Historic Houses

Chicago Case Study: Dismantling the Historic House Museum?

Have you ever been to a Historic House Museum (HHM) where it wasn’t at all important to know who lived in the house before it became a museum?  It seems almost antithetical to the concept—historic house museums have, traditionally, been set up to honor the people who lived in them, which often means rich, white men. It’s only recently that historic houses have embraced new philosophies on what they embody and display. When I went to Chicago this past weekend, I searched for historic sites or history museums that I hadn’t visited before. We did the obvious things, the Art Institute (Manet show!) and the Field Museum (boyfriend’s choice), but there was another museum that caught my eye: the Richard H. Driehaus Museum. It appeared to be a historic house, clearly a beautiful Gilded Age site. I saw that they had a Yinka Shonibare, CBE installation in their rooms. Sold!

The foyer of the Driehaus Museum. (My photo.)

The foyer of the Driehaus Museum. (My photo.)

We arrived at the Driehaus Museum in the middle of a rainstorm, and the staff ushered us back to the ticket counter. There, they had a small display about the people who had originally built and owned the house. Samuel Nickerson, first a liquor merchant and then a bank president, had built the house between 1879 and 1883 and spared no expense. He and his wife were art collectors, using the house as a gallery. When he died, the art collection went to the Art Institute, and after another private owner, a banker as well, the house was sold to the American College of Surgeons. That 1919 sale was an act of historic preservation, and then, in a second act of historic preservation, the house was sold to a philanthropist and collector named Richard Driehaus in 2013. Consequently, this museum is not a traditional HHM, but rather a showpiece of Driehaus’s dedicated restoration, a composite of the family histories and something else as well.  It has been open for only about 11 years.

Before heading into the restored museum spaces, I had a moment of fear after reading about the building’s history—where’s the historical authenticity if a house is restored not to its original appearance, but to some in-between ideal of a funder? How does that affect the mission of the museum? Does presenting a restoration as thoroughly historic reflect a broader attitude toward representing “the way things were” in the house’s original time period. One particular differentiation from the original appearance of the house would be the prevalence of Tiffany light fixtures, apparently a focus of Mr. Driehaus’s collecting. However, the most exquisite Tiffany works were produced after Mr. Nickerson had died.

Yet it turns out that perhaps this model of HHM can be liberating. The museum did have notes about how Mr. and Mrs. Nickerson originally used the rooms.  They also had fairly precise and careful indications, much more in the way of passive interpretation than I’ve seen at other HHMs, of what was original and what was restored. They also clearly felt free to comment on the institutions that gave way to the ability to create such a gem of a house in a city that has always been deeply stratified by class.  The signs that discussed the restoration made clear that one difficulty had been cleaning the Berea sandstone exterior of the house; a century of industrial smog had to be carefully removed to find the underlying color.

However, they mixed that context with a powerful critique of how such institutions came to be, simply by allowing the contemporary to mix productively with the historic. Currently, the Driehaus Museum is playing host to an exhibit called A Tale of Today: Yinka Shonibare CBE.  I’ve been fascinated by Shonibare’s work for a long time; I once wrote a paper that tried to compare his method of quoting art history to Edgar Degas’s. Shonibare, a British-Nigerian artist, borrows familiar tropes, plots, and visual configurations to disrupt the history of art from the inside out. Placing this exhibition in this kind of museum suggests that, by abandoning the strictures of one historic period, more thematic analyses are possible.

An excellent example of the clash between Shonibare and the traditional model of an HHM is Party Time: Reimagine America (2009), originally produced for the Newark Museum and on display here in the Nickersons’ dining room.

Party Time: Reimagine America  (2009) installed in the Driehaus Museum. (My photo.)

Party Time: Reimagine America (2009) installed in the Driehaus Museum. (My photo.)

The figures wear Dutch wax clothing, a critical signifier of colonialism in Shonibare’s visual language—the cloth, usually associated with Africa and imported into African markets, was actually made in the Netherlands. In Shonibare’s hands, it calls a viewer to consider who is really responsible for the societies that we inhabit. Party Time shows a dinner table full of people whose actions, like feet on the table, betray the exclusive and elite activities the circumstances are supposed to recall. The headless mannequins, nearly disembodied suits of clothes, also recall the ghosts of the people who once lived in the house, who likely had servants, and whose actions reified divisions of social class, race, and gender.

The Driehaus Museum was my most pleasant surprise of this trip to Chicago, the exact opposite of that moment of fear that had me rethinking all of my choices to go there.  While I have been wary of contemporary art installations in historic settings in the past, the Shonibare exhibit enriched the experience of being in the museum. It gave me so much more than if the house had simply been full of the Nickerson furnishings or a museum to the surgeons who called it their professional home for a century, even if I would have happily gone to either. It might not be rocket science, or even the interventions spelled out in Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, but other museums could certainly learn from being so open to new ideas.

Women Ghostbusting in Historic Houses and Buildings

Everyone who knows me knows that Ghostbusters (the original) is my favorite movie.  Bill Murray ranks high in my personal pantheon and features in my quasi-professional Twitter bio.  I can freely quote Saturday Night Live sketches featuring Murray and Dan Aykroyd that are now deep cuts to all but the right age group or an SNL superfan.  So I may not be a white dude nerd bro, but I am certainly a part of the audience that could be ticked off by a female reboot.  That is the history I took in with me to see the new Ghostbusters today, a remake, not a reboot, of the movie that means more to me than any other.

And I loved it.  Partially because of how it handles history, in general.

Image from the   Ghostbusters  website .

Image from the Ghostbusters website.

The now iconic introductory sequence from the original movie features an older librarian discovering a ghost among the stacks at the also iconic main branch of the New York Public Library.  In the new version, they've subbed a Historic House Museum for that library - in other words, they've subbed the only thing that could be more meaningful to me at this point in time.  I laughed and laughed as the tour guide, a young comedian known for playing a certain type of uptight nerd, leads a group of visitors through this historic mansion.  The house, with its luxurious Gilded Age interior, is a stereotypical Historic House Museum in every way and desperately in need of the Anarchist's Guide to Historic House Museums, for sure.  The tour guide seems humorless and the guests only nod in awe when he remarks, as if they are in the know, that the house's luxuries include a "face bidet" and an "Irish-only security fence."  Even as I was laughing at these "luxuries," it occurred to me that the security fence joke serves as both a smart invocation of the intricacies of Gilded Age racism and a nod to the frequently problematic nature of celebrating histories of rich families without truly evaluating why they're worthy of preservation.  Because the owner of this (fictional) historic house had an insane daughter and there is a macabre component to the history, the tour guide has also rigged a candlestick to fall over on command and startle his guests.  This is yet another good-natured nod to the fact that some Historic House Museums distort or spice up their history in order to please their visitors.  I. Was. Dying.

The other way that the new Ghostbusters handles history involves Leslie Jones's character, Patty. In the original movie, the African-American Ghostbuster, Winston Zeddemore (played by Ernie Hudson), served as the street smarts of the group while the other three were white scientists with academic credentials.  Whenever there was a problem, Winston would provide the practical advice while Ray or Egon, the scientists, would have the complicated knowledge.  Being black seems to equate with having street smarts in a way that I did not quite realize was problematic until I became an adult with a pile of degrees, but this is also a worry that many people expressed when it became apparent that Leslie Jones would be playing a transit worker who becomes a Ghostbuster.  But here's the thing: her character, Patty, has an equal share of the knowledge-giving.  No, she can't speak to the science, but, as she says herself, she knows New York.  And she means its full history, which she knows because she "reads a lot of nonfiction."  When they finally pinpoint a historic building that will be crucial to the film's outcome, it's Patty who can say why it's important in the present day and why it was important a hundred years ago and a hundred years before that.  As New York Times critic Manohla Dargis wrote in her review, "If this were a radical reboot, [Leslie Jones] would have played a scientist."  But, in a mainstream Hollywood movie, Jones playing a smart, funny transit worker who engages in a substantial life of the mind and who is critical at every turn of the plot is certainly something.

With these crucial moments, and the similarly subtle nods to New York culture and history that made the originals so great, this Ghostbusters pays attention to history.  They wrap it into their investigations, and their personal histories define them as characters in substantial ways.  Even beyond this, the new Ghostbusters is a tremendously funny film and one that goes further than Bridesmaids and other recent films ever could in making sure it's clear that women can be funny without also adhering to the standards for funny men.  It smashes the Bechdel test.  And for me, It meant more than I can ever possibly say to see smart women play wonderful versions of the characters that I have always held so dearly.