History Overnight

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Minnesota Local History Blog.

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The Minnesota Historical Society’s Local History Services helps Minnesotans preserve and share their history. This blog is a resource of best practices on the wide variety of museum, preservation, conservation, funding, and non-profit management topics. We’re here to help.

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History Overnight

By: grabitsdm | Interpretation | Preservation & Facilities | October 6, 2010
Historic Dayton House in Worthington, MinnesotaMinnPost on Saturday October 2, 2010, ran an article on Linden Hills, a two-mansion historic site complex in Little Falls, that discussed the competing concerns when a house museum allows for overnight stays.

This blend between historic house museum and bed & breakfast is not surprising considering the economic times. Small nonprofits need to look under every rock and pillowcase to find resources to preserve the past, and those funds are elusive. Perhaps with the growing popularity of so-called "stay-cations" offering a historic house museum as a place to stay overnight could appear to be a win-win.

The stroke of genius in allowing people to stay in a historic house museum is that these museums recognize that buildings were built for a purpose. In the case of historic house museums, they were originally built to house people and are generally not as well suited to museums. Allowing people to stay in them fulfills the purpose for which the house museum was designed and thus potentially furthers the building's preservation and the organization's mission.

The work of history, though, is not just about preservation. It is also about access. A colleague of mine often tells me there is absolutely no reason to save anything, unless we can figure out how to make what we save accessible and relevant. The blending of museum and B&B also meets this admonition as guests have unparalleled access to the past as they get to rest in its comforts. Not only can they put themselves in the shoes of those that lived in the past by walking the same halls to the same toilets, but they can literally dream where others dreamt.

As with everything else, this blending does not come without risk. Certainly curators and conservators might easily point out the risk to the collections on account of such far reaching access. The collections may be further at risk from plumbing needed to allow occupancy, since it is never a question of if a pipe will leak, but when. And, if the "breakfast" part of B&B involves cooking in the historic house there is also the issue of infestation and migratory residues.

Further risks include working with state departments that regulate kitchens, local building officials who monitor code compliance for occupancy, and the Internal Revenue Service for potential Unrelated Business Income. There may be others.

Linden Hills is not the only historic house museum to offer this opportunity in Minnesota. Among the them are Dayton House in Worthington and the Two Harbors Light Station on the North Shore.

Staying overnight in a historic house museum, though, is nothing new. Many traditionally had caretakers who lived on site for security and other reasons. Folsom House, operated by the Taylors Falls Historical Society, still carries on that tradition. There may be some others that use a portion of their historic house museum as rental property, which can be a locally sticky issue.

Perhaps what is a new trend is both the transient nature of overnight stays in historic house museums and how common it is becoming. There don't appear to be studies showing the prevalence of this trend, but it can be spotted around the world, including the President Paul Kruger House Museum in Pretoria, South Africa, and 80 National Trust sites in the United Kingdom.

There may be other house museums considering taking this step. Those entrusted with these historic resources would do well to carefully consider risks along side of the potential rewards by having conversations with their tax advisor, local building inspectors, health department officials (if applicable), preservation experts, local residents about their thoughts, internally about how such a proposal fits mission, and with those that currently operate historic house museums with an overnight stay option for the public.