Week 5: Old Stone House


From the website: In the midst of Washington, D.C., a city of grand memorials to national leaders and significant events, stands an unassuming building commemorating the daily lives of ordinary Americans who made this city, and this nation, unique. The Old Stone House, one of the oldest known structures remaining in the nation’s capital, is a simple 18th century dwelling built and inhabited by common people.

I have visited a number of historic house museums during the holiday season to see how they decorate, and this year I am doing the same for my Weekly Museum Visits in December. Some historic houses turn into winter wonderlands; others have very minimal decoration.

Left: These gold Christmas trees are all over Georgetown lampposts. Right: The Old Stone House

Left: These gold Christmas trees are all over Georgetown lampposts. Right: The Old Stone House

DC’s Old Stone House falls in the latter category. The exterior is unadorned, though one of Georgetown’s greenery-and-gold-tree pieces is on a lamppost right in front of the small building. In the gift shop, there are garlands wrapped around the low rafters, and visitors can buy Christmas ornaments, including two varieties that feature the Old Stone House.

Once inside the historic rooms, the visitor sees no evidence that Christmas is coming. Indeed, the rooms are small, and there is little extra room for an evergreen tree or a stack of gifts. This home did not belong to the affluent, but instead, it depicts how the middle class lived in DC. It began as a one-room house in 1765, built by Christopher Layman whose family “owned the basic essentials: Christopher’s tools, a stove, a bible, and some furniture,” according to the brochure.

The Old Stone House's kitchen

The Old Stone House’s kitchen

Later owners expanded the house outward and upward, and though the inhabitants lived comfortably, they were not wealthy, and the house remained simple. The Old Stone House Bingo activity, geared toward kids, has 25 objects for visitors to find, and most are quite practical: spinning wheel, kick toaster, insect trap. There are a few children’s toys on display, such as corn husk dolls and Jacob’s ladder. In the back of the house is a garden, which is sparse in December but is said to be lovely in the summer.

Not every historic house museum (or museum of any kind) needs to decorate for the holidays just for decorating’s own sake. Museums’ holiday exhibits and programs – like their other exhibits and programs – should support their mission statement and content. I do not mean that museum program developers should stay inside a box and not think outside of it. Rather, I think that museums should be thoughtful and creative in thinking of ways to relate what is going on in the world (holidays, current events, etc.) to what they are all about and what they have to offer. Accordingly, it is appropriate for some historic houses to decorate much more extravagantly than others.

What are some museums that you think do a great job of melding holiday cheer with their own mission statements and content areas?

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December’s blog theme is There’s No Place Like Historic Homes for the Holidays!

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
This entry was posted in Museums and Holidays, Weekly Museum Visits Part III and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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