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David Grabitske

David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Historic Dayton House in Worthington, MinnesotaMinnPost on Saturday October 2, 2010, ran an article on Linden Hills, a two-mansion historic site complex in Little Falls, that discussed the competing concerns when a house museum allows for overnight stays.

This blend between historic house museum and bed & breakfast is not surprising considering the economic times. Small nonprofits need to look under every rock and pillowcase to find resources to preserve the past, and those funds are elusive. Perhaps with the growing popularity of so-called “stay-cations” offering a historic house museum as a place to stay overnight could appear to be a win-win.

The stroke of genius in allowing people to stay in a historic house museum is that these museums recognize that buildings were built for a purpose. In the case of historic house museums, they were originally built to house people and are generally not as well suited to museums. Allowing people to stay in them fulfills the purpose for which the house museum was designed and thus potentially furthers the building’s preservation and the organization’s mission.

The work of history, though, is not just about preservation. It is also about access. A colleague of mine often tells me there is absolutely no reason to save anything, unless we can figure out how to make what we save accessible and relevant. The blending of museum and B&B also meets this admonition as guests have unparalleled access to the past as they get to rest in its comforts. Not only can they put themselves in the shoes of those that lived in the past by walking the same halls to the same toilets, but they can literally dream where others dreamt.

As with everything else, this blending does not come without risk. Certainly curators and conservators might easily point out the risk to the collections on account of such far reaching access. The collections may be further at risk from plumbing needed to allow occupancy, since it is never a question of if a pipe will leak, but when. And, if the “breakfast” part of B&B involves cooking in the historic house there is also the issue of infestation and migratory residues.

Further risks include working with state departments that regulate kitchens, local building officials who monitor code compliance for occupancy, and the Internal Revenue Service for potential Unrelated Business Income. There may be others.

Linden Hills is not the only historic house museum to offer this opportunity in Minnesota. Among the them are Dayton House in Worthington and the Two Harbors Light Station on the North Shore.

Staying overnight in a historic house museum, though, is nothing new. Many traditionally had caretakers who lived on site for security and other reasons. Folsom House, operated by the Taylors Falls Historical Society, still carries on that tradition. There may be some others that use a portion of their historic house museum as rental property, which can be a locally sticky issue.

Perhaps what is a new trend is both the transient nature of overnight stays in historic house museums and how common it is becoming. There don’t appear to be studies showing the prevalence of this trend, but it can be spotted around the world, including the President Paul Kruger House Museum in Pretoria, South Africa, and 80 National Trust sites in the United Kingdom.

There may be other house museums considering taking this step. Those entrusted with these historic resources would do well to carefully consider risks along side of the potential rewards by having conversations with their tax advisor, local building inspectors, health department officials (if applicable), preservation experts, local residents about their thoughts, internally about how such a proposal fits mission, and with those that currently operate historic house museums with an overnight stay option for the public.

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5 Responses to History Overnight

  1. Nancy says:

    I think this is a great idea for the historic homes that have mid-tier significance. It wouldn’t work at the Louvre, but Science Museums have been having overnight pajama parties for decades. Why not?

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  2. While not keeping overnight guests, we have for many years rented out the Akerlund Photo Studio for people to take pictures. They can even use some of the furnishings. It keeps it as a living artifact, as opposed to a static “hands-off” one.

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  3. Ben says:

    Houses were constructed for the purpose of living in them. It seems completely congruent to open them for overnight stays, parties, and events. Our collections are old, but most are not one of a kind artifacts. If we don’t have three of them in storage it’s likely the museum down the road does. I don’t believe there’s as much risk as some people think.

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  4. Nicole says:

    Slayton and Worthington seem to be having successful ventures with the Dinehart-Holt House and the Dayton House. I am not sure Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum is ready to have people stay overnight in the Dugout or Settler’s Home but it could be down the road. Our biggest concerns there would be safety, insurance and restrooms. Sorry to say our outhouse is not in working order. There is plexi-glass for a reason.

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  5. I hope no one minds a displaced Minnesotan’s comments. Sleepovers might be more common on historic ships than in historic houses. It is common to invite volunteers to stay over to work on restoration projects and some ships, like the former Coast Guard Cutter Taney in Baltimore, use sleepovers as a major source of income. Many of the issues are the same. Although most of the historic fabric, especially on steel ships, can stand up to the additional wear and tear, artifacts can be damaged, lost or stolen; updating and modifying the ship to accommodate visitors can mean up-front costs and changes in the experience; and there are various governmental jurisdictions which regulate beginning with the Coast Guard which certifies ships to carry passengers (but unless we stay in one place for a very long time, no oversight from the Dept. of Buildings). Most of this will need to be contended with for any kind of visitor though, not just overnight ones.

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