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The Best Museum Is a Home

As art museum attendance across the country continues to drop, it's time to embrace the beautiful eccentricity of the house museum.
Door at the Frick Collection. (Photo: striatic/Flickr)

Door at the Frick Collection. (Photo: striatic/Flickr)

Every city and every town has its own storied homes and grand estates. When the families who built these homes can no longer afford them or no longer have heirs to inhabit them, they sometimes become museums. The house museum is an institution in America especially, where even though our definition of historical includes only a few centuries, our appetite for the lifestyles of the famous and rich is insatiable.

It has always been this way. Even George Washington had to accommodate the hordes that wanted to have a look at Mount Vernon. Writing to the estate’s overseer in 1794, he explained three groups of visitors who deserved special accommodation, but then wrote: “I have no objection to any sober or orderly person’s gratifying their curiosity in viewing the buildings, Gardens &ct.”

One million persons, mostly sober and almost all orderly, still visit Mount Vernon every year. About as many also make the pilgrimage to Elvis Presley’s Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. But there is a different kind of house museum, the kind made famous by their objects and not their former occupants.

Visiting a house museum is like enjoying the finely cooked meal that comes from all that grocery shopping. No, you cannot learn how to cook and you might mistake some of the ingredients, but you are fed in a way that you have never been fed before.

Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is my favorite of this kind. A fixture in the Fenway, Gardner’s dreamy Venetian palace is an antidote to the city’s Brahmin brick. Her money came from shipping, and she put it to good use collecting Degas, Manet, Matisse, Rembrandt, Sargent, Titian, and Whistler.

Anyone with a fortune like hers could have collected art, but often such collections are bequeathed to other institutions. What Gardner chose to do, and protect with a persnickety will, was to design a home for her collection that would itself become part of the project. The furniture and fixtures are themselves works of art, and she curated everything, not only what is on the walls.

The experience of visiting the Gardner, then, is less like going to an art museum and more like coming home. Where the lighting is sometimes dim or the explanatory plaques lacking, there is always the charming chaos of a collection of things organized not by artist or period or country of origin, but by the taste of its curator: Italian furniture punctuates Dutch and Flemish paintings; a Japanese chest sits on a Venetian commode; a Roman sarcophagus rests near an Iranian tombstone.

Less chaotic, but no less charming is the mansion-museum built by Thomas Hasting in New York City for steel tycoon Henry Clay Frick. Towering over Fifth Avenue in its own quietly superior way, the low-rise mansion of 16 galleries occupies an entire city block. In what used to be Frick’s living room are some of the most extraordinary paintings in the United States: Bellini’s “Saint Francis in Ecstasy,” El Greco’s “St. Jerome,” two portraits by Titian, and Hans Holbein’s portraits of Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. The paintings remain, like the furniture, exactly as they were in Frick’s own lifetime.

That room at the Frick is my favorite room in the entire city, just as the Rothko Room at the Phillips Collection is my favorite in all of Washington. It was his marriage to a painter and the sudden deaths of his father and brother that encouraged Duncan Phillips to convert his childhood home into America’s first museum of modern art. The Collection opened to the public in 1921 with only two parlors, but has grown to include nearly 3,000 works by Cézanne, Degas, Klee, Matisse, Modigliani, and Picasso.

Like Isabella Stewart Gardner, Phillips arranged his collection as conversations: Americans with Europeans, old masters with modern aspirants, all of the art around and between the original architectural features of his home. It is the Rothko Room, though, with its simplicity and sparseness that has stimulated and sheltered some of my most meaningful conversations. Designed by Phillips but visited by the artist himself, the room features four of Mark Rothko’s canvases in an intimate, oratory-like space. It is a chapel of sorts, a space designated for a specific kind of contemplation, but which inevitably expands our capacity for contemplating so many other things, too.

The allure of each of these house museums is the illusion that any of our homes might be so adorned. You sit in the Rothko Room at the Phillips and think yes, this is what these canvases were made for: The warmth of a sitting room, not the cold, self-consciousness of a gallery. You look around the Titian Room at the Gardner and feel for a few minutes what it might be like to have such a masterpiece in your parlor. You stare at Saint Francis in all his ecstasy, letting the Frick tempt you into imagining what it would be like to look at such a painting all the time, the way you do your own television.

Visiting an art museum can sometimes feel like shopping at the grocery store. Everything has a place on the shelf; every shelf has its careful labels. That feeling of completing a chore might explain why so few visit these cultural spaces. The 2012 survey by the National Endowment for the Arts found that only 21 percent of American adults, 49.3 million, visited an art museum or gallery in the previous year. While the NEA found that 71 percent of adults had consumed art through electronic media and 59 percent had gone to the movies, less than a quarter of the population had gone into a gallery or museum to view works of art.

But visiting a house museum is like enjoying the finely cooked meal that comes from all that grocery shopping. No, you cannot learn how to cook and you might mistake some of the ingredients, but you are fed in a way that you have never been fed before. And that is why I love house museums so much, and why I believe many who are put off by traditional museums might love them, too.

These beautiful dustbins are all around the country. The ones like Graceland and Mount Vernon are preserved because of the ones who lived there, but the truly marvelous ones have nothing to do with the history you already know. They are the period pieces that belonged to someone obscure that history never knew or the beautiful menageries built by someone once known but now forgotten. House museums offer a different way of learning about the past—not objectively, but in the spectacular subjectivity of some stranger’s home.