The Decline of the House Museum

02 December 2013 .

“ The strongest evidence for questioning the value of museumification of a historic property springs for the paradox that the noble objective of interpretation for the public good may in fact be ill served when a building becomes a museum”. Carol Stapp and Ken Turino.





























Historic house museums, with the right amount of interpretation,  are popular because they feel familiar to us.  They are tangible reminders of the past and rich and diverse learning environments.  But sadly, historic house museums, both overseas and within Australia, are struggling.  The problem is generally a financial one,  a result of insufficient funding and limited people power.  To run a house museum you need some source of income to cover about 80 percent of operating costs. When the National Trust did a survey several years ago they found that the average house museum in the Unites States took in US$8 per visitor and spent nearly US$40 per visitor. That means that admissions covered about 20 percent of costs.


In the past volunteerism and philanthropy have been encouraged, leaving many historic house museums dependent upon the generosity of their patrons. However there is the belief now that perhaps it is better if we encourage these historic sites to stand on their own commercially. By responding to the needs of their community, historic house museums will find that distinctive niche which makes them stand out among others and foster more support from visitors.


Problems currently facing house museums include:

  • Aging boards. Museums generally struggle to attract young people as the nature of volunteerism has changed.  Traditionally volunteers have been women, more of whom now work outside the home.
  • Difficulty raising funds through campaigning of endowment drives.  These houses need money to fund both repairs and maintenance and interpretation.
  • Spiralling deferred maintenance obligations
  • Limited opening hours as they find it hard to attract staff that can keep the museums open for regular hours.


Most historic house museums struggle financially. But there are successful models:

  • to have an endowment which can cover a certain percentage of annual operating costs, and many sites have this
  • to have an income-producing property.
  • to raise the volume of tourism to such a high level that it can cover more than 20 percent of operating costs.
  • to raise the admission prices high enough to cover the costs. This can work at world famous sites, but it is unlikely to work for local historical societies whose purpose is to allow the building to be accessible to all. Or finally
  • to have a successful gift shop.

Another model that is becoming increasingly necessary in order to preserve these buildings is to put them back in private hands. The economics of maintaining a private home and economics of a public facility are completely different, people are much more prepared to make economically unjustifiable decisions about spending money on their homes. Private owners also mean less wear and tear on historic fabric.

The problem with private ownership is that it limits public access although the properties can be and often are made available to the public on a limited or annual basis, with events such as Open days. Most properties covered by preservation easements are private, but the easements require some sort of token annual opening to the public, which is common on community and neighborhood house and garden walks.


Factors which contribute to the success of a House museum:

  • An awareness of the house and its significance.  In order to attract the interest and support of donors and visitors alike, sites must advertise their significance and how that applies to the visitors.
  • Accessibility to the house on various levels allowing for a sense of freedom or even autonomy when visiting and a comfortable rate of touring. Visitors should not experience difficulty arriving at the site, parking near it, touring it (precluding any special disability), and in understanding the interpretation of the house. Click here to learn more about Interpretation.
  • Good management at the Board level and in the area of financial management


In her book New Solutions for House Museums Donna Ann Harris examines possible options for house museums and provides a decision-making methodology.  Her book also includes a dozen case studies of house museums that have made a successful transition to a new owner or user.  Possible ownership and re-use solutions proposed by Harris include five proposals which involve retaining ownership and a further three which require the property to be sold or donated with protective easements.


1)      Continue to manage the site but re-program it as a study house with limited visitation.  The house may be fully furnished (or not) and completely restored using collections with certain provenance to the building.  Visits are by appointment only.


This option is appropriate for house museums that are generally well-restored and maintained but are isolated and therefore receive limited visitation, or are fragile.


2)      Continue to manage the site but re-program it for another mission-based use, non-house museum.  For example, staff housing, guest house, library, shop or office.


This may be appropriate when the Board no longer wants to interpret the site for the public but wishes to retain ownership.


3)      Enter into a formal co-stewardship co-op relationship or lease with another house museum organisation to manage it as a house museum. Large organisations may be able to draw more financial.  The arrangement can be flexible and customised for special needs.


This option is popular if ownership or endowments have special covenants that make a sale or another use untenable.


4)      A formal merger with another house museum organisation.


In this situation the leadership must believe that the merged entity can achieve more than the two organisations independently, either as a result of synergies or economies of scale.


5)      A long-term lease to a commercial entity for an adaptive re-use. In this case ownership is retained but the private market place will determine the highest price and best use of the property. The physical condition will drive many uses. 


A wide variety of alternative uses exist but common examples are bed and breakfasts, holiday retreats, hospitality or office uses.  For more information on adaptive re-use click here.


6)      Sale or donation of the property to a private owner with protective easements.


This is a good solution when the private owner has greater financial resources to maintain and restore the building.


7)      Sale to another non-profit stewardship with protective easements.


This may be the only acceptable solution if the property was donated with specific restrictions on use or ownership.  It usually involves a bargain sale.


8)      Donation of the property to a Government or other non-profit entity


This is usually a desperate, final solution for properties in particularly bad condition.




To read more about these proposed alternative and case studies click here to order Donna Harris’ book online.