Historic house museums and communication: a case study of the Irma Stern Museum
This cultural historical study investigates the challenges faced by historic house museums both internationally and in South Africa, and considers the question of whether effective communication could solve these problems. It will focus on interpretation, an important communication process, which forms an essential part of the visitor experience. The Irma Stern Museum, located in the home of the famous South African artist, is used as a case study to provide the context for this investigation. The study also aims to fill a gap in the literature, since to date very little research has been undertaken on house museums in South Africa. Historic house museums have been analysed as a specific museum type consisting of a house and its interior in which a collection consisting of household equipment is displayed in its original context as a home. These tangible aspects of culture are complemented by intangible aspects such as associations with the people who once lived in the house. House museums are found throughout the world. They can be divided into categories, amongst which are personality or hero houses, which celebrate the lives of famous people; they are the biggest category; other categories are collectors’ houses which belonged to collectors, and artwork house museums, which emphasise architectural style. House museums have remarkable educational potential because a home is part of everyone’s experience and they therefore should be very popular places to visit. However, since the 1990s these museums – as well as museums in general – have been facing challenges to their survival, as a result of social and economic changes in society, issues of relevance and lack of funding. As a result the role and function of museums and house museums has moved from being collection-based to visitor-based. This involves museums knowing who their visitors are so that they can effectively communicate with them; the case study is therefore based partly on a visitor survey. The importance of communication, an essential museum function which includes marketing, education, entertainment, exhibitions, interpretation, the visitor experience, and thereby sustainability, is discussed. Museum communication can consist merely of the transfer of information from the curator to the visitor who is a passive recipient as no feedback takes place. In contrast, by using interpretation the curator, through exhibitions and activities, aims to communicate important messages and meanings about the museum to the visitor, who may or may not actively interpret the message. This study explores the ways in which curators interpret house museums: as shrines, through objects in the collections, the context of house and home which includes the period room, and through social history. All these forms of interpretation address notions of authenticity, which is an essential part of the visitor experience. However, the interpretation offered by some house museums has been identified as a major problem, as it is seen as irrelevant and out of touch with the expectations of visitors. This study raises the questions: Do these museums only appeal to specific interest groups? If so, do they have a future in South Africa and internationally?
- Humanities 
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