Museum

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.

Experiencing Erasmus at the Rotterdam Public Library

One of the most fascinating exhibitions I saw during my recent travels was also the cheapest—it was free!  In the Rotterdam Public Library, a building with yellow pipes down the side that make it look more like a factory, they have an exhibit called the Erasmus Experience, which focuses on the contributions of the humanist thinker Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), who originally came from Rotterdam.  It seemed like posters for the exhibit were placed throughout the city in places where interested people might be likely to find them—for me, it worked.

Exterior of the Rotterdam Public Library (my photo).

Exterior of the Rotterdam Public Library (my photo).

The exhibition focused on the philosophy of Erasmus and its resonance for the present-day, which is a lofty subject for an exhibit, especially in an age where people are resistant to reading large amounts of wall text. He wrote prolifically about the benefits of education and how, in the wake of the Reformation, every person could define their individual relationship with religion.  Appropriately, Erasmus loved words and language, and the Erasmus Experience effective spun words into memorable edutainment for the afternoon.

And so I walked into the Rotterdam Public Library, peering across the rotunda for barriers to entry or signs directing me to the exhibition.  I walked through a photography exhibit, through an area with a reference desk—a reminder that public libraries look much the same wherever you might be.  I saw a sign directing me up to the next floor, and so I hopped on the escalator. At the top of the escalator, I saw a kiosk display on Erasmus that used the graphics for the exhibition; inside a small niche in the display rested postcards with Erasmus quotes on them. I enthusiastically snagged one as a free souvenir and continued on my merry way around the floor to the next escalator.  Two more floors later, through the children’s section, and the romance section, I found myself staring at the alcove that held the Eramus Experience.

Screenshot of the  Erasmus Experience website .

Screenshot of the Erasmus Experience website.

I had expected the space to be small, as library exhibitions often are, but they used the space well.  Exhibition panels lined the wall of the alcove, with all the materials in Dutch and English, and a desk-style bank of flatscreen monitors filled the center of the room.  The instructions clearly indicated that visitors should start with the wall panels and would end with the computer interactives.  However, before entering, the instructions directed me to grab a little yellow bracelet—it looked almost like a FitBit or a large plastic kids’ watch—and stand on a mark to have my picture taken.  The quick video and the sign (pictured below) explained that it would be my task to use the yellow bracelet to interact with the exhibit and collect “diamonds” for answering questions related to the opinions expressed by Erasmus.  Gamification in museums—turning a learning task into a game with tasks and rewards—can be risky.

Sign at the beginning of the Erasmus Experience.

Sign at the beginning of the Erasmus Experience.

My instinct is always to be skeptical about exhibitions that require participation because they do not often manage to sustain that engagement all the way through the display.  They ask too much or too little to really work effectively.  In this case, however, I found myself reading the exhibition panels and swiping my little yellow bracelet to get those diamonds, almost without thinking about it and even though I had intended this exhibit to be a short stop in a jam-packed day of site-seeing.  For example, a panel might describe what Erasmus had said about language, its rules, and its potential for connection, and the question it poses might be: “Do you believe that everyone should speak the same language in order to promote connection?”  The answers might be something like “Yes, I do because how else can we understand each other?” and “No, I don’t because we should preserve the integrity of individual languages.”  Answering the questions required thought and asked you to really understand why Erasmus held such beliefs.  The exhibition also did an excellent job of placing Erasmus into a modern context—for example, because he lived in a time when most scholarship and religious activity occurred in Latin, he understood what it meant for a group of people, regardless of national boundaries, to all know one language.  He understood the cloistered, classist nature of that shared Latin knowledge, but he was also willing to pose the question of what it might look if such a practice spread to the rest of society.  I found the entire exhibit fascinating, and I wish I could share the whole thing with you here.

After making it through the all of the questions and collecting enough diamonds, you proceeded to the center of the room, where you could explore your answers further.  A stylishly animated little Erasmus, like the one in the pictures above, interrogated your opinions in the style of a text message screen, occasionally playing devil’s advocate and pushing you to be sure you understood the consequences of your answers.  You could do as much or as little of this interactive as you liked, and I found that it further deepened what I had already learned from the display.  I also noticed, at this point in the exhibition, that there were cases filled with books, in the more traditional manner of library exhibition.  But even though the Rotterdam Public Library claims one of the largest collections of Erasmus writings in the world, they did not rely on the objects themselves to engage visitors. Instead, they simply offered them as a bonus for those interested.

I left that day excited about Rotterdam's museums, and excited to learn more about Erasmus.  It’s a shame that other texts on the philosopher—who seems extraordinarily relevant to today—are not as accessible as the Erasmus Experience exhibition was.  In this case, “Experience” was not simply a flashy moniker to draw in numbers.  The exhibition engaged me in his philosophy, provided a model for using technology to amplify learning, and incorporated traditional methods of display to emphasize the strengths of its collections. I saw a number of other museums and special exhibitions on my trip that tried to achieve these goals, but this is one of few that I’m still thinking about.