In the early 2000s, warning signs began appearing that historic sites—one of the largest segments of the museum community—were in trouble. With articles entitled “Are There Too Many Historic House Museums?” and research statistics that showing a majority of visitors hate guided tours, the time is ripe for change in the field, and in the quest to gain relevancy, community engagement has been a big initiative for HHMs. Today, I’m going to focus on LatimerNOW, a community engagement museum laboratory based out of the Latimer House in Flushing, Queens, New York, which interprets an African-American inventor.
The Latimer House is part of the Historic House Trust of New York City (HHTNYC) consortium, an organization headed by the self-proclaimed museum anarchist Franklin Vagnone. Vagnone. Vagnone defines his philosophy of practice, as laid out in his “Anarchist’s Guide” as “collection of concepts that push for historic house museums and sites to rethink their relevancy and how they project their information through engagement with communities.” Vagnone implemented this by first researching who his community was. The Latimer House told an African-American story, but though the Flushing community was diverse, it was only 2% African-American. Therefore, Vagnone focused on ways that the interpretation could cross different segments, such as focusing on inventiveness. Programs include the “Latimer Lounge” which is a program that invites community members and artists to come in and present pieces celebrating the objects and architecture of the house. Another program called “What Brightens Your Day?” is a mobile cart program that staff take to various community events to engage audiences in conversations about ingenuity in their own lives.
HHTNYC has worked with several classes at local universities, including architecture students at Columbia and museum studies students in the Cooperstown Graduate Program, to research the methods being used at LatimerNOW and other properties in the consortium. To follow the project blog and read studies, go to http://www.latimernow.org. For an interview with Franklin Vagnone: http://artsfwd.org/franklin-vagnone/