“Make Yourself At Home– Welcoming Voices in Open House: If These Walls Could Talk” by Benjamin Filene is a chapter in the book Letting Go? which explores shared authority in history museums. Open House, an exhibit at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, is a unique experience which allows visitors a window into the lives of one local house’s occupants.
Though the exhibit focuses on a single home, it is not a historic house. It more resembles the period room type of exhibit in which the interior of the house is recreated at the museum. The museum’s curatorial staff wanted to explore the lives of average residents in an average house in St. Paul. The result is what becomes, in effect, the life story of the home, and it is anything but average. By researching the various occupants of the house, which was built in 1888, it is made evident that every building has a history, and much can be gleaned from it.
The rooms of the exhibit represent different time periods of occupation. Hidden among the everyday objects are reproductions of primary sources such as building permits, church records, and newspaper articles which offer a unique insight into the lives of the occupants. In addition, snippets of oral histories can be heard throughout the exhibit by interacting with the features of the “house.” For example, approaching a dingy set of work clothes hanging on the “porch”, motion sensors trigger a recording of Dick Krismer, a resident of the house who evidently worked in the stockyards, who explains pig slaughtering methods in 20 seconds of audio. In the 1890s-themed sitting room, visitors can view magic lantern slides that trace the Schumacher’s journey from Germany to St. Paul, where they first built the house in 1888.
The curators have left the interpretation up to the residents. Their stories speak volumes about the time period in which they occupied the house, keeping the curatorial voice at a minimum. Traditional museum text on the wall, in panels resembling windows titled, “A Look Outside” offers context for the stories, relating it to larger external historical patterns.
Both an example of an engaging interactive museum exhibit as well as the new history, “Open House” was immensely popular. Indeed, it features methods of museum work which are being integrated elsewhere. Historic Locust grove, for example, is experimenting with voice recordings (in their case, voice actors) which are triggered upon entering a room. Digital media therefore is becoming a larger and larger part of museum interpretation in the 21st century.