A 2008 study by the Pew Charitable Trust estimates that there are over 15,000 historic home museums in the U.S. They are by far the most numerous museum category in the country, with more than four for every county; it’s telling that the subtitle of Pew’s 2008 report asks, “What to do with these old houses?” “The classic model of homes preserved strictly for the building’s sake led to a surplus of sites that were underused and disconnected from their communities,” notes the study. Economic and cultural changes of recent years have brought grave funding and membership challenges to the classic historic homes.
Chicago’s Driehaus Museum was deliberately conceptualized in light of these challenges. It is (without oxymoron) a very contemporary historic house museum. One of Chicago’s newest museums, the Richard H. Driehaus Museum was founded in 2003 and opened in 2008 after a meticulous five-year restoration of the Gilded Age Samuel M. Nickerson Mansion. I had the opportunity to visit the museum last year and was excited to learn from Museum Director Lise Dubé-Scherr that I was experiencing only phase one – lush interiors furnished in late 19th century Aesthetic Movement style. She explained that the museum had always been conceived as an exhibiting institution, and that the inaugural show, Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures from the Driehaus Collection, would be launching in late September 2013. I recently sat down with Dubé-Scherr to discuss the new show and the museum’s transition, asking first about the logistics of mounting an exhibition within the context of the historic home itself. She explained that the initial restoration was conceived at the outset to facilitate varying aspects of visitor engagement. While the complete home is restored to period, the first floor is fully furnished and arranged in settings, the second floor offers exhibition galleries that were formerly the family bedrooms and the third floor, an open ballroom, becomes a space for lectures, concerts, and programming.
Driehaus partnered with Jeff Daly, formerly Chief Exhibition Designer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to create the Tiffany exhibition spaces so that they stood in balance with the aesthetic of the rooms. “The historic aspect of the home is beautiful, but can be imposing,” noted Dubé-Scherr. “We needed a designer who could work in harmony with that.” Daly worked closely with visiting Curator David Hanks, who serves as the curator of the Stewart Program for Modern Design in Montreal. Together Hanks and Daly developed a minimalist installation that allowed the period rooms to show through. The intimate bedroom/exhibition spaces with built-in casework manage to capture the dual nature of the Tiffany objects. Within the show, the lamps and vases are revealed both as artistically advanced design and as elaborate room furnishings.
I also asked Dubé-Scherr what it meant operationally and institutionally to move from phase one to phase two, to become an exhibiting institution. Just steps from Chicago’s Michigan Avenue tourist mecca, the draw of the Tiffany name is sure to have major implications for attendance and for the museum’s identity. Dubé-Scherr first praised the supportive museum membership, who were very cognizant of the organization’s broader mission and delighted to see it take this step. She noted that members feel a strong sense of ownership, and are aware of the need for historic houses to evolve their mission to thrive. The museum staff also stepped up to accommodate the operational shift, lengthening hours, training and hiring increased security, and drastically increasing daily tour schedule. Undertaking major front end planning, Driehaus ramped up to accommodate (hoped-for) larger crowds, knowing that, if need be, they could scale down hours and programs more easily than they could add them during the show’s run. The museum is well prepared for a major increase in attendance in these first months, even the possibility of doubling the attendance numbers it has seen in previous years. Despite the workload, staff did take a moment on the opening day, September 28th, to recognize the milestone of the museum fully realized.
A range of well-developed stories run through Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures from the Driehaus Collection, making it clear that the museum took its time to richly consider this inaugural show. There is a focus on real scholarship, as a catalog and symposium contribute to the body of knowledge on the specifics of Tiffany work in Chicago. There is a through line of craft and preservation as the museum highlights fabrication and conservation processes and also partners with outside historic sites in need of preservative intervention. There is also a savvy focus on collecting, as the Tiffany works in the show come from a single private collection. The museum embraces that an aspect of the story centers on what it means to buy, own and live with these works – both historically and in current contexts.
The Driehaus now embarks on the challenge of managing a current exhibition while planning future shows. The museum will continue to work with the visiting curator model throughout its developing exhibition program. This system will allow the small staff to present relevant exhibitions on a broad range of topics. Dubé-Scherr explained that, going forward, the museum will be dedicated to exploring not just the individual Nickerson home, but the “milieu of the America’s Gilded Age and the context of social, artistic developments of the period.“ The future exhibition program will cover a wide range of issues related to art, architecture, design, and even social history of the period. Dubé–Scherr made it clear that despite a diversity of content, the museum will stay true to a high set of standards with a “certain eye-for-beauty.” “We will mount shows that make the old and new work together,” she affirmed, illustrating the museum’s commitment to presenting “shows that are worth the wait.”
Lindsay Bosch is an arts and nonprofit administrator who has worked in cultural institutions for over a decade, including the American Library Association, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Chicago Film Festival.