A Death in the Family

Nelda C. and H.J. Lutcher Stark Foundation
Orange, TX

The W.H. Stark House in Orange, Texas, was occupied from 1894-1936 by W.H. and Miriam Stark, and since 1981, the property had been open for tours that emphasized decorative arts and furniture. Interpretation was fairly static and did not explore the Stark family or their contributions to local history, and also prohibited young visitors and students by imposing age restrictions. There were no professional staff and little community outreach.

In the last three years, a new site manager/curator was hired along with two other professional staff who decided to reinvent the Stark House as a modern house museum that emphasized the personal story of the family and their times. Staff created a plan for increased accessibility and community engagement, alongside more comprehensive and meaningful interpretation. Building off the success of an initiative that lowered the age limit to six, the staff received approval for a new type of exhibit, one that would examine tragedy and the private lives of the Starks. A Death in the Family explored mourning death as an intrinsic part of life, and provided an in-depth look at this topic through the Stark family’s experiences, anchoring local history to a national narrative. Following W.H. and Miriam Stark’s stories from the loss of their daughter in the 1880s to their own deaths in 1936, the exhibit provided an intimate picture of the Stark family’s grief while connecting visitors to the real and relevant lives that took place within the house. Visitor surveys were indicative of the exhibit’s success in creating dialogue and connections to modern day issues, emphasizing how a multi-generational audience was making new connections between the past and their own experiences with mourning in today’s culture.

The exhibit revamped the house and its appeal to visitors while also transforming the views of internal stakeholders. Stark Foundation administration underwent a change from concern at the exhibit’s proposal to guarded willingness to excitement for presenting the Stark family in a more human and complex light. The exhibit and reinterpretation helped position the Stark House as an accessible community resource in Orange instead of an off-limits showpiece, and opened up new possibilities for the museum to become a critical community asset.