Archive for June, 2012

Here Eat This! House Museums and Ultimate Use II

June 20, 2012

In the past I have written about the challenge of house museums.  See House Museums and Ultimate Use.  Almost a decade ago, the National Trust – which was basically created by Congress in the 1940s in order to receive houses and turn them into museums – started to discuss the end of the house museum as we know it.  No more velvet ropes and stilted ossified stories of wealthy Victorians and the silver service they used when the Admiral visited.

As I have noted before, the house museum NEVER EVER worked as an economically viable use.  Those house museums that thrive are those that either A: charge a lot for a visit; B: do a bangup gift shop business (like the Wright sites); or C: have reinvented themselves a community centers, business retreats, or private homes.  It is that last option which just surfaced in Oak Park.

Hemingway birthplace, Oak Park

Ernest Hemingway won a Nobel Prize for Literature and was born in Oak Park in 1899, so some years ago they turned his birthplace into a house museum.  They had a strong funder, so they also turned an old church into an exhibit of his high school years and purchased his boyhood home – where he lived from age 6 to 18 – and hoped to give it a public use as well.

Hemingway Museum, Oak Park

Now, you can also visit Hemingway’s homes on the Gulf Coast, so he is an attraction.  But three museums in one town?  Too much.  That reality finally met its match when the boyhood home went to a private owner who will restore it as a single-family home.  And preserve it.

Hemingway boyhood home, Oak Park

USUALLY the best way to preserve something is as a private facility, not a public one.  This runs counter to our concept of public significance: Hemingway belongs to everyone.  To which I answer: so does the outside of his house.  People come to Oak Park to see Hemingway and they still have two museums plus a house they can walk by.  People come to Oak Park to see Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, even though 92% of them are private and not open to the public.

I did see another Frank Lloyd Wright this weekend – Pope-Leighey at Woodlawn, near Alexandria, Virginia.  That is one of the National Trust sites, and it is a good example of the trends in house museums.  Woodlawn is of the Washington family, but it has never been able to compete with Mount Vernon only 3 miles away.  So now it is doing what all historic sites are doing in 2012: goin’ foodie.

I noticed this in Lima, Peru during my work there over the past year, and I noticed it in Weishan, Yunnan, which doesn’t get a lot of tourists but has the best food on the planet.  (I know I only ever did Michelin green guides, not red guides, but trust me on this.  I have been around.)

Old Post Office, Lima – now Gastronomy Institute

My own dear National Trust site, the Gaylord Building, recently did a study to try to get in on the gastronomy thing, because it is seriously cresting in 2012: farm-to-table, locavorism, sustainability.  All of these trends resonate with conserving the embodied energy of an existing building.  Gastronomy is intangible heritage as well, something I saw on display in Lima.

The National Trust is doing it at Woodlawn, thanks to Arcadia, which has created a garden for local restaurants and others and is now a major player in the locally-sourced garden vegetable-and-fruit market for the area.

This will only get bigger, and I welcome it as yet another way to break us out of the idea that a historic place needs to be a museum.  I would rather it be an interpreted, dynamic, LIVING site.  Or even better, a GROWING one.


Another three weeks in China: Weishan 2012

June 10, 2012

Another three weeks in China, my third trip in a year, with eight SAIC students who did a great job refining the SAIC plan for the Weishan International Arts Center at the Dong Yue Temple complex, which we first got involved with back in 2004.


The Dong Yue temple itself was restored in 2008, and the plan we developed last year is to convert the adjacent Tai Bao and Shi Wang Palaces as an arts center, restoring the buildings themselves as historic monuments while integrating new arts uses around them, including artist-in-residence studios, kilns and wheels for ceramics, printmaking, forms and machines for fashion, easels and stands for painting and sculpture; facilities for photography and looms for fiber.

Great rendering of the complex by Tony

Nice overlay sketch of Tai Bao Palace by Beatrice


The great advantage of our group this year – our fourth SAIC Study Trip to the Weishan Heritage Valley – was the breadth of arts experience our students had, which allowed them to SEE the site in this multivalent way.  This would not be SAIC’s exclusive domain, by any stretch.  In addition to other universities in China and abroad, the facility has community uses.

Adam and Liza’s drawing of the complex


Kudos to students Anthony Wasmund, Megan Tyndall, Grace Ann Watson, Emma Weber, Beatrice Collier, Michelle O’Young, Adam Garcia and Liza Poupon.  They were fabulous, and fun to be with.  Kudos also to my fellow faculty member Stanley Murashige and Han Li, whose involvement was invaluable and toured us around the wonderful restored courtyards up in Pingyao, Shanxi.

Is that a yaodong or is that a yaodong?  Really!


I go to China to see the past and the future, and no country in the world has more of either.  From ceramics and oracle bones and a writing system stretching back five millennia to more megalopoli and highrises than anywhere in the world.

tons of old

and tons of new

From the thousands of over-life-sized soldiers of QinShiHuangDi to the thousands of highrises that sprawl across Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing and a dozen other massive cities, the past and future are both bigger and vaster in China.


The myth that the Great Wall is the only man-made object visible from outer space is like all myths, a untruth that contains a true insight: we need to believe it because China’s impact on the planet has always been outsized.

The byword in China for some time has been “social harmony” which is both an ancient Confucian concept and a concern of the ruling CCP, what with the rise of the middle class.  We all know that China makes all of our stuff and also owns all of our debt; what is less obvious to those who don’t visit is the fact that we have exported our middle class there.

This is actually quite relevant to the Weishan Heritage Valley project I have been working on the last 9 years, and the Global Heritage Fund project in Pingyao I have been involved with the last 4 years.  In both cases, we pursue modern conservation science in an effort to preserve architectural and cultural authenticity, and thus provide an attraction to those international tourists who seek out such authenticity.

The limits to that approach are now apparent as the international tourist is well nigh irrelevant in a nation with the world’s largest middle class.  The tourists in Pingyao and Weishan are overwhelmingly Chinese.  What both the Weishan Heritage Valley and the Pingyao project have had to do is adjust to this reality.  Part of my work in both places has been to insure that conservation is serving the local population, with or without tourists, whether domestic or international.

Dali’s main drag is an endless parade of the same five tourist shop types


This is actually better for heritage conservation planning because it insures that historic buildings and intangible heritage are conserved not simply as tourist sites, subject to the whims of a singular economy, but as vital elements of the indigenous and contemporary everyday.  This is a more sustainable model.  It also acknowledges the value of culture as a driver of development in the largest sense: place-based assets that inspire continued human and financial investment in place.

The primary economy of this town is driven by those who live in the area

As I have said over and over, modern heritage conservation is a decision about the future, even if its raw materials are of the past.  Modern conservation incorporates economic and community development and partnerships between various public and private entities.   This is the idea of heritage areas since they were first created in 1984, and it is the idea behind Global Heritage Fund, whose projects require partnerships and community development as fundamental components.

It is a lesson in how heritage conservation works that is not understood by all.  But it was exquisitely and creatively understood by our students in China this summer, who envisioned a rich future for a rich historic site.