This past weekend I was asked to give two public lectures in upstate New York. One was at Clermont Historic House in Germantown, NY and the other at the Thomas Cole Historic site in the nearby town of Catskill. The Clermont presentation consisted of a discussion of our “Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museum” concepts followed by a hands-on workshop in the historic house itself. The Thomas Cole presentation was to concentrate solely on “Contemporary Art Happenings in Historic House Museums”. I was flattered to be asked to hold these two public forums and my hosts were perfect: They made me feel appreciated and valued. I hope the ideas we discussed will become useful for them. My thought this morning concentrates on the second presentation at the Thomas Cole Historic Site. I think everyone had early-winter cabin fever so it was standing room only, but this made for a nice intimate community to discuss innovative ideas in house museums. The video of the talk itself can be found HERE. The slides of the powerpoint can be found here Contemporary Art Happenings in Historic House Museums. F. Vagnone The audience was a wonderful, receptive, and friendly group. The Thomas Cole House knows how to treat a guest! Thank you to their Board of Directors, Executive Director and Staff. Following the talk, I took questions and one comment stood out among the others. A quiet woman, whom I think was new to the crowd, raised her hand, I called on her, and she began to speak. Among other things, she told me to, “take what I am about to say personally”. I responded with a smile and she proceeded to voice her comment. “You are an idiot“. She went on to voice her concern that the ideas I presented were nothing less than the complete destruction of all that is valuable. She voiced her concerns in a very clear, non-anxious tone. She sincerely meant what she said and had no reservations about stating it. I smiled, not in a patronizing way, but from an honest appreciation of her thoughts. Why did I not get defensive and push back with all of the statistical data that we have been compiling about historic house museums? Why didn’t I tell her that these contemporary art happenings could be one of the pieces to our historic house museum puzzle? The answer is this: The room was filled to capacity to hear some unknown guy talk about art history and historic house museums. They each felt passionately regarding these fragile sites and took time out of their lives to hear my ideas and comment on them.
On Saturday I facilitated a hands-on workshop at Clermont Historic House site in Germantown, New York. The group was engaged, interested and willing to try anything!
Is this not what is needed for historic house museums and sites? ideas – dialogue – testing- failure- and – a re-boot? I was happy that a woman called me an “idiot”. Her comment showed me that 1. people still cared about these almost-forgotten sites and 2. that my presentation provided a safe forum for discussion. It is only from strong voices like hers that we will mediate a successful vantage point to see our next steps. I have never seen our research with historic sites and house museums as adversarial, but rather as framing a discussion in a way that a woman can come to a public presentation and voice her thoughts.
As part of the Clermont hands-on workshop, we used the “Anarchist tags” to crowd-source our thoughts on the visitor experience.
So far, I have been called “a menace” and “an idiot” openly in my public talks about historic house museums. Finally I am beginning to believe there are people out there who care about the future of these sites. So next time I present in public, show up, voice your concern and make me feel useful.