Paint by (Museum Visitor) Numbers at the American Gothic House Center

Give anyone a pitchfork and stand them in front of an old-looking house, and you’ve got the pieces for an acceptable version of Grant Wood’s American Gothic. But for some people, this homage to the iconic painting isn’t enough. Each year, 15,000+ people make the trip to Eldon, Iowa, to actually stand in front of the house that Grant Wood referenced in the painting, now the American Gothic House Center. What happens when a museum in a town with a population of 927 receives 15,000 visitors from over 57 countries?

Gothic House and Center American Gothic House Center (foreground) and the Dibble House, the original house painted in the painting (background). Image courtesy of the American Gothic House Center

The AGHC is actually two buildings. One is called the Dibble House (as it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places) because Catherine and Charles Dibble built it in 1881-82, and the adjacent building holds exhibits about the history of the house, Grant Wood, the painting and its parodies. When visitors arrive at the AGHC they receive props and clothing to stage their own portraits, a feature that diverges from the typical museum experience. Holly Berg, the Director and sole full-time staff member, explains, “it comes off as fun and goofy but is also an immersive, educational experience. I also think this is a great way to reach people who might not feel comfortable in what they think constitutes a museum.”

Gothic Couple AGKids
Adults and children posing in front of the Dibble House.
Photos courtesy of the American Gothic House Center.

This welcoming attitude is one of the primary reasons for the museum’s popularity. Volunteers greet visitors and make them feel at home immediately upon arrival. People learn about the painting in a friendly way, even learning some little-known facts about the work (Did you know that the gothic-revival windows were likely purchased from a Sears catalogue or that Grant Wood mimicked the pitchfork shape in the stitches of the bib-front overalls?). But the AGHC also draws visitors because of its place on people’s bucket lists of destinations. Recently a woman with stage 4 terminal cancer, who was told she only had a few months left to live, rerouted a flight, rented a car and visited the museum. Few museums can claim the same kind of appeal.

FruitsLithoHiRes Fruits (1939) Grant Wood In the collection of the American Gothic House Center.

As with many small museums, it’s all hands on deck when it comes to operations. Holly, who is a graduate of the Western Illinois University museum studies program, started in 2011 after finishing school. She and a part-time staff member rely heavily on their 30-40 volunteers to greet visitors, help people who want their photograph taken, and keep the museum running smoothly. While they have no problem getting people to the museum, their modest budget (a $10,000 endowment) means they struggle with engaging visitors, especially local townspeople who are already familiar with the museum. Holly recently had small tablets put into the exhibits to play videos and added a QR code outside to serve people who come when the museum is closed. The museum also just acquired its first piece of art by Grant Wood, a still-life lithograph of fruits in a basket from 1939, which will no doubt be a highlight for future visitors.

Like many museums, the AGHC’s modest budget doesn’t prevent the staff and volunteers from dreaming big. Holly dreams of adding art classes for children, since the AGHC is one of the only museums in the region, and more seating so people can relax and enjoy themselves while visiting. She also hopes to add more content to the website and possibly purchase another Grant Wood piece in addition to maintaining the regular operations of the museum.

A lot of thought was put into Wood’s classic painting and a lot of thought is put into the museum. If you would like to help out the AGHC buy something from their online gift shop (my favorites are the Retire-Mints or the Magnetic Dress Up Figures) or make a donation via PayPal. If you would like to know more about the AGHC visit their website or better yet, make your way to Eldon, Iowa to experience a truly unique piece of American culture.


Christian Hernandez is the Plinth contributor for the Central Region and an independent contractor for museums and cultural institutions in the US and Canada.