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Organizations at Crossroads


The National Trust for Historic Preservation once estimated that there are likely more historic house museums in the country—perhaps as many as 15,000—than McDonald’s restaurants, and yet more than half of those sites welcomed fewer than 5,000 visitors each year. With heritage tourism as lively as ever, it may surprise some to know that most of these historic sites are experiencing significant decline in attendance and audience interest, and many are barely surviving. The strategies that sustained these sites for decades are simply no longer sufficient. The skills and expertise needed to sustainability operate historic sites in the 21st century, especially those owned by non-profit organizations, are different than what worked in the past.

Many of these sites, preserved over the last century, memorialize people or events of the past, representing homes of well-known local residents, or are perhaps the most revered “oldest” building in town. And operating as historic house museums, many of these sites follow the same model: seasonal operations (often May through October) with occasional guided tours of furnished rooms, led by aging volunteers and interpreted through the lens of a basic outline of who lived there, what they did there, what the furnishings are and, in many cases, who the painted portraits represent. There may be a small gift shop on the premises, purporting to support the museum’s operations.

Unfortunately, admission fees and gift shop sales, even when supplemented by annual donations or perhaps a small endowment, do not provide enough income to sustain these sites anymore. In the past two decades, as the situation facing more historic sites becomes dire, some have boldly asserted that there are too many house museums and some should be shuttered. Thus, historic house museum stewards usually face difficult decisions when it comes to planning for the long-term preservation of their historic buildings.


It is now clear that historic house museum organizations need to interact with their communities—local, regional, or perhaps even national, differently, if there is any chance of surviving as interpreted sites with collections, including stories. Revitalizing programming through new research and scholarship, permitting visitation to more areas of buildings and landscapes, and allowing different approaches to interpretation, including integrating technology, may help some historic sites adapt enough to survive, but certainly not all. So what happens to those organizations that are not able to adapt?


Historic house organizations in decline largely share the same difficulties:

1. They lack revenue, which results in financial instability.


2. The resources that the organization has long relied on to operate the site and preserve its buildings are no longer sufficient to meet the needs of the organization.


Competition for resources, both within their organizations (funding for building and landscape care vs. collections vs. programming and visitor services, etc) and outside (other entertainment choices, including other museums and activities) often sets up a vicious cycle: in order to reconfigure programming to interest a wider audience and thus increase visitation, the organization must expend scant resources on developing new programs and initiatives, which means funding is drawn away from other important needs of the organization, such as building care, which may in fact be the primary rationale for the organization existing in the first place!


Historic house museum organizations often care for valuable architectural, cultural, and sometimes financial assets. All of these holdings require thoughtful planning, on-going attention, and financial support. And sites that include historic buildings are responsible for ensuring a certain standard of preservation for their buildings because they usually house and thus protect other collections, such as furniture and paintings. If the buildings begin to deteriorate, other collections will be threatened.

Historic house museum stewards who are unable to appropriately maintain their historic building need to plan for an alternative future for the property as their largest resource, because there is no public benefit to a deteriorating historic house museum building. If the organization responsible for the property concludes that it can no longer operation as a historic site, the disposition of the building must be resolved. This can be done with the help and careful oversight of an attorney, financial advisor, and other professionals that are able to steer the organization toward its new future. This will require addressing a range of questions related to the organization’s ownership and operations (see below).

Luckily, there are a number of well-tested approaches that historic house museums can choose from to ensure that their real estate assets are actively used and sustainably preserved well into the future.

Adaptive Reuse

Adaptive reuse is an established approach to addressing the feasibility of preserving historic properties. Compatible new uses and functions are accommodated within an historic building or on a historic property, while at the same time, the building’s character-defining architectural features are preserved.


Co-Stewardship & Merger

Less common but nonetheless another alternative, partnering with an allied but financially stronger organization may hold some potential for the future of an endangered historic site. This type of arrangement is typically memorialized in a management or co-stewardship agreement that can provide for a range of administrative support as well as stewardship care of the buildings and landscape. There are a variety of ways this marriage between two organizations can be accomplished, depending upon the individual circumstances of each organization.

Study House

Changing from a furnished and interpreted historic house to a “study” house is another potential way to reduce the financial freight of property ownership but maintain access to it. The building can be leased for near-market rates, with the requirement that it be opened on an occasional schedule, primarily to targeted audiences, small community events, etc, use that results in lower operating overhead and does not require nearly as much staffing as a traditional historic house use. Study house use also generally results in less wear and tear on buildings and landscape, slightly lessening the preservation maintenance requirements.

Resident Curatorship

Curatorship programs are partnerships that involve the reuse of an historic property through rehabilitation and on-going maintenance in exchange for the opportunity to lease the property for a significant amount of time at little or no cost. Work undertaken on the historic building, and its future use, are generally required to meet The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. Curatorship arrangements usually require some on-going public access to the historic site, and in some cases, the historic building.

Transfer into Protected Private Ownership

Another long-standing approach to successfully preserving historic properties that can no longer operate as museums or historic sites is transfer into private ownership—generally through sale—with legal protection in the form of a perpetual preservation/conservation easement, restriction, or covenant held by a qualified non-profit historic preservation and/or land conservation organization. This legal mechanism is well-established as a way to ensure, through legal enforcement if necessary, that unsympathetic alteration, lack of routine maintenance, or outright demolition does not occur.

Easements are individually crafted for each property they protect, ensuring that a building’s significant elements are protected, and can include other provisions, such as controlling how a building can be used or prohibiting  subdivision of the land. Easement-protected properties have been proven successful by routinely selling to preservation-minded buyers across the country. A portion of the sale proceeds of the historic property must, however, be earmarked for donation to the easement-holding organization, to provide the funds for regular on-site easement inspections as well as legal enforcement, including litigation, if it becomes necessary.


In determining the future of a historic house museum, the board, staff, or volunteer stewards should review all aspects of the organization’s situation in consultation with legal counsel and financial advisors. This is especially critical if closing the house museum is more than likely.


1. What kind of legal structure enables the organization’s existence?

2. Is there a board of directors or trustees? If so, is there an on-going process of recruitment for new and diverse members, including leadership? Does the board represent the range of expertise that the organization needs?

3. Are there any active legal agreements or obligations with other parties?

4. Does the organization have a current strategic plan and/or mission statement, and if so, does it anticipate decisions like closure?

5. Does the organization have members? If so, how many are “life members”?

6. Does the organization have staff, and if so, is it professional or volunteer? Are there any human resource policies or procedures in place, such as job descriptions, salary surveys, etc?

7. Are all important documents accessible and thoroughly understood? This can include the organization’s initial incorporation, deeds or wills relating to the organization’s real estate assets, grant or funding agreements or documents, deeds of gift or other documents for objects in the collection, records of any restrictions, easements, or covenants.

8. Does the organization have current policies and procedures for deaccessioning collections and real estate?



1. Does the organization have an endowment, and if so, are there any restrictions on these funds?

2. What are the organization’s current revenue sources? What are the expenses? What is the difference between the two, and is there a deficit?

3. Does the organization have any debt?

4. Does the organization have any outstanding debt or funding agreements?


Real Estate


1. Are any real estate assets held in trust or restricted in any way? Are there any restricted funds related to the organization’s real estate?

2. Does the organization clearly understand the significance of its holdings, both the real estate assets (buildings, structures, landscape) as well as collections? If not, this should be reviewed and updated.

3. What are the existing physical conditions of the real estate assets, including all buildings, structures, and the property’s landscape? Is deferred maintenance an issue, and if so, what type of work is need? Are there any capital needs?

4. What properties are located adjacent to the historic site? Are any of these abutting properties considered historically significant, important for natural resource or conservation purposes, or legally protected in any way?




1. Are any of the collection objects held in trust or restricted in any way? Are there any objects that are on loan from another organization? Are any of the organization’s objects on loan to another organization?

2. Do the organization’s collections relate to the real estate assets, and if so, how?

3. What condition are the collections in? Does the organization have the appropriate space (size, environmental conditions, etc) to store, conserve, and display the collections safely?


Interpretation and Programming


1. Is the historic site currently open to public visitation?

2. Is the organization’s interpretative program current? If not, has the existing plan/program been evaluated in terms of attracting new audiences, diversifying programming, etc?

3. Are there programs “in the pipeline” for the near future?


1. Continue Operating: Is the organization able to change and strengthen its operations to the point of sustainability? If so, what would it do to achieve that result, and how long would it take?


2. Mergers or Transfers: Are there any obvious opportunities for merger or transfer to another organization  or institution that is able to more feasibility maintain and operate the historic house museum? If so, have these organizations or institutions been approached about this prospect?


3. Adaptive Reuse: Has the organization considered utilizing the historic house museum building(s) and/or landscape for other purposes? If so, what uses, are they appropriately suited to the significance of the property, and how would these uses sustain the property differently than the current use?


4. Closing: Closing an organization’s operations will involve legally transferring all assets (collections, real estate, and possibly money, including endowments, sale proceeds, etc) through sale or transfer to another organization or to the public. There will be legal, ethical, financial, and public relations issues related to closing an organization:


Legal:  What process does state (or local) law set out for the disposition of the organization’s assets? Will court approval being required? Will approval by the state’s  Attorney General or corporations commission be required?


Ethical: What professional standards and ethics apply to the organization in regard to the treatment, including disposition, of real estate, collections, and other assets?


It will be necessary to ensure that the future of all of the organization’s assets are carefully planned for:


Real Estate: A non-profit organization’s real estate is held in the public trust. If the real estate is currently publicly-accessible, some public access should be preserved as part of the transfer of this asset. Transferring the property to another organization which shares a similar mission or purpose is a potential option, provided that organization has the financial wherewithal to responsibly maintain the property into the future. Another option is sale into private ownership with perpetual protection through the use of preservation and conservation restriction, covenant, or easement. This process should be accomplished through an open process that vets potential real estate agencies or through a publicly-advertised RFP (“Request for Proposals”) process.


Collections: Collections should be transferred to organizations/institutions that share a similar mission.


Financial Assets: Financial assets, including any sale proceeds gained from the real estate or collections, should be distributed appropriately after the costs of closing the organization (including transferring assets) have been taken into account, including accounting for any easement endowment funding. Any remaining funds should be distributed to other mission-related projects, either of the closing organization or another that shares the same purpose.


Public Relations and Consultation: Consulting with local, state, and federal organizations and institutions that are affiliated or aligned should be undertaken early in the decision-making process. These parties may include:


  • State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO)

  • Statewide Non-Profit Preservation Organization

  • Local Preservation Organizations, Museums, Other Local Historic Sites

  • Statewide or Regional Museum Organizations/Associations

  • Public Officials, including Mayor, City/Town Manager, City/Town Council Members, State and Federal Representatives


Closing a historic house museum can have unanticipated consequences, but handling the entire process with on-going transparency, consultation, and communication can alleviate potential objections from the organization’s members and donors, public officials (local, state, and national), allied organizations, or other parties.

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