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Monticello director's dose of reality for museum-house supporters

Leslie Greene Bowman, who as president and CEO of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation is the lady in charge of Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson-- considering it's on the back of the nickel, one of the most famous historic buildings in America--was the speaker at the annual Knox Heritage awards presentation at the Bijou Theater last night. To a preservation-friendly crowd of about 250, she talked about Monticello, of course, sometimes in idyllic terms. She wakes up every morning at Jefferson's old home, about six hours to our northeast, and takes a horseback ride along the sage's old trails.

She had done enough homework to compliment the room on Knoxville's one National Landmark building, Blount Mansion, the city's only house that has federal protection. Saved through purchase by Mary Boyce Temple in 1925--naturally, we wanted to flatten it for a parking lot--its story impressed Bowman, who remarked that Monticello was preserved by a foundation only two years earlier. (Blount Mansion's actually a little older than Monticello; Jefferson and Blount were just six years apart in age, and surely crossed paths, but what they thought of each other isn't obvious.)

With a slide show she brought up some ironic preservationist-vs.-preservationist challenges; an issue concerning century-old houses on a natural landscape in Wyoming--some want to restore the houses, some want to restore the landscape--might have caused some squirming in the room. Local preservationists were similarly divided about the Smokies-vs.-Elkmont controversy a few years ago.

However, the thrust of her talk was a strong dose of reality to those who assume any sufficiently historic house should be turned into a museum. With slides she presented examples of struggling museum houses, like the Lyndhurst mansion, near New York, and Edith Wharton's famous Massachusetts home, The Mount. Despite their national fame, Bowman says, old funding models are proving insufficient, and their futures are in question.

She described the urgent new directions of the preservationist organization known as the National Trust, of which she (and Knox Heritage director Kim Trent, as well as former Mayor Victor Ashe) is a board member. It's no longer nearly enough to save a building, she says; it needs to be saved in a way that sustains itself. "Who's the customer?" she asked. "What do they want?"

There was a time when museums were scarce, and any historic site of interest was guaranteed to draw a paying crowd. Those days may have gone out with the station wagon. According to Bowman's stats, the nation is producing one new museum house every three and a half days, to please an apparently diminishing market for museum houses. Americans used to make a point of visiting historic homes, but are more distracted than ever before, by youth sports, cheap trips abroad, and work, especially considering that most women now work outside the home.  

So the supply of museum houses is growing, the demand is dwindling, an embarrassing situation to begin with. And traditional funding sources, like the NEA and the NEH, have been drying up for the past 30 years.

Monticello is still garnering 450,000 visits a year, but that's declining, she says, "even though we're on the nickel!" To stay relevant, they're branching out, she says, trying to reach a global audience with Jefferson's ideas.

Knoxville has about seven museum houses, Blount Mansion (with the Craighead-Jackson House), Bleak House, Crescent Bend, the Mabry-Hazen House, Ramsey House, James White's Fort, and Marble Springs. Several of them were represented in the room, and those surely listened to Bowman's talk with interest.

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