Where is time in the historic house museum? Is it found in the unchanging presentation of furnishings and effects? Or does it hide out in the cracks, tiny at first, which spread slowly across the plaster? Will it lend itself to your experience of a historical period? Do you think it can be earnestly engaged by you and me?
Questions about temporality present conceptual issues for the interpretation of house museums. In the mid-twentieth century, many private estates were converted into museums when social historians popularized a historiographic method centered on the role places played in forming the biographies of “great individuals.” These scholars believed that, if the public was presented with the life of a person at a specific moment in time, they would form an intimate connection with the past in a way that supports the development of character and virtue. Today, our fondness for explaining historic events through biography has largely waned—and with that, the school of social history—leaving behind countless mummified homes, farmsteads and other structures that no longer serve their intended purpose.
If historic house museums hope to communicate their value to contemporary society, they must develop a new language to describe their activities. Specifically, these institutions must articulate how, in remaining static, the buildings under their stewardship convey something essential about the historical process. To do so, they must direct their attention to the basic unit of historical experience and understanding: time.
Preserving Eagle’s Nest is an exhibit that explores this theme through artifacts and documents. It examines the historic house museum’s language of time by foregrounding the broken, damaged, and decayed aspects of the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum’s collections and grounds. In interrogating the markers of temporality that occasionally threaten the museum’s elected reign of constancy, it also examines the time and labor invested in preserving the historic appearance of the Museum, finding value in the multigenerational care and expertise given to the project. By focusing on the tension that develops between degradation and preservation, Preserving Eagle’s Nest directs our collective interest toward questions of temporality, effort, and historical stasis.
Specific objects included in the exhibition include a chair carved from oak in the 1500s, European-mounted sea-turtle skulls, photogrammetric scans of decapitated sculptures, blueprints for the restoration of hardscape features in the garden, and elements of fiberglass molding that once decorated the bell tower. In their presentation, each of these items is marked as special, isolated for reflection and paired with an accompanying text. To a certain extent, though, this text is unnecessary—all of the objects possess a unique ability to narrate the story of their contributions to the life of the museum. Every chisel mark, scuff, and break on their surface redirects our attention to much larger processes, whereby skilled conservators collaborate with museum professionals in a joint effort to prolong the look and feel of a place that has been marked worthy of preservation.
It is our hope that visitors to the exhibition will leave with a renewed appreciation for the tremendous work that occurs behind the scenes not only at the Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum but at the innumerable historical societies and house museums that are assiduously maintained for public benefit.