Franklin Vagnone on Historic House Museums Breaking the Rules

How can historic house museums flip the script when connecting with local communities — by working backwards and rejecting traditional practices?

Image: Historic House Trust of New York City.
This mobile kiosk will provide an opportunity for Flushing residents to explore ideas and themes relevant to the historic Lewis H. Latimer House — outside the house and out on the street. The design of the cart was based on a proposal (“What Brightens Your Day?”) by Monica Whitmire, a UNC-Charlotte student working with HHT Senior Koch Fellow, Deborah Ryan. Image: Historic House Trust of New York City.

This post is part of this month’s exploration of how arts and culture organizations foster cross-cultural collaboration and relationships.

To explore this topic from the angle of historic house museums, I reached out to Franklin Vagnone, the Executive Director of the Historic House Trust of New York City (HHT). I’d previously learned about his concept of the Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums — and heard about an ongoing project that’s implementing the Guide, called LatimerNOW. This initiative, which is funded by a grant from New York Community Trust, is testing strategies for engaging visitors at the Lewis H. Latimer House in Flushing, Queens, New York.

In the conversation that follows, Franklin and I discuss the Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums, how it challenges traditional thinking about community engagement (through the team effort led by Deborah Ryan, Senior Koch Fellow at HHT), and how the experimentation in the LatimerNOW project is creating new possibilities for connecting people across cultural experiences and identities.

Franklin Vagnone, Executive Director of the Historic House Trust of New York City. Image: Franklin Vagnone.
Franklin Vagnone, Executive Director of the Historic House Trust of New York City. Image: Franklin Vagnone.

Kendra Danowski: When we started discussing this month’s topic of cross-cultural collaboration, partnerships, and relationships, I immediately thought of the Historic House Trust’s LatimerNOW project and all that you’re doing with your concept of the Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums. First, can you explain the Anarchist Guide to me?

Franklin Vagnone: The Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums is a collection of concepts that push for historic house museums and sites to rethink their relevancy and how they project their information through engagement with communities.

We think that the traditional kinds of interpretation (blocking off furniture, locked drawers, telling only one individual’s story) needs to be expanded to a long list of practices that is probably very counter-movement to the “best practices” for historic house museums. That’s what the Anarchist Guide is.

KD: What is the Anarchist Guide’s philosophy on community relationships?

FV: Well, we actually say that’s where everything starts. Most historic houses and sites do not engage the communities that immediately surround them. Many times we will hear people say, “I’ve lived here my whole life, and I never knew that that was a historic site that was open to the public.” That’s a clear signifier that these sites are not engaging their next-door neighbors.

So, instead of first asking, “What’s the story to tell?” we suggest that it’s more powerful and compelling to invert what historic house museums have traditionally done and start engagement with their neighboring community, not end there.

The problem is not that we have a group of disinterested people not coming to our historic sites — what we’re suggesting is that historic house museums need to find out what their communities are interested in, and work backward to build meaningful programming and opportunities for engagement.

The LatimerNOW project's Anarchist Guide advisory team. Image: Historic House Trust of New York City.
The LatimerNOW project’s Anarchist Guide advisory team. Image: Historic House Trust of New York City.

For instance, that’s why the Anarchist Guide team for the LatimerNOW project is composed as it is. The members of the project team collectively speak seven languages and are from a handful of different cultures, identities, and experiences – but that was intentional when we started this project. That’s not simply how we ended up.

KD: It seems like these are intentional connections that you’re making based on your knowledge of the community and the various ideas and experiences that are already there. Rather than saying, “Here’s what we have,” you’re asking your project team, “What can you bring?”

FV: Exactly. For example, we’re not saying, “We have a lot of beautiful blue and white dishware, let’s make programs for people who like blue and white dishware.” (Laughter)

On the contrary, the first step in the Anarchist Guide is researching a house’s neighboring community. So, in the case of the LatimerNOW project, we completed some significant demographic research in the community of Flushing, Queens, which guided who we pulled onboard for the advisory team, and told us things we didn’t know about the community. By working to understand the needs and interests of the community, we’re able to guide our programming and explore new ways to interpret the narrative of the historic house.

KD: So, that research helps you identify common threads and build connective narratives that might not be so immediately obvious.

FV: Yes. So, in the case of the LatimerNOW project, the primary narrative is the incredibly important legacy of African American inventor, Lewis H. Latimer. But, after doing demographic research, we realized that less than 2% of the population of Flushing is African American. And 85% of the population is first- and second-generation Mandarin-speaking Chinese immigrants.

The research has shaped the project’s big question: How do we take – and not lose – an important African American legacy and story, and intertwine it with stories that will speak to the Mandarin-speaking Chinese population in Flushing? If we hadn’t done our research, we might just solely create programs directed at the African American community, or at people who are interested in inventors and inventions, and that would automatically be self-limiting to what our potential audience could be.

Furthermore, our research also taught us that there was no cultural precedent for historic house museums in China. The only historic sites that they have a similar idea are really large palace. So, the Chinese community really didn’t even have a kind of sense of why the Lewis H. Latimer House was there. It’s a kind of institution whose purpose had no significance for this community.

KD: There’s no precedent for even understanding how to interact with the house.

FV:  Exactly, like, “What is that? What do you do? Do you go there?” There just was no understanding of it.

KD: It seems like this research has also allowed you to recognize assumptions being made about who would be interested in the Lewis H. Latimer House. Are you recognizing that those assumptions are not necessarily true, and don’t have to be true?

FV: Definitely. We, as museum professionals (including myself), will often present these assumptions about who our communities are without realizing that there’s a kind of bias in them.

KD:  Let’s talk a little bit more about the LatimerNOW project. What is the Lewis H. Latimer Historic House Museum? 

latimer house
The Lewis H. Latimer House in Flushing, Queens. Image: Historic House Trust of New York City.

FV: Lewis H. Latimer (1848-1928) was the son of runaway slaves who was an extremely important inventor and electrical engineer. He is best known for working with Thomas Edison — he invented and patented the carbon filament, which made it possible to create mass-producible light bulbs. So, Lewis H. Latimer is a really significant inventor – not just because he’s African American, but because he played a critically important role in the formation of lighting and electricity.

He lived with his family in New York City in Flushing, Queens, in the house that’s today named after him. The physical building hasn’t really had any traction as a cultural center in neighborhood. There’s an interesting state of change and transition with this particular house and the surrounding community, which is why we chose the Lewis H. Latimer House to prototype the Anarchist Guide.

Last year, New York Community Trust gave us a $100,000 grant for a two-year project to take the Latimer House, which is not by anyone’s standards an economically or programmatically successful historic house museum, and experiment with as many of these Anarchist Guide concepts to see if they can impact the house and its neighboring community in a positive way.

Our first year was really about community engagement, finding out who the stakeholders would be, and assessing what we have as far as collections at the house. The second phase will start in July and is about figuring out how to implement these ideas, engage the community with real programs and events, and start to see if we can make the Latimer House an important presence in Flushing.

KD: How are you beginning to shape and implement programming that feels authentic and is able to create cross-cultural relationships or experiences? 

FV: We recently held a pilot event called Latimer Lounge, where we invited poets, artists, and performers of different ethnicities and languages to gather at the Latimer House for one evening. They spoke about the idea of creativity in all aspects of life, like in the culinary arts, for example. It was a successful test to see if people were interested in gathering together in that way, and it worked – we had a full house.

Latimer Lounge is just one way we’re trying to connect people across experiences by stretching beyond Lewis H. Latimer’s life narrative to explore simply how he was a creative person: an inventor and poet, among other practices.

One of the Anarchist Guide tenets is that we don’t dedicate a house to just one person. So, we’re interested in exploring the stories of Latimer’s wife, his daughters, and his grandchildren, and what they ended up doing. For example, the site also has history as a boarding house – one of Latimer’s daughters rented out the upstairs to African American women who were attending college. By also engaging those stories, it expands the opportunity for connecting with a much wider range of people in the immediate community across cultural experiences.

KD: Oh! So, for example, the Latimer House might also provide a space to explore what it meant for a young woman going to college in the mid-20th century, which allows you to make resonant connections to other young people today who are pursuing educational opportunities. It sounds like there are many possible narratives to explore through the Latimer house, which opens doors for more interested visitors than you might originally think.

FV: Exactly — in most historic house museums, it’s thought that the more narrow and focused the narrative, the better, and I disagree completely.

We don’t know if we’re going to succeed or fail. We’re going to try stuff and when it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else. What HHT is willing to do is to take the heat, and try it. That’s what the Anarchist Guide is all about – feeling safe and okay to try things and fail. Our project proposal even had a section called, “We’re Going to Fail,” where we talked about failure being built into this whole process.

KD: Cool! That is relevant to much of our work here. It’s risky to try new practices! 

FV: I think historic house museums and sites feel like they always have to have the right answer, especially when it comes to engaging their communities. And the point is, with this project, that I don’t know the answer.

KD: As I was preparing for our conversation, I was thinking about the kind of vulnerability, honesty, and willingness to fail that the Anarchist Guide really seems to value. I’m learning that the Anarchist Guide views historic houses as spaces that embrace flaws and mistakes – and thus, they actually allow for more vulnerable and honest interactions between people of varied cultural identities and experiences.

FV: You’ve hit on that fundamental thing, which is that historic houses have lost the very quality that makes them compelling – that we lived in them. All of those interactions – and the real tangible qualities of those small spaces – are lost. Furniture is supposed to be sat in and eaten on! If you take all of that away, and you put a rope in front of it, and you tell the audience not to imagine themselves in a similar interaction, it makes everything so analytic. Nothing is real and tangible, and it eliminates thinking about the very experiences of day-to-day living that could potentially connect with people.

Doing things that “aren’t allowed” is probably what makes the Anarchist Guide the scariest for people. But ultimately, that willingness to break out of the traditional ways of doing things, and to harness collective wisdom and history, will allow historic sites to make resonant and relevant connections with and across communities.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

The mobile cart featured in the top image was fabricated based on “What Brightens Your Day?”, a proposal from UNC-Charlotte student Monica Whitmire. The concept was derived from the abstraction of Lewis H. Latimer’s legacy as an inventor of the carbon filament in the lightbulb. The LatimerNOW team’s selected this statement as one to pose to the surrounding community because it allowed for a current and relevant question and answer — while continuing to be connected to Latimer’s legacy, history, and work.

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How does your artistic work foster collaboration across cultures? We encourage you to reflect on this month’s research questions and share your responses with us here. URL

About
As the ArtsFwd Editor & Engagement Coordinator at EmcArts, Kendra Danowski produces written material, manages social media engagement, develops content and strategy, and supports community and dialogue-building around ideas of innovation and adaptive change in the arts sector.