An Address with a Dress at Van Ness


Happy 2015! Whatever holiday(s) you celebrate, I hope museums were involved.

Now that the holiday season is over, I am going to resume blogging about the museums, parks, historic sites, art galleries, and other points of interest near each Metro station. I am filled with a healthy wanderlust, but unfortunately, I have no means to travel. Fortunately, I have a belief that interesting things are everywhere. Interesting things are all over DC, Maryland, and Virginia.

Van Ness-UDC is, in my opinion, a poorly named Metro station. The UDC part makes sense, since the University of the District of Columbia is right there. But what does Van Ness refer to? The street that actually has the Metro entrances is called Veazy. The neighborhood is actually called Forest Hills.

One of my reasons to go to the Van Ness Metro for fun would be to hear an author speak at independent bookstore and coffeehouse Politics and Prose, where I have heard illustrator Eric Rohman and novelist Myla Goldberg discuss their work. In a completely different direction, about a mile-long walk from the Metro, is one of my Weekly Museum Visits: Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens, which I have written about here and here.

A dress on display at Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens

A dress on display at Hillwood Estate, Museum, and Gardens. Historic house museums often showcase the domestic sphere, or women’s sphere, in a way not as obvious in other kinds of history museums.

In a world that may or may not have too many historic house museums, as this article discusses (I’ll come back to this topic), some of the things that make Hillwood stick out in my memory are the focus on Russian and French decorative art (especially Faberge eggs), the pet cemetery and other indicators of a love of dogs, and the focused outreach the museum currently does to welcome LGBTQ visitors as well as adoptive families.

But in many ways, visiting Hillwood is like visiting other historic house museums: seeing the rooms, the gardens, the gift shops; oohing and ahhing from the grand staircase to the tiniest jewel case.

The article linked above explores the conflicting opinions on historic house museums. On the one hand, we may simply have too many of an unsustainable museum model. On the other hand, there are successful examples, and this kind of museum offers a different glimpse into history from what we see in high-tech history museum exhibits or on now-empty battlefields.

Ruth Graham, author of the linked article, writes:

As museums, they often emphasize the intimate domestic stories of women and family life, frequently overshadowed by grander narratives in larger museums.

Indeed, historic house museums give us a sense of how the powerful people of history (often the men of history textbooks) interacted with their spouses and children, how slaves and servants maintained the domestic lifestyle enjoyed by the owner of the home, how these property-owning heroes of history viewed animals and the land itself. As the private, domestic sphere has traditionally been the women’s sphere, the contributions and influence of women may be more apparent in houses-turned-museum than in other kinds of history museums.

This is not to say that all historic house museums fall into the Prominent White Man Et Al category. In the USA and certainly around the world, there are historic house museums showcasing the home lives of a diverse bunch of people. Not every historic house is opulent; museums like the Thomas Isaac Log Cabin in Ellicott City, MD show the lifestyles of families of humbler means.

And, there are those historic house museums that primarily highlight a female historical figure. Hillwood, with its central protagonist Marjorie Merriweather Post (1887-1973), is one such example. Post was a businesswoman, socialite, and philanthropist, and as is apparent from a visit to Hillwood, an art connoisseur and collector, and a lover of animals. The daughter of cereal magnate C.W. Post, she inherited ownership of Postum Cereal Company (which has since been known as General Foods, Inc. and eventually merged with Kraft). The collection itself reflects Post’s wealth and her personal taste in art, while her hospitality is a major thread in the museum’s outreach and programming.

Ultimately the “great historic house museum debate” may not be an easy one to settle. But the windows of a house can be fascinating windows into history.

Van Ness-UDC is on the Red Line.

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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").
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