In 2009, a fire forced the evacuation of the contents of the Peabody Essex Museum’s Ropes Mansion— a carefully preserved legacy of a single Salem family opened as a museum at the beginning of the twentieth century. It had operated, more or less, the same way for a century. Unfortunate though it was, the fire presented a unique opportunity to re-imagine the visitor’s experience of this special house. It offered, unusually, a completely blank slate—an opportunity to re-envision what a historic house could be and to explore new approaches, yielding potential solutions to issues that thousands of historic house museums are currently facing as audiences dwindle and support wanes. Utilizing a team approach that stressed collaborative decision-making among staff from curatorial, interpretation, design, visitor services and collections, PEM worked to offer guests new ways to experience the refurbished mansion, which reopened in spring 2015.
The Ropes Mansion relates important narratives of both family and community history. As one of the few historic houses to have retained the entire contents of one family and because it was important to the reinterpretation for visitors to experience a personal connection with those contents, PEM chose to focus the experience around the Ropes family themselves. Research and analysis of the rich archive of family papers, letters, and period accounts allowed PEM to develop a set of interpretive messages:
• One house holds many stories – itself a kind of “family album.”
• By curating objects, families memorialize and mythologize themselves.
• A rich and cohesive family history requires intentional preservation.
Within this context, the team worked toward a set of objectives for the experience which included 1.) Escape from the guided tour, 2.) Meet characters through relevant and moving story lines, 3.) Experience a variety of display styles, 4.) Encounter a variety of interpretive experiences, and 5.) Explore freely.
A variety of strategies were developed to tell the stories of each space. Guests encounter text panels, interactive components, and interpretive experiences placed in a naturalistic setting. Text panels introduce each room’s characters and set the time period and circumstances explored in that space. The team developed three different display styles for each of the rooms: traditional period room installation, which were kept mostly barrier-free; gallery-style exhibition spaces; and active learning elements, for hands-on activity.
The goals of the Ropes Mansion reinterpretation focused on transforming the visitor experience in an historic house setting to increase interest and relevance with audiences today. In place of restrictive and passive experiences offered by traditional guided tours, new interpretive goals and strategies enhance visitor access to spaces and collections; tell powerful, emotional stories drawn from the lives of Ropes family residents; and introduce a sense of exploration and encounter with multiple display techniques including period rooms, gallery installations, and interactive zones spread throughout the house. Museum staff carefully selected stories and themes for each room that resonate with current issues in contemporary life. These approaches encourage visitors to explore art, decorative art, architecture, and lifeways from the past through the lens of their own experience today.