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Artists, Art, and Historic Sites: A Revitalization of the Past Through Present Creativity

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Kate Laurel Burgess-Mac Intosh is an independent museum professional who shares her research on contemporary art/historic site mash-ups on the blog Revitalizing Historic Sites and on Facebook. She is Chair of the Young and Emerging Museum Professionals Professional Affinity Group of the New England Museum Association, a Teaching Assistant in the Museum Studies Program at the Harvard University Extension School and a Research Assistant for Reach Advisors.

What do historic sites and artists have in common?

Both must constantly reinvent themselves in a shifting economy, a changing philanthropic world and amidst an ever increasing desire for at-home entertainment. Historic sites are exploring new ground, and finding new ways to make their unique stories tangible and sought after; artists are seeking spaces to show work, ways to build their network, and new experiences that challenge their artistic output. Partnerships between artists and historic sites are win-win situations. Working with artists is one way to revitalizing historic house museums, and continue to exemplify their relevance in 21st century culture.

My forecast is that in 2034, art will be incorporated into historic spaces—parlors, bed chambers and kitchen hearths. Lawns and landscapes will be transformative spaces of meditation and reflection, in which artists will come to sketch and plan installations. Performance artists will descend stairwells, artists’ collectives will live in historic basements and attics, and openings will be unannounced, yet heavily attended. Artists and historic sites will find a renewed renaissance through partnership with each other, bringing new light to the past through the lens of contemporary creativity.

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Artists see the world differently than historians; they are uniquely poised to highlight the eccentricity of historic sites, and are thirsting for intriguing locations, stories and objects of inspiration. Artists visually categorize experiences through their medium, be it brushes, cameras or crayons. They are visual curators, record keepers of the sublime, the mundane and the world at large. Their creativity could be the solution to waning attendance figures and fading enthusiasm. I think artists, and the art they create, are crucial for historic site revitalization.

The Center for the Future of Museum’s Museums & Society 2034: Trends and Potential Futures, pointed out we are undergoing a “creative renaissance.” This presents museums with the opportunity to invest in an idea that introduces new voices, ideas and interpretations to stagnant stories of the past, fostering community involvement, engaging new audiences and increasing educational programming.

It is a chance to discover new revenue and funding possibilities, and expand partnership and collaboration opportunities, while enlarging the reach and visibility of historic house museums. Most importantly, it gives us the opportunity to change public opinion, uncover new research and information, and breathe new life into old spaces, while seeing the past in different ways. Contemporary art introduced at historic sites can do all this and more; art is the new mode of interpretation, and artists are the new interpreters.

What would happen if historic sites:

  • Embraced the artists on Etsy? Picture an exhibition of Etsy artists’ work installed in an historic site, inspired by the site’s architecture, stories and collection. Go one step further, and envision an historic interior entirely made by Etsy crafters, with modern materials being used to make each element of the historically inspired interior.
  • Hosted an artist’s market on their lawn or historically significant landscape? 
  • Served as sites for pop-up exhibitions, that while not formally advertised, are discussed and promoted in artists’ circles? If a museum’s restroom can be a unique art installation site, what about a historic house?
  • Hosted touring underground art exhibits, like The Sketchbook Project? Could historic sites position themselves to create their own version of a “sketchbook concert tour,” exemplifying themes common at different historic sites throughout the country, or around the world? 
  • Proposed an exhibition of contemporary art around a theme. Stepping back from the curatorial role and encouraging artists to take responsibility for the exhibition’s idea, limitations and installation requirements? How could historic sites use the model of assignments to create unique, mission reflective, thematic contemporary art installations?

Encouraging repeat visits to historic sites with new exhibitions and art related happenings builds loyalty to the institution, fostering a relationship with your community and creating a dialogue with those who are engaged with your new initiatives. Historic sites need to embrace new modes and models as museums shift from single, segmented institutions focused on singular topics, time periods, and stories, to hyper-experiential, hybrid models. Human experience is not segmented; historic sites must reflect the multiplicity of experience of daily life, and artists are poised to bring a multitude of contemporary interpretations, experiences and impressions to the past.

Many historic sites have already begun experimenting with introducing art and working with artists, and this is only the beginning. By 2034, I think contemporary art will be incorporated into historic spaces. Art has the potential to be a primary form of interpretation, with artists as interpreters, and historic sites discovering true revitalization by reflecting the creative renaissance. 

“Entering Peabody: ‘The Original Leather Daddy Community'”
Film Still by Perry Hallinan, courtesy of the Peabody Historical Society, Mass.

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1 Comment

  1. I think that this a very interesting vision for the future, and it reflects the need for a shift in our thinking today. I'm reminded of the awareness that historians must have of themselves as they frame their interpretations of the past. In documenting and making sense the past, they are making a statement of their values and who they are at that moment. So, history is never really the same story or account; it changes over time, depending on who is writing and reading. Today's artists can play a thoughtful and intriguing role in how we frame what we experience in a museum setting. This can add to the dynamic experience of going to a special place that's more about past, present, and the future. I really like the direction of this vision and would love to read more…

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