An Interview with Frank Vagnone, Old Salem’s New Head

“Provocative,” “edgy,” and “borderline offensive” are not descriptors typically applied to historic house museums. Frank Vagnone, the new President and CEO of Old Salem Museums and Gardens, insists they should be. Two years ago, his book Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums rocketed to prominence in the heritage preservation field. Co-authored with Deborah Ryan, a professor of architecture and urban design at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, the treatise’s visitor-centric vision has attracted an enthusiastic following among some while eliciting equally strong pushback from others. Frank remembers, “I was called an idiot and a menace and had people get up and leave in the middle of my lectures. People on Facebook called me the ‘seven-headed dragon of the apocalypse of the history field.’” Although the furor over Vagnone’s manifesto has subsided, the concepts continue to exert influence.

DAT: Tell us about your blog Twisted Preservation that preceded the book.

FV: I was frustrated by professionals who were locked in and couldn’t be any less creative. We as a profession lacked an understanding of how visitor experience should drive our efforts. I started writing because I felt like I wasn’t finding any traction to get people to even consider my ideas. For my “One Night Stands” series, doing all these things, sleeping in the houses, using the beds and tea sets, I have had more people understand what I’m trying to do than all my theorizing put together. The blogs were a good format, because they’re not about perfection, they’re about conveying an idea. I felt like it was OK to express these ideas, to complain, to say all the things I might not say in a board meeting. It was a form of therapy that snowballed, and people started paying attention. I’ve never said I had all the answers, but I wanted people to consider… just consider… the basic notion that objects and buildings have been held as more important than the visitors for too long. Mind you, I did wonder when should the critic no longer be working within the system under critique. This book took me face-to-face with this question.

DAT: How have museum professionals responded?

FV: It’s been an evolving situation. At the beginning, there was rabid disagreement and angry pushback. Once the book was published, it sold out in less than two weeks. The republished books also sold out in two weeks. Suddenly we had three printings in three months. I realized other people shared my frustration and were glad someone else was expressing it. The furor began to die down, and people started engaging with the substantive ideas a bit more than simply reacting to the shock value.

DAT: What excites you most about starting your tenure at Old Salem?

FV: The most interesting part of coming to Old Salem is the depth of potential at all levels. The institution produces extremely top quality historical and intellectual research, but not many people outside of our local sphere seem to sense that. The chance to leverage that advantage is exciting but will be hard. Living history and decorative arts institutions are in a difficult position right now. Try to explain the importance of a ceramic jug or a costumed interpreter to, say, a social justice activist, or in North Carolina, a House Bill 2 protester, and you won’t get much interest. It’s difficult to make these things relevant in today’s world.

At the same time, the history and traditions of Old Salem and MESDA are forcing me to reconsider many of my own perspectives. There’s a lot that is worth paying attention to, and to learn what works. I am working towards a goal of a people-centered museum, not just in terms of visitors, but also of staff. There is an essential human-ness to museums, and I want to make sure any changes bring us closer to that center of gravity, not away from it.

UPCOMING EVENTS

“Provocative,” “edgy,” and “borderline offensive” are not descriptors typically applied to historic house museums. Frank Vagnone, the new President and CEO of Old Salem Museums and Gardens, insists they should be. Two years ago, his book Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums rocketed to prominence in the heritage preservation field. Co-authored with Deborah Ryan, a professor of architecture and urban design at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, the treatise’s visitor-centric vision has attracted an enthusiastic following among some while eliciting equally strong pushback from others. Frank remembers, “I was called an idiot and a menace and had people get up and leave in the middle of my lectures. People on Facebook called me the ‘seven-headed dragon of the apocalypse of the history field.’” Although the furor over Vagnone’s manifesto has subsided, the concepts continue to exert influence.

DAT: Tell us about your blog Twisted Preservation that preceded the book.

FV: I was frustrated by professionals who were locked in and couldn’t be any less creative. We as a profession lacked an understanding of how visitor experience should drive our efforts. I started writing because I felt like I wasn’t finding any traction to get people to even consider my ideas. For my “One Night Stands” series, doing all these things, sleeping in the houses, using the beds and tea sets, I have had more people understand what I’m trying to do than all my theorizing put together. The blogs were a good format, because they’re not about perfection, they’re about conveying an idea. I felt like it was OK to express these ideas, to complain, to say all the things I might not say in a board meeting. It was a form of therapy that snowballed, and people started paying attention. I’ve never said I had all the answers, but I wanted people to consider… just consider… the basic notion that objects and buildings have been held as more important than the visitors for too long. Mind you, I did wonder when should the critic no longer be working within the system under critique. This book took me face-to-face with this question.

DAT: How have museum professionals responded?

FV: It’s been an evolving situation. At the beginning, there was rabid disagreement and angry pushback. Once the book was published, it sold out in less than two weeks. The republished books also sold out in two weeks. Suddenly we had three printings in three months. I realized other people shared my frustration and were glad someone else was expressing it. The furor began to die down, and people started engaging with the substantive ideas a bit more than simply reacting to the shock value.

DAT: What excites you most about starting your tenure at Old Salem?

FV: The most interesting part of coming to Old Salem is the depth of potential at all levels. The institution produces extremely top quality historical and intellectual research, but not many people outside of our local sphere seem to sense that. The chance to leverage that advantage is exciting but will be hard. Living history and decorative arts institutions are in a difficult position right now. Try to explain the importance of a ceramic jug or a costumed interpreter to, say, a social justice activist, or in North Carolina, a House Bill 2 protester, and you won’t get much interest. It’s difficult to make these things relevant in today’s world.

At the same time, the history and traditions of Old Salem and MESDA are forcing me to reconsider many of my own perspectives. There’s a lot that is worth paying attention to, and to learn what works. I am working towards a goal of a people-centered museum, not just in terms of visitors, but also of staff. There is an essential human-ness to museums, and I want to make sure any changes bring us closer to that center of gravity, not away from it.

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