Multiple Stories: Urbanism, Interpretation, and the Historic House Museum

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McCarthy, Meggan Rose
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Middle Tennessee State University
Historic buildings are integral to telling the story of a place. Yet, the prevailing conversation around house museums in recent years has centered around the idea that these dwellings are no longer relevant. While the traditional “roped-off” period room house museum may be a trend of the past, these sites remain useful to understand a deeper history of a place. My dissertation will focus on what historic house museums can mean for a community. Through adaptive reuse and community engagement, old homes can be powerful tools to educate the public and localize larger historical narratives. When a visitor takes a tour at a historic house museum, they learn not only about the people who lived on the property, but they can also absorb the changing physical and social landscape happening in the region. That synthesis is one of the key elements of contemporary interpretation. The research presented in this dissertation examines five historic house museums in various stages of development. The John Henry Carothers House demonstrates how a black farmhouse can survive encroaching urbanism and provide a community with the story of farm work in the early twentieth century. The Burwell-Dinkins House disrupts the narrative of poor black southerners, showcasing a home that served physicians, musicians, Civil Rights activists, and educators in Selma, Alabama. The Sadie Ford Heritage Farm serves as a comparison to the Carothers Farm; both are rural farmhouses in Middle Tennessee, but the Ford family were white farmers and educators. Their land has also faced encroaching urbanism, just like the Carothers house, where the physical changes to the landscape can obscure the important historical narrative. Two Rivers Mansion is the only antebellum property in this dissertation; the conversation is centered around enslaved labor and shifting interpretive strategies. The final case study, Cheekwood Estate and Gardens, also delas with the concept of obscured labor, this time in an early twentieth century home. The craftsmen who built the home and the domestic workers responsible for maintaining it will soon be a larger component of the interpretive conversation. These institutions are all examples of house museums and their need for more encompassing interpretation to tell a larger story, one that encapsulates the entirety of the historic landscape.
Historic House Museums, Interpretation, Museums, Public History, Urbanism, History