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Mobile or Immovable: Historic House Museums and Site-Specific Art

Ron M. Potvin

A home is a work of art that is constantly in process, a creation of the people who live and interact

within and without its walls, and who shape and reshape its appearance and meanings. A home exists in

four dimensions—the three dimensions of the building and its contents, as physical objects, and the

fourth dimension of time, expressed as change, evolution and forward movement. Like an Alexander

Calder mobile, a home is a collection of objects strung together in a seemingly random fashion,

constantly in motion, its meanings variable depending on the actions and perspectives of the occupants

and on the breezes stirred by contemporary culture, style, and events.

In contrast, historic house museums arrest this process of change by freezing a moment, period,

or person within the past. While a house museum is also a four-dimensional object, its movement

through time is retrograde, focusing on the past. In most house museums, a meaningful conversation

between past and present—home and house—is absent, resulting in their often-noted sterility, as if the

owner had just tidied up for guests and vanished. Anthropologist James Deetz once noted, period rooms

are “utterly devoid of indications that a person came near them,” and “give the impression that all

Americans sprang into existence at the age of twenty-one and were very neat.”1 Most house museums

are encased in the amber of romantic and immutable notions of the past, the sacred nature of their

founding impulses, and rigid professional standards for preservation and collections care and use.

The evolutionary processes inherent to a home have been arrested, and the mobile has ceased its

motion. Visitors have noticed this, and many have stopped coming. To continue to survive—and perhaps

1
James Deetz, “The Link from Object to Person to Concept,” in Museums, Adults and the Humanities: A Guide for
Educational Programming, Zipporah W. Collins, editor (Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, 1981), 31.
once again thrive—house museums must restart the processes of rethinking and adapting, of motion and

evolution, or sacrifice cultural relevance for a static moment in the past.

Art + History is an attempt to reconsider the dimensions of a house museum by using site-

specific art to "intervene" in the ways that visitors perceive objects, stories, time and memory. According

to the curators, Meg Rotzel and Rosie Branson Gill, the project “explores what happens when new hands

re-mix the contents of a historic home.” Rotzel and Gill commissioned two artists, Jill Slosburg-

Ackerman and Carla Herrera-Prats, to create and install original works of art inspired by the history,

decoration, and collections contained within the Nightingale-Brown House, a National Historic

Landmark built in Providence in 1792. Art + History is more than an art exhibition, declare the curators.

“It is also a laboratory for rethinking historical house interpretation” that “suggests ways to incorporate

new voices and audiences in the creation of narratives about our pasts.”2

Art + History is an attempt to make mobile the immovable.

Although "home," like time, is an abstraction, house museums must on some level be "real,"

three-dimensional, and understandable to visitors. As an experimental approach to house museum

interpretation, Art + History is fraught with questions. What is the role of historical objects and settings

in relation to the artists' intervention? Where is the point of balance between these elements? At what

moment does the intervention cease to exist harmoniously with the context and setting of the house

museum and its period spaces and begin to interact with them antagonistically? When does art plus

history become art versus history? What is the role of the visitor in making connections between the past

and present through the art, weighed against the responsibility of the museum to provide these

connections? This paper will explore these issues.

2
From the Art + History “Curators’ Statement.”