There are 15,000 historic house museums in the US, more than four for every county in the country (according to the Pew Charitable Trusts). That might sound like a lot, but there remain many houses of historic value not yet deemed worthy of preservation. A new initiative launched by the American Association of Museums, Innovation Lab for Museums, helps assess such houses, to determine if they are fit for preservation and renovation, and yes, the candidates need to prove future profitability. The “as is” historic house museum you visited in grade school won’t cut it anymore. It needs to offer something more than a story.
One of the cultural organizations currently involved in the Innovation Lab for Museums program is The National Trust for Historic Preservation. (The well-funded Labs program includes grants to facilitate innovations.) The NTHP is trying to save several buildings including the vacant childhood residence of Malcolm X in Boston, where he lived with his half-sister Ella Little-Collins. The owner, Ella’s son Rodnell Collins, dreams of renovating the house into living quarters for graduate students studying African American history, social justice or civil rights. (But that will cost about $850k.) NTHP is also trying to save and reuse the vacant buildings at the Milwaukee VA Soldiers Home. In 1866, it provided temporary lodging to more than 16,000 civil war soldiers. The 90-acre campus sits on prime real estate, just minutes from downtown and near the baseball stadium. It could provide lots of things today, as a cultural landmark and a source of services for current veterans. But just to develop a plan of action, to assess its current and future value will cost $223,000.