3. House Museums Connect People with Their Own, Community's Heritage

James Glass
Column that appeared in the Indianapolis Star on

Would you like to connect with your roots? Find out about people who shaped the world you live in? Savor the decorative tastes and furnishings of households a hundred years ago? Teach your kids something about the lives of their great-grandparents? All this can be done at house museums.

Indianapolis downtown has three house museums where a sense of the past is especially strong: the James Whitcomb Riley Home at 528 Lockerbie Street; the Benjamin Harrison Home at 1230 North Delaware Street; and the Morris-Butler House at 1204 North Park Avenue.

School children are a primary audience for the Riley and Harrison Homes, which provide hands-on experiences about Indiana history. Sandy Crain, director of the Riley Home for the James Whitcomb Riley Memorial Association, says that children learn about the Hoosier Poet in their fourth-grade history sessions at school. When they arrive at the house, the children learn about Riley's life and how people lived in his household. They hear, for example, that dinners of Riley's day were three-hour affairs in which adults socialized and children were expected to stay at the table and remain silent! Some teachers are able to devote an entire day to Riley, beginning with a tour of his childhood home in Greenfield, followed by an afternoon tour of his house in Lockerbie Square, and culminating in laying a memorial wreath at the poet's grave in Crown Hill Cemetery.

At the Harrison Home, operated by the President Benjamin Harrison Foundation, some 18,000 school children come each year and enjoy hands-on classes in the basement. Fourth graders play a game, "Settlers and Surveyors." Each student is given a house and a business and asked to locate them on a map of a new Indiana county from about 1820. Second graders learn about Native Americans in Indiana at the time of the President’s grandfather, Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison. Students from other grades convene a session of the Continental Congress in which the President's great-grandfather, also named Benjamin, signed the Declaration of Independence. The students form delegations of the 13 colonies and sign the Declaration with a quill pen. After the opening sessions, students tour the President's home and learn about his beliefs concerning democracy and citizen responsibilities. Phyllis Geeslin, Director of the Harrison Home, says that her staff helps Indianapolis teachers, who are overwhelmed with teaching responsibilities, provide quality education about history. Each activity is also keyed to the Indiana standards for teaching social studies.

Brady Kress, Director of Museums for Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, is leading a re-thinking of interpretation at the Morris-Butler House. He says that today's families have less recreational time together and have many competing entertainment and education attractions to choose from. If they decide on a house museum, they often select a home where people lived that they already know about. Therefore, Historic Landmarks is offering visitors something different—a chance to experience life in an upper middle-class household of the 1880s. There will be dinners served in the dining room of the Morris-Butler House, opportunities to cook meals in the kitchen, high teas held in the parlor, decorative plaster workshops conducted in the basement, and period gardening programs held outside. The home is also partnering with Conner Prairie to provide an urban experience for visitors who have already toured the new 1880s rural homestead at the Prairie.

What challenges do these museums face? Mainly they need more promotion by the city's tourism organizations and more funding from foundations, corporations, and cultural donors. Just as much as the arts, house museums have the capacity to enhance the daily lives of residents and visitors. They also contribute to the local economy. Many convention groups want heritage as part of their tour packages, and the Harrison and Riley Homes attract tourists from across the United States and from many foreign countries.

Have you visited a house museum lately? You and your family can learn not only about people in the past but something about your own heritage. Look up the visiting hours today.

James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home, 2013. James Glass
James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home, 2013. James Glass
Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, 2013. James Glass
Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, 2013. James Glass

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