People, Things, and People's Things: Musings on Authenticity and Historic House Museums

 Photo: Author

Photo: Author

In a recent lecture on ‘Authenticity and Imagination at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House’, given at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London, former museum curator and director Helen Rees Leahy discussed the need for historic houses to appeal to more than just ‘the fanatics’—to engage diverse audiences and facilitate dynamic interaction with cultural objects and historic spaces. Central to her discussion was the idea that houses, unlike museums and other, more institutionalized viewing spaces, are about ‘stories’ rather than ‘facts’; they, and the objects contained within them, are biographical, and are thus, or at least should be, flexible rather than fixed.

A similar perspective was taken by historian Jon Stobart in his paper, ‘Remaking an English country house: craftsmen, furnishings and taste at Stoneleigh Abbey in the 1760s’, presented at a conference on 5 March entitled ‘Animating the 18th-Century Country House’ at the National Gallery in London, in which he emphasized the role of people and of personal tastes, aims, and events on the development of country houses. In his paper Stobart focused on the country house as ‘a process rather than a product’, as a dynamic space in which taste is made as well as displayed.

Though they had distinct points both Leahy and Stobart called attention to the significance of personality and continuity in the historic house environment. Their discussions addressed the nature of historic houses as evolving, multi-layered, performative, and highly personal places and spaces. Far from the static severity or lavish superfluity with which historic houses, particularly those of aristocratic origin, are sometimes associated, Leahy’s and Stobart’s presentations posed an alternate view—one full of complexity, vigour, and intriguing possibilities for our understanding of historic houses in the present. Most importantly, they raised the question of ‘authenticity’, and of what Leahy referred to as the ‘authenticity of experience’, versus that, more conventional, of objects.

So, what does that mean? Consider two scenarios:

In the first, you enter a cool, dark space, in which each section of objects has been carefully roped off and each corner sentineled by a watchful hygrothermograph. Every piece is in its place, down to the last particle of dust that has settled on the scattered sheaves of some ardent poet’s writing desk. Though you are only allowed so far into the room, its mere essence—somewhere between fanfare and freezer box—is enough to convince you of its history and importance.

In the second, you are bathed in a pool of light that pours in open windows and sparkles off of gilt bronze and mirrored glass surfaces. You are invited to explore, to peruse the titles on library shelves and wonder at the functions of tiers of polished copper pots on kitchen walls. You recognize that things have been added which are not original—a glass of brandy here, some rubber roast chickens there—but, provided that they are not anachronistic, these objects rather add to than detract from your perception of the whole.

Some, this writer among them, will enjoy the former scenario—will revel in the preservation of material history and the eccentricities of age, and marvel at the uncanny nearness with which the authentic, that is to say original, objects seem to bring viewers to their former owners. (This might be what Helen Rees Leahy refers to as ‘shrine fever’.) Others, by contrast, will be indifferent to it—will feel distanced from and disinterested in objects which are not their own and histories in which they do not take part. In many cases, they will prefer the latter: the space in which they feel welcome and to which they feel equal.

Though these are exaggerated, and indeed dramatic, examples, they are deliberately so, and serve to illustrate an important point: in order for historic houses to remain relevant they must find a way to appeal to both extremes, to be both constant and variable, conservative and convivial, and to balance their integrity as monuments with their vitality as centres for art and cultural education, enjoyment, imagination, and dialogue.

In her discussion of Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, Helen Rees Leahy likened the house museum to a form of historical fiction, placing equal emphasis on the authenticity of its material and the stories it tells. Though it is true that, without objects, there would in many cases be no story to tell, it is important to remember, as Jon Stobart noted, that houses were ‘filled with people as well as with objects’. A thorough understanding of objects in historic house museums is thus necessary but insufficient.

In order to both fulfil their roles as historic sites and meet the demands of contemporary viewer culture, it is with both people and things that house museums must concern themselves.

1. Helen Rees Leahy, 'Authenticity and Imagination at Elizabeth Gaskell's House' (presentation, Sotheby's Institute of Art, London, 24 February 2015).

2. Jon Stobart, ‘Remaking an English country house: craftsmen, furnishings and taste at Stoneleigh Abbey in the 1760s’ (presentation, Conference: ‘Animating the 18th-Century Country House’, National Gallery, London, 5 March 2015).