My first real job in the heritage sector was in high school, when I was a volunteer (and then paid) docent at the Vanderbilt Museum on Long Island, NY. As you may be able to gather from the name of the museum, this was originally owned by the Vanderbilt family – descendants of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who built a railroad empire in the United States in the 1800’s (Robehmed 2014). The property now known as the Vanderbilt Museum, originally called the Eagle’s Nest, was built by Cornelius’ great grandson, William K. Vanderbilt II. The Eagle’s Nest was the Vanderbilt summer home, and would eventually serve as storage for much of Willie K. Vanderbilt’s collections from his excursions around the world. Vanderbilt eventually decided to open up a museum in order to display his various specimens and artefacts, starting with the Hall of the Fishes in 1922. During the late 1930’s, Vanderbilt also opened a lower museum of natural history called The Habitat, with the central piece involving a taxidermy whale shark. The entire property eventually became a public museum in 1950, eventually adding artefacts from Charles H. Stoll’s Arctic expeditions (in the aptly named Stoll Wing) and a planetarium. Today, it serves its original purpose with an additional focus on the life of the Vanderbilts, with guided tours and events centred around the private lives of Willie K. Vanderbilt and his family.
The conversion of mansions, or other property from the rich and famous, into museums and other cultural centres is much more of a common occurrence than you’d think. Technically, it falls under the definition of “historic houses” – places of living that are ultimately transformed into heritage centres, and a practice that has its roots in Victorian era philanthropy (Young 2007). Although not all historic houses are spacious mansions as seen at the Vanderbilt Museum, many are – which makes sense. After all, who will have the resources available to transform (to various extremes or not) a living space into a heritage space? The rich and the famous, of course.
And there’s specific baggage that also comes with that – a feeling of being beholden to the people who once owned these properties, who are responsible for the creation of these museums and heritage spaces. Looking back, I think about the ways in which I was trained to talk about Willie K. Vanderbilt as though I knew the guy, like he was a good friend. And how, in retrospect, his entire museum collection reflects a coloniser sensibility – for example, much of the Memorial Wing (dedicated to his only son who died in a car accident) consists of trophies from Vanderbilt’s time in Africa, including both artefacts and hunting trophies. His “ethnographic” collections are mostly from Indigenous peoples, and include the display of human remains. And yet, we were encouraged to emphasise the “coolness” of being a wealthy white settler who owned shrunken heads to our visitors. We openly flaunted his wealth through our guided tours, without critically engaging with how the wealth was made. But its this one form of benevolence, in donating his properties and collections to create a public museum, that overshadows all of this.
This benevolence of the wealthy in the form of heritage cultivation and preservation expands beyond providing the funds and the property for use, of course. How many museums have various wings and exhibitions named after donors? The Sackler Family alone has multiple wings across various institutions: the Met Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, the British Museum, the Guggenheim, the Tate Modern, and many more – although not for long, hopefully, now that they are facing criminal charges for their role in the opioid crisis, which you can learn more about via P.A.I.N. (Cascone 2020).
Ultimately, these historic houses and donor wings illustrate the ways in which capitalism entrenches itself into the collection, preservation, and display of cultural heritage. By yielding power via financial contributions and other resources, wealthy donors can influence the ways in which not only these institutions are developed, but also how their own legacies are remembered. Critical engagement of these “gifts” is vital if we want to make these heritage spaces more progressive – especially if we eventually want to get rid of capitalism along the way as well.
Cascone, S. (2020) After Purdue Pharma Reached a $225 Million Settlement With US Authorities, the Met Says the Name of Its Sackler Wing Is ‘Under Review’. Artnet News. Retrieved from https://news.artnet.com/art-world/sacklers-name-museum-met-1917814
Gress, S. (2015) Eagle’s Nest: The William K. Vanderbilt II Estate. Arcadia Publishing.
Robehmed, N. (2014) The Vanderbilts: How American Royalty Lost Their Crown Jewels. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/natalierobehmed/2014/07/14/the-vanderbilts-how-american-royalty-lost-their-crown-jewels
Young, L. (2007) Is There a Museum in the House? Historic Houses as a Species of Museum. Museum Management and Curatorship 22(1). pp. 59-77.