Can We Make Historic House Museums Sustainable?

History News Summer 2011This special History News: Your Turn feature complements the article by Gary N. Smith entitled “House Museum Partnerships with Local Governments: A Broken Model?” which appears in the Summer 2011 edition of History News.

[Read PDF of Full Article]

Gary N. Smith

Gary N. Smith
President, Dallas Heritage Village

House museums are an important segment of the museum field, but they are increasingly in danger of being marginalized. Many are deteriorating physically, declining financially, and fading in importance to their communities. Increasingly the energy of the museum field has shifted to more dynamic science and natural history museums, and house museums appear out of step with trends of visitor interest. One of the major factors in this situation is the declining role of government funding, rendering many house museums as unsustainable as presently operated. What can we do to reverse this trend?

It’s Your Turn

We need good examples of new house museum business models that are succeeding in an era of decline in government funding at all levels. We are a creative group that thrives in coming up with new education programs and events, but what can we do to make sure that historic house museums are physically and financially sustainable beyond our generation? Let’s find and share success stories that show house museums adapting to less funding from the public sector and becoming more viable. Jump in and share below.


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  1. John and Anita Durel 05. Jul, 2011 at 8:30 pm #

    Gary Smith correctly describes the situation faced by history organizations around the country. Increasingly we learn of state and local governments cutting back funding and support as they seek to balance their own budgets.

    We have had first hand experience in dealing with this situation. In its 2010 budget the City of Colorado Springs zeroed out funding for the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum (CSPM). The museum, which is an agency within city government, has always received the vast majority of its operating funds through the city budget, with only small supplements from a Friends group and a foundation. In recent years it has operated with a budget of slightly more than $1 million. Faced with an elimination of all support, the Friends rallied for the museum and convinced the city council to restore $300,000, which combined with a like amount in museum reserves enabled CSPM to stay open during 2010, albeit at a much reduced capacity.

    We then were asked to help the museum develop a transition plan to move to a true City-Private partnership with a new nonprofit entity running the museum on behalf of the City. The plan includes a pro-forma budget showing City support declining gradually as earned revenue and private sector contributions increase. It gives a road map for what needs to happen on the private side, depending on the level of City support in any given year. Having the plan strengthened the museum’s position as it negotiated the 2011 budget with the City, which came in around $700,000.

    Recently Matt Mayberry, the executive director of CSPM, emailed us that they “are field testing the pro forma…. Some revenue sources are coming in under projections and other look better. We are less than 12 months into an 18 month breakout period, but feel pretty confident about things.”

    We think there are several things local history organizations can and must do to ward off the government axe.
    1. Have a plan that shows you are willing to work with the city or other governing agency to solve the financial problem. This is about seeing an issue and finding solutions, rather than just complaining or arguing that they have an obligation to fund your organization.
    2. Advocate for yourself. Strengthen your relationships with City decision-makers. CSPM had three City Council members with close ties to the museum; one actually served on the team we worked with to develop the transition strategy.
    3. Take fund development seriously. Our article, “A Golden Age for Historic Properties” is often cited as a call for more community engagement. What people tend to overlook is that community engagement is not an end in itself, but is a means to increase private sector support. This is hard work, and it is the real work of the board. Most nonprofit boards shy away from taking full responsibility for the financial health of the organization. Usually this is because they don’t fully understand what they can accomplish and are not organized to undertake the work in earnest. Most trustees are willing to find solutions given the chance, and are eager to organize. Most will ask their friends to attend a fundraising event; but events are costly and don’t bring in donors who are really committed to the mission and ready to invest in the organization. Such events will never produce the amount of funding needed for a true partnership with local government. Boards need to engage in the development process, even when they don’t or won’t ask directly for money. They must open doors, cultivate individual donors and build up relationships so that the executive director can make the “ask.”
    4. Be passionate about the value and practice of history, and take a positive, optimistic outlook for the future. We purposefully titled our article “A Golden Age” to shift the conversation from what was not working for historic properties to what they could become. We all need to remind ourselves, our staffs, our boards and our communities why this work is so important and how good it feels when people engage in history in ways that are meaningful. Be a cheerleader. Celebrate the value of history in our lives. Find the words to inspire others. Martin Luther King did not change the world by exclaiming “I have a plan!”

    The field of public history is in the midst of a great transformation. In history organizations around the nation we are seeing innovation in the ways we preserve the past, engage our communities, and fund our work. We need not shrink from the challenge, if we truly believe in the importance of our work.


    Anita and John Durel

    • Gary Smith 07. Jul, 2011 at 9:14 pm #

      I am a big fan of the work and writings of the Durels, so I appreciate their comments. I completely agree with the approach they outlined and for the need to be positivie. A primary reason for my writing my article is to encourage long range thinking with planners who hope to save historic properties. More realistic planning by both government and private partners might help to make the next generation of preserved historic structures more dynamic and sustainable than the present generation.

  2. Sarah Reusche 25. Sep, 2011 at 8:19 pm #

    Mr. Smith is right that building community support for historic house museums is a much more sustainable model than relying on cultural tourism to keep a site alive. He suggests that museums need to “prove their point” and “give a strong case” for their existence. I think house museums should go a step further than educating the public on the importance of preservation, and shift more attention to becoming more of a community center giving locals a chance to interact with each other and the museum. In addition to being place that interprets history through the objects and space of a house, they should branch out into programming that builds community relations like book clubs, conversation groups, and festivals that all relate back to the history and people being interpreted.

  3. Catherine Wallace 26. Sep, 2011 at 2:27 am #

    I find it fascinating that so many house museums have used the same flawed business model for decades, not realizing the financial issues of the path they were heading down. I also find it interesting that so many house museums, with the knowledge of the state of older such entities, did not look further into the funding but instead followed the same flawed model and got themselves into the same economic hole. Did they not know other financial options existed? Did they believe the process would turn out differently for them? Perhaps they just didn’t know any other way, and since they were so focused on getting the buildings restored and opened to the public, they found it possible to ignore their doubts. Many times Smith’s article highlights the tendency of museum officials and government funders to fixate on the beginning of the process and underestimate the difficulty of securing stable funding once the initial phase is complete. More public funding would certainly help the museums, and I believe it is in order, but in lieu of that, it seems best to try and attract visitors as well as private donors. For visitors to come, historic house museums must offer more than just restored buildings. I don’t believe that large visitor and education centers are strictly necessary, though. For large museums and villages who regularly receive school groups and can afford the expansion, they might be a good choice. But for smaller ventures, building new buildings when expenses are already high doesn’t seem logical. The public can be attracted in more ways that that–hosting events with historical significance, instituting programs that attract children, and reaching out to the community with standing traditions that build a connection with the local population.
    I live near Old Salem Village in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and its combination of summer camps for children, annual Christmas celebrations, and bakery and restaurant locals frequent, in addition to their year-round tours, have made it an institution in the community, much loved and applauded for bringing history to the whole city. Once the loyalty of a community is captured, it then becomes necessary to capitalize on this relationship and look for donors within the community. Private donors can help out with projects the museum desperately needs to undertake, whether opening a new exhibit or renovating a plumbing system, and be recognized in the city or town for their generosity. Whether a local business or foundation, the donor receives recognition, the community is alerted to the fact that the museum is being improved, and the museum flourishes with greater funding and better attendance.

  4. Rachael Jeffers 26. Sep, 2011 at 10:56 am #

    I would have to agree with Mr. Smith on the point that many historic house museums and historic villages continue to operate under flawed management models and rely far too heavily on the ‘if we build it they will come’ idea. As someone who grew up loving family visits to historic sites and homes and has an academic and career path linked in to the world of museums and history, I hope the field can really take this moment of change in stride. These historic spaces absolutely hold value but as others have echoed, the communities where they are need to believe in that value as much as the visitors from afar. If the neighbors of a historic home or village see the site merely as a drain on local resources or a place to be avoided during ‘tourist’ season – than what value is the site adding to it’s own community?

    While such sites may not initially see direct links between their mission(s) and working to make their space open to the community, I would counter that uncovering those links will only serve both the community and site better. If a historic home or village can prove its worth and good will towards its own community by opening its doors to book clubs, gardeners, dog walkers, photography groups, area restaurants and businesses and others – chances are they won’t feel so alone when it comes time to ask for funding support or even lobbying local, regional, state, or federal governments for funding or support. Overall, I think it’s of great importance to remember that these places represent in at least some ways how life was lived in a different time – emphasis here on ‘living life.’ While these places deserve appropriate respect and preservation, that does not need to shut them off from the ways of life being lived all around them.

  5. Lila Knight 10. Oct, 2011 at 4:20 pm #

    Our local non-profit restored the Katherine Anne Porter childhood home in Kyle, Texas. Now, what to do? We leased it ($1 per year) to the Creative Writing Program of a nearby University. They use it as a writer-in-residence program which allows one of their recent graduates free board while they work on their first novel/book of poetry – with the stipulation that they provide 8 to 10 readings per year, free of charge to the public, by prominent authors who are visiting their creative writing program. The house is also open, by appointment, to visitors who want to tour it. The University is in charge of maintenance of the house – and they have done an awesome job! In cooperation with our non-profit, they have raised a small endowment to sustain the expenses of the house. The writer-in-residence teaches at the University while they write.

    This allows us to maintain the house, without incurring horrible debt to the non-profit. It also allows the house to be occupied, so we don’t have to worry about vandalism or security. The legacy of the house is continued as well. And the public continues to benefit from the programs offered at the house – in an intimate and wonderful setting.

    The house is now listed on the National Register and is a National Literary Landmark as well.

    Sometimes you just have to be creative and think outside of the box.

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