I think some visitors to historic house museums can leave frustrated, or confused, and I think there are a few ‘tips’ to keep in mind to help get the best experience, since historic houses are a little bit different than a conventional museum.
Most modern museums are now rife with signage, text, audio, visuals, and various other interpretation methods- or at least trying to incorporate them- but historic house museums don’t always have these, or at least to the same extent (although some houses are going to great lengths to be creative with these and other techniques!)
I think the first thing to remember is that the house itself, and the collection as a whole, is an artifact. It’s not just about the artifacts or objects or paintings individually, as they may often be in a museum or gallery. The physical structure of the building, and its decoration- wallpaper, flooring, furniture- are just as important as the paintings and other objects! This element can certainly add a lot, and it tells us a lot of important things- built heritage, cultural and societal norms, history of decorative arts, history and personal tastes of a particular person or family, building techniques, etc. Beyond the building, you can then look at the collection as whole to tell us about the history of collecting and the attitudes towards art, antiquities, architecture, and other elements. The collectors’ intent and the place of each object provides a unique secondary provenance and adds to each objects history. Sometimes the person, or people, associated with the building are also just as important, and can be what really makes it interesting! Think of something like the Charles Dickens House- the house and artifacts are interesting in and of themselves, but doubly so because of what they can tell us about Dickens.
I think while this is invaluable, this can be frustrating for some people who may be more used to visiting a conventional museum or gallery, where each piece is individually highlighted, and often has its own label. But imagine walking into one of these grand houses, with pictures in gilded frames from floor to ceiling, ceramics on beautiful pieces of furniture, other decorative arts, maybe even clothing.. and seeing a label on virtually everything! It would be a bit overwhelming, and not likely aesthetically pleasing.But that doesn’t mean you can’t find out about a room, building, or person, or individual object. It may be overwhelming at first, but take a moment, soak it all in- the opulence (or not, depending on the site you’re at!), the atmosphere, the mood, and then seek out interpretation or answers. These can come in many forms, and often more than one, if not several are available. I’ll highlight some of the most common here:
The museum guide book: Often, if not always, there is a guidebook available (or several). Particularly in England at National Trust and English Heritage there tends to be at least one, from a basic room description and map, to lavish, full colour photographs on every page with the entire history laid out. Take your pick. But even the most basic guidebook, sometimes only £3!, will provide a brief description, a floor plan, some nice photos, and some will even direct you through the best route of the house- particularly helpful in large stately homes where there are numerous rooms and hallways! So your first option is an inexpensive, easy, digestible guide, which is also a souvenir.
Audio tours: Many sites also have audio tours, and if so, often available in different languages, or for different audiences, such as focused on different themes, or directed at families. In the case of, for example, Buckingham palace, this is the main interpretation method. Not only does it give you a brief description of each room, with options for additional information about individual objects, but also tells you exactly where to go.
Guided tours: Many sites have regular guided tours that will hit the highlights of a collection or site, and provide a good starting point for you to further explore on your own. There are also often more specialized tours available, or behind the scenes tours. Check on a site’s website ahead of time, or ask at the front entrance. These may be particularly good if you want a great introduction, or have limited time but still want to see a site and get some good info about it.
Text panels: While not every object may have a label, there are often at least basic text panels in most rooms explaining the overall function, and highlighting a key object or two. I can’t think of too many historic houses that don’t have at least a bit of text available…
Binders or handouts: Often in addition to the basic text panels, there is usually a binder or handout that contains all the really detailed information- every tidbit about every object you could possibly want to know! In some houses I’ve seen binders where every object has it’s own page. (Great cataloguing and research!)
Finally, people! Most, if not all historic house museums I’ve been to have actual live people in their houses! Not only are people responsive, but it may be the only practical form of interpretation for that museum (whether for financial, physical, or other reasons). Sometimes these people are involved in first person interpretation, as if they are one of the people who lived in that house, sometimes not. Either way, I promise you that these people know their stuff! Don’t be afraid to ask any question that comes to mind! People volunteer and work in museums because they are passionate about them- they are interested, informed, and would love to share their knowledge with you. If they haven’t greeted you, or just started telling you about something, it may just be because they don’t want to intrude on your visit, or maybe you don’t look interested, or maybe you look like you already have all the answers. (Yes, they are also there for artifact security, and to give directions… I’m also not trying to blame you, the visitor, for not talking to people. There are also better interpreters/room stewards than others…) But if you DO have a question, or just want to start a discussion, do! Don’t worry about it sounding silly.. Or even just make a remark like ‘wow, there sure is a lot of stuff crammed in here!’ They may be able to explain why something is that way, and why it’s different than what we are used to. Seriously though, these people are there to help make YOUR visit great. They know a lot, and they want to share it with you.
So, next time you’re at a historic house museum, start by just taking it all in, and let your imagination go! Take in the atmosphere, and in many cases opulence, and then start really looking. Think about what’s familiar, and what’s not. Then seek out the answers to those questions you’re asking in your head, from ‘what’s that thing?’ to ‘why would they do that?’ to ‘who painted that?’ to ‘who lived here?’ All of those answers, and more, are very likely available!
Looking for a place to start? I particularly love the Sir John Soane Museum, Kenwood House, Ham House, Leighton House, 18 Stafford Terrace, and Freud’s. Although I could probably go on forever… These houses represent quite a range of dates, tastes, classes, and types of collections, as well as types of interpretation! For more, visit the english heritage and national trust websites for a good starting point.
Think HHM aren’t for you? Try not to think of them as just a place with loads of stuffy furniture. Watched The Tudors? Go to Hampton Court and see the real thing! Imagine Henry and Anne drinking from the wine fountain in the courtyard. Love Dickens? Head to his house and learn more about him! Love Greek and Roman artifacts, or architecture? Head to Sir John Soane’s House and see his collection, which looks a bit bizarre and overwhelming, but actually makes tons of sense (ask someone why it’s like that)! Want to see Freud’s famous couch? It’s there! Start somewhere you might have a strong link to already. If you love fashion, start with a site that has particularly good fashion collections. Or if you love armour, there are a few of those too. There are also a few musician’s houses- including Handel, and Jimi Hendrix, to just name two. Lots of ways to be inspired, look and admire, inquire. Or just try and do a bit of ghost hunting… (many historic houses also have great cafes. so eat a scone or two!)