Buildings at the waterfront lit up at dusk, Hoai River, Hoi An, Vietnam

Making a Case for House Museums

House museum is the tangible focus for varied meanings and interpretations of historical and contemporary narratives, writes Amareswar Galla.

The concept of a house museum can be contextualised differently depending on the project. There are a diversity of house museums in the world requiring a range of conservation and interpretation strategies. Home and Hearth is an enduring theme for exhibit development in house museums. Often interventions try to locate the microcosm of every day narratives within the broader and mega narratives of museums and heritage places. However, the integration of intangible heritage values in house museum development has rarely been addressed in most parts of the world. Korea and Vietnam provide examples of such holistic safeguarding.

In a recent study of different types of houses and their contents in Hahoe Village, South Korea, I began with several questions.[i] What is the heritage value of house museums in Korean Clan villages? How is the social fabric of the clan village reflected in the architecture, interior design, social coding of both external and internal spaces of different types of houses? How are the spaces between the houses, neighbors and among neighbors delineated? Are the contents adequately researched and addressed in all forms of houses, those that belong to both the Yangban (‘literati’) and so called ‘peasants’? How can we add value to our understanding of clan villages by bringing the fabric of houses and contents, and their associated values together in contemporary Korea?

In assessing heritage values and changing meanings and given the Korean emphasis and movement on complementing the authenticity and integrity of tangible sites with the intangible/living heritage skills, values and traditions, to what extent are Korean heritage houses understood and safeguarded in a holistic manner?

In what ways do domestic and communal rituals, family lineages and kinship relations determine house making and place making, past and present, and illustrate the significance that articulate Korean identity, diversity and community and nation building?

What kind of integrated management and interpretation plans are required to make the house museums economically viable and accessible to multiple publics, especially the younger generations? How are all these questions addressed in the face of rapid industrialization and urbanization in Korea where nearly 90% of the population will soon be living in about 20 cities?

Hahoe Village Heritage HousesImage: At the Hahoe Village, safeguarding historic houses based on integrated management of tangible and intangible heritage elements.

In another study, Hoi An ancient town in Central Vietnam, I found that the very people whose ancestors built the houses in the 18th and 19th Centuries protect them. The district of Hoi An, the ancient Faifo, was also known as Amaravati between the 7th and 12th centuries. It is on the UNESCO World Heritage List as an ‘outstanding material manifestation of the fusion of cultures over time in an international commercial port’ and as ‘an exceptionally well-preserved example of a traditional Asian trading port’.

In the first decade after the World Heritage inscription, approximately 200 government-owned heritage buildings were restored at a total cost of more than $5 million. The municipal government provided 45% of the total funding, while the national and provincial governments contributing 50%. Donor support accounted for 5%. About 1,125 privately owned heritage buildings were repaired by the owners according to the restoration permits that were issued after the owner submitted the developed a plan and budget. Because the cost of restoration of historic buildings is high relative to the income levels of most of the owners of heritage buildings, the municipal government provided partial subsidy for several private conservation projects. Financial assistance was based on the classification of buildings according to heritage values, its location and the economic situation of its owner.

Buildings at the waterfront lit up at dusk, Hoai River, Hoi An, VietnamImage: Safeguarding and adaptive re-use of historic houses in Bach Dang Street on the Thu Bon River in Hoi An.

Annual investment on the restoration of seriously damaged old houses has helped families with financial hardships to commit themselves to protecting the heritage of the ancient town. The municipal government provided three-year loans without interest. In some cases, the local government purchased privately owned heritage buildings from families who have economic difficulties and want to sell their houses. Following renovation, the previous owners could continue to live in the same place at a reasonable rent. This has prevented outside interests from purchasing the properties and has enabled the residents to remain in their homes. Entrance fees to the Ancient Town contribute to funding these interventions.

Several houses and their contents are conserved in Hoi An. Some of them have been converted into well documented museums. In these places the collections and elements of the houses are interpreted for visitors by the owners or their relatives, thus ensuring a continuity of the family narratives. The Homeowners Association ensures responsible and relevant infrastructure development. Active youth groups enable inter-generational transmission of heritage values. Participation of women at all levels of decision making and in entrepreneurial activities ensures women’s and children’s poverty alleviation. The Hoi An case study is exemplary for bringing together culture, health and well-being where valuing heritage informs all walks of life.

In India protection of house museums is subsumed into the wider conservation efforts. They are rarely given the priority that should be accorded to them and their protection. Threats range from real estate speculation to gentrification from inappropriate interventions. But with the rapid urbanization and loss of significant urban neighborhoods there is an urgent need to focus on house museums as signatures of our localities and lifestyles. One could go on classifying house museums within the incredible diversity in India. But there is in general a poverty of discourse in addressing house museums in India.

ChuttiluImage: Rare example of a dilapidated ‘chuttillu’ used as traditional kitchen at the back of houses in Amaravati.

Having worked in Hoi An and Hahoe, I am advocating for grounded and locally developed pathways for house museums in historic towns such as Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh. The organic historical linkages and relationships between the town and the surrounding stakeholder communities and villages need to be addressed as a priority. It will require quality research on both tangible and intangible heritage.

Investment of resources must assist conservation of monuments and heritage houses and promote heritage-sensitive urban infrastructure development.

Private buildings include houses similar to the ones in Hoi An, such as the ones in the Pujari (temple priest) street next to the medieval temple. It has direct access to both the temple and the River Krishna, a sacred pilgrimage waterfront. Several have been demolished to make way for more recent buildings and those that are still intact are in a state of deterioration. But the latter are rarely occupied as the priests are seeking more comfortable houses elsewhere. There are other buildings that illustrate the special social strata including the Vaishya houses. Then there is the house of the main landlord or Zamindar which is intact with historical photos, furniture and cooking to water utensils. The building of the first ginning mill for cotton in the locality and Victorian style houses of the colonial era are under threat.

Two custodians recollecting 40 years of friendship at the entrance to the main hall in the Zamindar’s house in Amaravati.Image: Two custodians recollecting 40 years of friendship at the entrance to the main hall in the Zamindar’s house in Amaravati.

Amaravati, the ancient Dhanyakataka, once the flourishing capital centre in the formation of Andhradesa in the lower River Krishna Valley has several historic houses on the verge of eradication with the neighboring development of the new capital of AP. Civil society engagement is critical for protecting them.

What is sadly lacking is an understanding of the past drawn from rigorous scholarship, professional engagement and safeguarding intangible heritage elements through the carrier and transmitter communities. This malady is symptomatic of India.

Rabid tourism based on marketing without content development has become the biggest threat to historic houses all over India. We are better off re-reading the wisdom in our own Panchatantra stories. Do people still remember the moral of the story about the goose that laid golden eggs?

Chief priest in front of his dilapidated house in the ancient pujari street dating back to the 18th century.Image: Chief priest in front of his dilapidated house in the ancient pujari street dating back to the 18th century.

[i] Galla, A. (2012) ‘Village on the Winding River: Historic Villages of Korea: Hahoe and Yangdong, Republic of Korea,’ and ‘World Heritage in Poverty Alleviation: Hoi An Ancient Town, Vietnam,’ in World Heritage: Benefits Beyond Borders (Ed.) A.Galla, Cambridge University Press and UNESCO Publishing, pp. 230-241; 107-120. (also in French and Korean translations, 2013).

About the Author

Amareswar GallaProfessor Amareswar Galla from India is the founding Executive Director of the International Institute for the Inclusive Museum, Australia and Denmark.


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