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Making a House a Home

As I write this post, fall is in the air, and I am fast approaching the end of my first “season” in Newport.  Whitehorne House will close at the end of October, and Rough Point will close in mid-November, though we will continue to hold special programs there until the end of December.  When I first came aboard nine months ago, I suggested that this time of year, the close of the season, might be a good time for me to write a blog post…so here it goes.

Early in the season, and still very early in my tenure at NRF, I discovered something that has profoundly shaped the way I think about our museums.  You see, at some point in the spring I came to see that unlike my previous museum experience, NRF’s museums (Rough Point and the Whitehorne House Museum) are houses as opposed to buildings created specifically for the purpose of museum exhibition.  And so sometime in early April it finally hit me that I work in and with houses!

I recognize that this last point, my recognition that our museums are housed in…well…houses, may seem fairly obvious, and of course that is so.  After all, NRF does not hide this fact in its promotional material or even in the job announcement that first drew my attention to this extraordinary institution and its important work. Nor are the buildings that make up NRF’s museums cleverly disguised to hide their initial lives as houses. Nevertheless, one may know something intellectually and still not understand its broader implications. Naturally, I was fully aware that I would get to work in a Bellevue Avenue mansion—heck, I bragged about that fact to my colleagues back in Los Angeles. Still, I assumed that the texture of that experience (of museum work in a house museum) would not be too different from my previous experience working in museums specifically built for exhibitions.  As it turns out, I was right, but I was also wrong. I have come to see that my museum practice feels, simultaneously, familiar and somewhat alien to me.

On the familiar side, museum work is museum work. The talented and committed staff of NRF’s museums strive to share information about our collections and about Doris Duke, the founder of NRF and a fascinating woman whose interests and passions continue to make a difference in people’s lives. Like museum professionals everywhere, we exhibit art and artifacts.  We share our knowledge through written text, human interaction, and other forms of engagement. We mount special exhibitions and programs to share unseen portions of our collection or to make a new point or argument on a particular topic. We propose and plan new projects to expand our reach and to align our museum work with the interests and needs of the 21st-century museum-goer. And we do our very best to protect our collections from the ravages of time and the environment.  While this work is important and valuable, and while I believe our staff is particularly skilled at it, there was nothing that surprised me about it.  It all made sense to me. It was the kind of work I have done for nearly twenty years.

Far less familiar were the requirements of doing such work in a nearly 130 year old house. For example, as I began writing this paragraph, three of our staff were in the middle of a discussion about purchasing the right kind of toilet paper to work in our old and delicate plumbing system.  Our facilities staff has struggled mightily to create a steady temperature that can protect our objects from the wild fluctuations of the New England climate without making the place uncomfortably cold. In an effort to have Rough Point appear as it did in Doris Duke’s lifetime, our rooms undergo far fewer object change-outs than did the galleries of my previous institution. This practice, which is not unusual in the historic house museum setting, in turn poses its own, unique conservation challenges.  And while it is our goal to welcome all who care to visit us, the height of our front gate prohibits large motor coach buses from bringing visitors to this special place, which is too bad, because the most important thing I have come to learn about working in houses is that they really beg to be filled with people.

I know that all museum professionals dream of seeing their spaces filled with people, but that’s not what I mean. I am, instead, suggesting something more personal and emotional. In some sense, I am anthropomorphizing our museums, because I believe (or perhaps feel is a better word) that a house (especially a grand estate like Rough Point) almost demands the presence of people and above all it needs guests.

When I first arrived in January, Rough Point was a quiet, dark, almost haunted place. Most of its exquisite furniture was covered in protective cloth, and the dark and chill of the New England winter hung over the place in ways that were, at once, romantic and eerie. While NRF staff were present throughout the day, with few exceptions, most of our work took place in the third floor offices that used to house the servants’ quarters.  Yes, our talented conservators and house cleaners moved from room to room to care for the house and its collections, but the Great Hall, the Music Room, the Solarium, and all of our other spaces were, for hours, or days, or weeks devoid of life. And while I recognize how fantastic this might sound, it felt to me like the house wanted to welcome visitors.

When April 1st arrived and we held our opening of the season party, I found that my suspicions were confirmed.  The house came alive, as people admired its grandeur and the beauty of the decorative and visual arts that fill its rooms and walls. Rough Point was abuzz with friends (old and new) all of who admired this beautiful place and the valuable work that the NRF staff does to share the house, its treasures, and its stories with the public. Almost two months later, Whitehorne House experienced the same kind of life and excitement at its opening party, and a few months after that, ninety or so people crowded into the Whitehorne House on a rainy August evening for our Midsummer Celebration.  There are no words to describe the joy and energy that permeated the house those few hours.  Suffice it to say, Whitehorne House got what it needed, guests.

I should probably close by acknowledging that I recognize the whimsy of my thoughts on this subject.  Naturally, I know that our houses neither feel nor think.  I can only assume that in talking about our houses and their needs, I am projecting my own feelings and thoughts onto these unbelievably beautiful but ultimately inanimate estates. So perhaps that is what I should be communicating to all of you—not that the house wants you to visit but that I want you to visit us.  The presence of guests at Rough Point and Whitehorne House turns our houses into homes.  And I appreciate the ways in which our guests’ presence bring about that transformation.  Also, I am a big fan of our museums and the staff who work in them.  I think that anyone fortunate enough to visit us will be delighted by the experience, and I want as many people as possible to have that feeling.  There is still time to visit us this season (the shoulder of the season as my colleagues say), but if you can’t make it now, I encourage you to visit next season. I can’t wait to see you, and the houses are pretty excited at the prospect as well.

By Erik Greenberg, Ph.D., Director of Museums, Newport Restoration Foundation

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