Tag Archives: house museums

Where House Museums Thrive

Last May I spent two wonderful weeks in St. Petersburg, Russia, walking the streets and exploring the myriad museums, small and large, but especially the small. Near the hotel where I was staying, someone had affixed a large sculpture of a nose to the wall of an old building, to mark the spot where the main character of Gogol’s story “The Nose” supposedly lived. That gives one a sense of how literary fame and legend intersect with the streetscape of this poet-saturated  cultural capital.

The city is particularly rich in small museums devoted to literary and artistic figures. We have similar sites in the United States, but not as densely woven into the living city, nor maintained quite so ardently as shrines. Our house museums tend to be educational, while in Russia the education they offer is a side effect along with the main purpose: worship. Let’s put it another way: Imagine what you could do, as a curator, if everyone entering your museum already knew a fair amount about the subject at hand.

I went to as many of these little museums–Rimsky-Korsakov, Chaliapin, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Nabokov–as I could in the time I spent there, and it was enormously satisfying and great fun. I wrote about the experience in this week’s The Washington Post.

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Filed under Culture, Exhibitions, Museums, Preservation

Edith Wharton reprieve

Last summer I took a long trip through New England and upstate New York, which included a visit to Edith Wharton’s home, called “The Mount.” I described the house this way:

The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in the Berkshires, presents a face to the world rather like the old saying about mullet haircuts: business in front, party in the back. The main entrance is uninviting, set into the dull face of a largish country house. This rather doughty side of the house must have made an even more modest impression when it was new, in 1902, at least by the standards of Wharton’s neighbors, the Vanderbilts and Morgans, who were building millionaire “cottages” of marble, with names like Elm Court and Ventfort Hall.

The larger context of the story was financial. After an extensive renovation campaign, The Mount piled up a lot of debt. And that debt seriously threatened the viability of this little non-profit house museum. Would Wharton’s home, now looking so fine, be taken away from the public?

Today, there’s good news. Susan Wissler, executive director of The Mount, emailed today word that they have managed to restructure their debt, and with the gift of $750,000 from the Alice M. Kaplan Memorial Reserve, the chances are now much better that the house won’t pass into private hands. They’ve still got some important challenges, including deciding what they want to be when they grow up. A museum? An intellectual center? A host to festivals and performances? All of the above?

But for now, a reprieve. My original story for The Washington Post looked at the house, the woman who built it, the gardens that are its most handsome feature, and some of the literary and philosophical issues raised by maintaining a writer’s house as a shrine and museum. Luckily, it can still be found on the web, and the slide show our web folks pulled together is still available as well.  So you can see for yourself what has been saved. For now.

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Filed under Architecture, Culture