Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America's House Museums

By Mooney-Melvin, Patricia | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Domesticating History: The Political Origins of America's House Museums


Mooney-Melvin, Patricia, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Domesticating History. The Political Origins of America's House Museums. By PATRICIA WEST. Washington, D.C., and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999. xiii, 241 pp. $40.00 cloth; $17.95 paper.

SEEMINGLY every town has one. They come in all shapes and sizes. They often straddle uneasily the balance between individual honored and time period covered. Yet for all their ubiquity, historic house museums remain understudied and their various meanings little understood. Patricia West's Domesticating History represents a long overdue introduction to the history of house museums in America and provides a cogent analysis of their role as history texts.

Once a decision has been made to turn a house into a museum, the structure's role in its community as well as its meaning are transformed dramatically. No longer the embodiment of an individual's or family's daily existence, the preserved house appears frozen in time, its meaning captured, and its existence separated from the dynamic swirl of life that surrounds it in the community. But, as West argues, questions arise of whose time has been enshrined and for what purpose. Historic house museums simultaneously represent, according to West, artifacts and documents. They not only tell a story, but they also serve as a text from which to understand aspects of the past as well as beliefs about the past.

West begins her story with an examination of the battle to save Mount Vernon, highlights the campaigns for Orchard House and Monticello, and concludes with the efforts to integrate the house museum landscape with the establishment of Booker T. Washington's Birthplace. For each stop on her journey, West details the crusades to transform houses into museums and analyzes the ways in which these museums reflected the political and social environments of their formative years as public places. The disintegration of the Union, political battles between women and politicians over support, efforts to create exhibits capable of unifying conservative and liberal women activists, campaigns to Americanize immigrants, "the masculinization of the historic house movement" (p. 94), and the federal role in the administration of "patriotic" sites (p. 129) shaped the nature of the reconstruction of the homes and the interpretation of the past at the sites West examines. …

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