This week’s contribution comes from Emma Cook, who is in her second year in the Masters of Museum Studies/History program, and is the Collections Department Intern at Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, NH.
In a transitional world, museums face the pressures to stay relevant to society. Change has redefined the public’s idea of museum experiences and definitions of patriotism. Public demand has grown for museums to reinvent themselves in ways that will increase public engagement and relevance, while maintaining sustainability in historic preservation and financial affairs. Strawbery Banke has many traditions and has relied on many traditional practices, but the museum understands its need to adapt and remain flexible in an ever-changing society. What separates Strawbery Banke from other outdoor museums is its preservation of one of the oldest neighborhoods in urban America, spanning a lifetime of nearly four centuries that has been brought back to life by the museum and the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The Heritage House Program creates the opportunity for community members to live and work within a historic American neighborhood, while providing financial sustainability in the preservation of its historic houses.
Strawbery Banke consists of 39 preserved historic buildings, with many on their original foundations. These historic houses interpret the past culture and lives of individuals who resided in Puddle Dock from the 1690s to the neighborhood’s decline in the 1950s. The Heritage House Program was designed to revitalize underutilized buildings on the Strawbery Banke Museum property for rental space and museum revenue. The program not only preserves the historic structures and restores them to a specific period in time; it provides residential and commercial space to the local community, and a substantial income for sustainable pursuits. The Heritage House Program contains 15 buildings that, when completed, will provide contemporary residential apartments and offices. So far there are seven completed apartments and six buildings containing 31 offices. The work is funded by individuals, corporations, grants, and in-kind contributions with a percentage of the annual rental income from each unit reserved for the preservation fund to ensure continued maintenance and funding for all historic houses on the museum campus.
Presently, the Penhallow House is in the workings of a complete restoration with Heritage House Program funding. This historic house is a site on the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail and the only “saltbox” house remaining at Strawbery Banke Museum. Further planning and communications are underway in developing the future role of this historic house at Strawbery Banke Museum.
Since its rescue from the 1950s city renewal projects, the Strawbery Banke Museum has not only found control of its own site and economy, but also shared authority with its community and city history. The vast changes in the museum’s look, function, and internal structure, over the years since its establishment in 1978, demonstrate an ever-changing dynamic of a reinventing museum. The ability to not only find funding through modifying excess space, but also including the community to utilize this space, is a unique strategy worth learning from, as the Heritage House Program exemplifies historic preservation with an outcome of community inclusion through rental space and revenue to support museum operations and exhibition space.