this dilemma from national experts, and to discuss them with regional historic house museum colleagues.


Salisbury Mansion tea party, 1995

The best and highest use of historic properties, particularly house museums is one that is troubling to a vast number of stakeholders and professionals today. There are many reasons why this is problematic now.

In the last ten years, the state of historic house museums has been a topic of increasing concern to professionals in the field. Average visitation at most of the nation’s 8,000-plus house museums is less than 5,000 per year. The cost of operating and maintaining house museums often far outweighs earned income and standard fundraising programs and events. Operating budgets typically range from less than $100,000 to no more than $250,000. Budgets are expected to cover the costs of operations that are required of any museum—and to keep pace with the rising costs of preserving and maintaining large buildings and grounds according to increasingly expensive professional standards. One outcome of restoration is that preservation costs far outweigh the market value of the properties themselves. Many house museums are duplicative in nature, particularly in terms of architectural styles and periods or even individuals (e.g. there are five John Greenleaf Whittier sites within three miles of each other on the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border). Stories at these properties are very similar, in part because owners have similar lives, and in part because more interesting (and sometimes controversial) stories are not told. Collections often have no provenance relative to specific houses or residents; programming is designed to enshrine residents of these homes rather than engage audiences. Boards are made up of dedicated volunteers who enjoy planning events and working with collections but often lack governing or fundraising experience. Many house museums with local significance are no longer tied to their communities.

As a result, more people involved with historic house museums are questioning their relevance and sustainability. These conversations have spurred national conferences sponsored by the American Association for State and Local History, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and other professional groups. Richard Moe, President of the National Trust, has directed his Vice President for Stewardship, James Vaughan, to “solve the problem.”

Seeking solutions to the problem and to remedy its own situation relative to Salisbury Mansion, the Worcester Historical Museum proposed to host a conference that would look at trends in the field that might fuel change for this historic property.

Planning the Conference

William Wallace, Executive Director of the Worcester Historical Museum and

Ken Turino, Director of Community Engagements, Historic New England, appointed an Advisory Committee to help plan the conference. Those involved were:

Each of those appointed were involved in changing interpretation and finding new uses for the historic properties they represented. Most of them had many contacts throughout New England whom they could recommend as speakers for the conference.

Naming the Conference

At its first brainstorming session, the Advisory Committee agreed that change was critical for survival and sustainability of historic properties and that unless change was instituted soon, many would not survive the next decade. The impetus for the title drew on the realization that boards and staff of historic house museums are notorious for their lack of urgency in naming and addressing problems. (In one extreme case, a board was unable to select fabric for recovering furniture for more than thirty years, even though it always had the funds to do so.) All of those involved recognized that time is running out for those house museums that are losing members, volunteers and visitors; drawing on endowments to support their operations, and waiting for the roof to fall in or the basement to collapse because maintenance is not financially feasible. “Keeping the doors open” is no longer a viable option.

Format

The morning of the conference was devoted to presentations by several speakers who addressed the issue of change, drawing on their experiences, as well as several important articles recently published in various professional journals. In the afternoon, speakers at several tables presented 5-minute case studies, which were followed by discussion. Using “speed dating” techniques, conference participants switched tables at regular intervals. Everyone had time to move to six tables out of the nine available. At the end of the day, Jim Vaughan, Vice-President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation summarized the day’s events.

Speakers

Speakers were chosen for their current involvement in a change process at an historic site and for their wide-ranging experience in administering or governing other historic sites.

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Hostess at front door of Salisbury Mansion for an event during the Hancock Club’s occupancy, 1890s

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