10 Ways Working for an Historic House Museum Makes You Question your Credentials

Being the Director of an historic house museum is an honor and a privilege- but also a huge learning experience for me! For those of you who know me personally, you are aware that I have been living in an apartment for most of my adult life and am in the process of purchasing my first home. What I am learning more than anything is that being the Director of the Hunter House is a lot like owning my own home. My apartment-dwelling existence did not prepare me for the plethora of issues which come with maintaining the physical parts of an historic structure. As a result, I find myself asking a lot of really silly questions lately, which most adults my age probably already knew the answer to years ago. Still, I am enjoying the growing pains of home ownership, both inside and outside the workplace. And it’s not just that facet of being the Museum Director that makes me wonder how the generous men of my Board of Directors saw my potential and trusted my judgment; it’s also the ways in which I am a one-woman show (sometimes three-woman when both Assistant Directors are roped into my shenanigans). I am a gardener-plumber-writer-computer tech-day laborer-housekeeper-law enforcer-babysitter-customer service rep-preservationist-historic interpreter-event planner-accountant-secretary-marketing guru- multi-talented miracle worker who happens to answer to the title of Director. As anyone who has worked in an historic house museum can attest, you have your hands in every basket and everything you do is truly a labor of love. So, I have decided to bombard you today with a list of some of the thoughts/questions/musings I have had during my time here. I am sure it will grow as I fall more in love with the museum and the staff continues to put up with me. What a job this is!

 

  1. What kind of grass do we have?

I never thought I would need to know the different types of grass available to us in the Hampton Roads area, but apparently that is very important knowledge when conversing with your landscaping crew (especially when you are complaining about it). We have crab grass by the way, in case you were wondering. It is currently dead from the summer heat and a few sprinkler malfunctions, but I digress. The point is, my apartment life did not prepare me for needing this knowledge, which I can now use in my own homeowner knowledge base.

 

  1. Why is our sink stopped up?

If I had a dollar for every time a sink or toilet decided to malfunction, I could retire right now. Working in an historic home means limited facilities, old pipes, and lots of service calls. Sometimes we even try to fix things ourselves, but that can end badly. Just ask our plumber! I am sure they know us by name and reputation…

  1. I think this step ladder has it out for me.

Storage in an historic house can be tricky. Sometimes things are put within arm’s reach, other times they are completely unreachable. Our facility has interesting built-ins and very tall cabinets, so the step ladder and I have a love-hate relationship. Mostly, I just try to wait for someone tall to come by and rescue me (ahem, Kelly), but occasionally I need to reach those champagne flutes immediately. This is when a vision of our worker’s comp poster flashed into my head, which I have fortunately not had to use…yet J I am very glad tall people work and volunteer for me.

  1. Why do we need a blog, anyway?

Getting an historic house up to par in a technological age is a huge challenge, and not everything works for every site. As many of you have noticed, we have very recently drifted into the technological age with advertisements on Yelp, a new website, a blog, and a social media presence on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. This has been quite a change for us! We even went out and updated our credit card machine by switching over to Square and Ipads (woo-hoo!), which are great, when the internet actually works. That’s another issue with historic homes- thick walls. We are still battling out internet demons and will keep you posted on when we have defeated them.

 

  1. Am I supposed to be part-contractor too?

We have recently started discussing doing some repair work on our third floor. This is especially fun for me because I have absolutely no knowledge whatsoever of building materials, cost of repairing things, or what types of technicians do which types of work. I have been blissfully ignorant up until this point. All historic houses suffer from this issue of needing updates at one time or another- and this is an expensive issue! Many turn to fundraising for specific projects (Many of you may remember when Margaret held a special tea to raise funds for new wallpaper). We are hoping to apply for some grants to help offset the costs, but don’t be surprised if the next event card you receive in the mail includes an invitation to be our partner in preservation! Speaking of, check out our membership program: http://www.hunterhousemuseum.org/friends-of-hunter-house/ We are using the funds to help with our continuing efforts to properly archive our collection-just one of our many ongoing projects.

 

  1. Is that 1867 Lincoln Rocker made with unicorn hair?

You know that show about kids saying really funny things? I cannot even begin to tell you all of the bizarre questions I have been asked by visitors over the years- or the assertions many have made about our collection that I know to be untrue but they are adamant are true. I have found ways to banter back and forth with people and try to reason with them, but many times a guest will be stuck on one idea and will not budge. This always makes for an interesting tour. Men always ask about the structure itself- what kind of wood is this, how does the electricity work, are these hand-carved, etc. Women tend to focus on decor and lifestyle- what did the ladies do in their spare time, why didn’t the children marry, what kind of wallpaper pattern is this, etc. My favorite tours are the ones I am technically giving, but my guest has so much to tell me about the pieces that he/she ends up giving a tour to me. We have learned a lot from our guests over the years!

 

  1. I really should buy a livery.

While we do employ a housekeeper, there are many housekeeping tasks we do ourselves. Two of our wonderful volunteers, Janet and Jeanne, make sure all of our indoor and outdoor plants are watered and nourished. We do the dishes every day, take out our own trash and recycling, and polish silver. There are many little household tasks that are not in the official job description which fall to the caretakers of the house, usually the Director and other staff. I do grocery and Target shopping trips just like I do for my own home. I stock the soap, cleaning supplies, toilet paper, paper towels, and guest towels and napkins. We enjoy keeping house- even if it isn’t technically ours!

 

  1. Don’t touch that!

I never thought in my adult life that I would have to scold grown men and women for deliberately breaking the rules. Now, my son is another matter (just kidding- he is a six month old spoiled rotten bundle of joy…for now J ). I cannot begin to count the number of times I have told someone that they cannot sit on the furniture…and then their knees begin to bend and their behind makes its way towards closing the gap between person and antique chair and inside I scream “nooooooooooo!” in slow motion. Out loud, I usually politely and with plastered smile emphatically state “please do not sit on any of the furniture, including that- thank you”. Not to mention the people I have literally had to monitor with fixed eyes because if I looked away for a second they would make a break for it and hightail it to the third floor, which they have also been told is off limits. This happened again just last week when a man stood at the top of the servant’s staircase and argued with me about why he couldn’t go down it. Apparently, ” because I said so and I am in charge” is even less appreciated by adults than it is by children. Honestly, this is the most frustrating aspect of working in an historic house- the lack of understanding of rules. They are usually there for a reason, and a lot of the time it is for the patron’s safety. So, please, if you have friends like this, tell them to be good!

 

  1. Is it in the budget?

Ah, the five words every Director hears on repeat from those in charge of the funds. My board is wonderful- as long as it is in the budget, they are usually willing to let me try anything. Other museum professionals are not always so lucky. There is so much red tape working in a larger museum that having items approved can take weeks, even months. I am so fortunate that I can make a plan, ask for funds, and execute it almost in one fell swoop. The lack of hoops is one advantage to working in a small house museum like ours- we have the room to be creative and try new things. If you just received your fall event card, you will see that we have a packed season of events, some which are new and exciting for us. We love that we are given the opportunity to try and to succeed, or even fail, and learn from those experiences to better our museum. This is one of the best things that can happen to a Director in a museum- being given the option to fail gracefully, get back up, and try something new.

 

  1. Who do I have to bribe to get some exposure around here?

Lastly, one of the biggest obstacles of working in a small museum is letting people know you exist. Despite our online presence and marketing, there are still many locals who have never heard of us. Now, I realize we are a niche market, but we still want people to know we are here and ready for their arrival should they choose to explore our facility. In that vein, we have been working on tweaking our marketing strategy to reach those individuals who may enjoy our facility and programs, but don’t know how to find us. This is one of our larger missions that will remain a work in progress as demographics and community needs change, but we are certainly up for the challenge!

 

Reader Response: How did you first hear about the Hunter House? Any suggestions on how we can better market the museum to a larger audience?

Thanks for reading!

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