Historic house museums are in trouble. Everybody says so. There are so many of them in North America, and they’re one of the most financially precarious types of museums, but they continue to proliferate. We have conference sessions called “Why are historic house tours so boring?” Museum folks write practical books about doing something more sustainable with a historic house than starting a house museum. But they can still provide amazing experiences to visitors–or at least ideas to wrestle with.
We don’t usually think about writers’ houses as a special set of historic house museums, and we don’t usually get a chance to step back and think through the whole enterprise of celebration/memorialization across the field from a visitor perspective. So Anne Trubek’s Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, a travelogue and critique of American writers’ house museums, is a welcome gift to thoughtful public historians.*
Trubek is skeptical that writers’ lives need public memorialization. Their books, she says, should be the way we remember them–and the money we spend to maintain their legacies by running writers’ house museums could buy many copies of their books. And in her travels to writers’ houses, she finds a lot to critique: hagiography, inaccuracies, commercialization, sugarcoating of unpleasant details, and wacky interpretive choices that tell the stories inappropriately. But even the museums she hates for their inauthenticity (like Hannibal, MO and its Twain theme park) are interesting with her as tour guide.
My favorite parts of the book were the most museological. Trubek visits the historic site commemorating the author Thomas Wolfe (of Look Homeward, Angel) and talks with its chief interpreter about the confusion about who it is the house is commemorating (not Tom Wolfe with the white suit), why the house was important in his life, and why we should continue to commemorate him. She laments that the gifted interpreter is working at the Wolfe site and not, say, Colonial Williamsburg. This section seemed unnecessarily pessimistic to me (it’s worthwhile to preserve some old houses, even if the people who lived there weren’t famous!) but was an interesting way to think about how visitors see less high-profile sites.
The other chapter I liked a great deal was about her visit to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s house in Dayton, where an interpreter facilitated an amazing encounter with Dunbar’s life and work (it also helps that Dunbar, of all the writers whose houses she visits, is one of the only ones I actually enjoy reading). This is a useful perspective on how someone with a passion for a story can communicate that passion to visitors. (Here’s another example from Nina Simon.) A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses is a funny, smart, critical visitor perspective on some particular house museums and the whole enterprise of doing history in houses.
*(Full disclosure: Anne is my friend on the internets, as well as a professor at my alma mater, and sent me a prepublication copy of the book, though I didn’t get around to writing about it till now.)