At the James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home (JWR Home) in Indianapolis, we find ourselves with an exciting opportunity. We just built a new Visitors Center. Our Home has been open to the public since 1922, and for over ninety-years our visitors have enjoyed the opportunity to see the original furnishings, carpeting, books, and personal possession of James Whitcomb Riley and the family that shared their home with him. We offer them a unique experience, a chance to step into a time capsule of an upper-class, Victorian Home.
What we could never offer them, however, was a convenient place to use the restroom. If our guests needed to go, we directed them to the “little orange house” near the alley that runs behind the museum. We had no place where visitors could get a closer look at the Home’s wonderful collections, or sit to learn more about James Whitcomb Riley and his Victorian World. All that changed in June this past year when we opened our brand new Billie Lou Wood Visitors Center. Now we have two large event spaces, an interactive digital display, built in display cases, and actual modern bathroom facilities. After watching our beautiful new building rise up out of a hole in the ground, we then had to answer the question “What do we do with all this space?” We asked ourselves:
- Do we want to bring in larger tour groups of adult and students? Yes
- Do we want to create more displays on Mr. Riley that showcase our collection in new and interesting ways? Yes.
- Should we host more events, lectures, and performances that tie into his story as well as the history of Victorian Indiana? Of course!
- Should we offer the space for those who want to host their own events in the beautiful setting of our Historic Home and neighborhood? Absolutely.
After answering these questions we started to feel slightly overwhelmed. What we realized is that we had the opportunity to redefine and expand the mission of the James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home. Before, our mission was to preserve the Museum Home and celebrate the life and legacy of James Whitcomb Riley. While preserving the home will always remain at the heart of our mission, now we have the space to become a dynamic part of the Indianapolis cultural community as well.
It’s no secret that changes in cultural attitudes towards historic homes have forced us to confront some hard realities. In order to stay relevant, house museums must work harder than ever before to engage their communities. Our institutions have to grow into destinations, places where individuals can come to connect with history and with each other. The brick building we built next to our 143-year old Home is more than a Visitor Center. It’s our laboratory where we can experiment with building lasting connections between the community and the history that permeates the JWR Home. It’s a daunting opportunity, but one that will allow our site to become more than an interesting old home. The JWR Home can evolve into a dynamic destination and an integral part of the Indianapolis community. It’s a change I think all historic homes will have to address if we want to preserve our beautiful homes, and make them relevant to subsequent generations.
— Chris Mize works at the James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home in Indianapolis, Indiana. He earned a MA in Public History from Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).