This exclusive interview with John Blades, Executive Director of the Flagler Museum Whitehall was conducted by Nicola Linza and Cristoffer Neljesjö in Palm Beach during November 2010
For those who have not had the privilege yet to visit Flagler Museum (aka Whitehall,) please briefly describe it and the significance it holds for both Palm Beach and the Nation.
Originally the winter home of Henry Morrison Flagler, a founding partner in Standard Oil, today Whitehall (the Flagler Museum) is a National Historic Landmark visited by millions from around the world since it was opened to the public more than half a century ago. Whitehall was designed in the Beaux Arts tradition by Carerre and Hastings and was completed in 1902. The design was meant to evoke the sense that one was approaching a temple to the sun god Apollo. In keeping with the untamed or Bacchanalian world one expected to find surrounding a temple to Apollo, the grounds around Whitehall are not formal or highly manicured. In fact originally, Whitehall was situated in a coconut grove. Further reinforcing that temple concept, as one approaches Whitehall there are two very large marble urns carved with Bacchanalian scenes. Appropriately, the building's massive Doric columns face the east and Lion heads (ancient symbols of the sun) are the central feature of it's huge bronze doors. Just in side the bronze doors lies the largest room in any Gilded Age home of the period, the Grand Hall, which is nearly 5,000 square feet. Everywhere the Grand Hall and throughout the first floor of Whitehall there are symbols and references to Apollo's Muses of arts and literature. In the truest sense of the word, Whitehall was indeed built as home for the Muses and was thus Florida's first museum.
Preservation and continual exhibitions and events are always an issue for any museum, taking climactic conditions into consideration both the Florida climate and the general economy how does this play into the scheme of things at Flagler? And in terms of physical preservation with the amount of antiques, marble and gilding at Flagler exemplifying some of the finest architectural detailing of any grand house in the country, what is the greatest challenge to the building and the archives? In terms of both maintenance and upkeep?
Preserving a National Historic Landmark, like Whitehall, and keeping it open to the public is extremely challenging. A colleague of mine once remarked, ""Running a house museum is not rocket science. It's harder than rocket science!" And, he was right!
During the late 19th century American business titans made sense their astonishing wealth (mostly the result of new technologies) as a Darwinian product of thousands of years of western cultural development that was finally fully realized in this "New World" where individual freedom and capitalism produced technological wonders that seemed destined to free the average person from the daily drudgery of survival allow each person to live up to their potential. For business titans like Flagler and Carnegie, who came from extremely humble origins, their lives seemed to be proof that finally America was, or at least was destined to be, the full realization of western cultural development. Furthermore, they believed that the traits that suited them to be leaders in business suited them to be society's leaders as well and as such they began to see themselves as Trustees of the Nation's wealth. They readily adopted businessman and philanthropist, Peter Cooper's view that, "The purpose of business is to make money. The purpose of life is to do good." Their approach was to apply the lessons learned when they created the corporate world to doing good by created a parallel nonprofit corporate world that's mission was to do good, rather than to make money. And, then to plow the bulk of the huge fortunes they had made in the for-profit corporate world into their new nonprofit corporate world.
More than a century later, no American pays the actual cost to visit a museum, attend a classical music concert, enroll in a university, or enjoy opera or a play. All of those cultural and educational activities, and many more, are largely underwritten, even today, by investments made by those 19th century titans of business. As a result, Americans have access to education and cultural opportunities the likes of which never seen before - anywhere else on earth or anywhere else in time.
So then, why should running a house museum, or any other kind of museum be that difficult? The difficulty lies in the short-term memory of we Americans. We've all grown up with these wonderful opportunities, having long forgotten how they came about and how it all works. While we happily spend more than $80 to visit a theme park, we are unaware and cannot imagine that, on average, it actually costs about $55 per visitor to a museum, yet no museum charges anything like what it actually costs. In fact, we often crumble if admission to a museum is more than a few dollars. The challenge all museums face, particularly those like Whitehall, that represent the wealth of American both culturally and monetarily, is to educate visitors, the community, and potential members and donors about America's tradition of business and individual philanthropy in hopes they continue the tradition that has underwritten so many cultural opportunities for all of society, and one hopes, will continue to. In the case of Whitehall, the daily cost to operate the Museum is about $13,500 - seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.
There are a great many challenges to preserving and operating a museum like Whitehall. This public trust is charged with preserving Whitehall for hundreds of years to come, which means that dozens of things, big and small, must be done right every day and from one administration to the next. But we humans, particularly we humans of the American persuasion, find it very difficult to maintain that kind of daily focus over any length of time. The only hope, it seems to me, lies in visionary leadership from generation to generation by both the Governing bodies and directors.
Here in Florida, the greatest challenge to long-term preservation, beyond the day-to-day care of the building and collections, is high humidity. Consequently in 1999 the Museum invested in a state-of-the art climate control system that maintains an interior climate of 73 degrees F and 55% relative humidity year 'round. The climate control system is the most sophisticated in the Southeast and its operation and maintenance are very expensive.
As executive director (and coming with experience at another major house museum Hearst Castle (aka San Simeon,) what changes if any have you seen occur in the house museum environment in the past two decades?
There are about 20,000 museums nationwide. Of those, about 16,000 are house museums. House museum are far and away the most typical kind of museum, but most are small and volunteer-driven. And, nearly all struggle to find the considerable resources needed to operate even at the minimum level. Most are far too dependent on admissions income, which as we have already seen cannot be expected to cover anymore than a small fraction of the operating costs. Over the last two decades the situation has grown even more challenging as attendance to historic sites nationwide has declined. The constant strain and lack of sufficient resources has meant that the majority of house museums have turned themselves inside out trying to bring in more visitors and in doing so they risk losing the integrity and identity that makes them appealing. The fact is that it is far too easy to establish a house museum and extremely difficult to actually sustain one. In my opinion, a great many house museums cannot be sustain themselves over a long period and therefore will not survive, at least as museums.
In terms of exhibitions what is your vision for Flagler Museum today? And going into the future.
Of course, the Museum and its collections will always be the primary exhibition. However, the Museum mounts two temporary exhibitions each year that are intended to augment the visitors' understanding of America's Gilded Age. The era was so prolific that there are more potential subjects for exhibitions than the Museum could ever exhaust. The current exhibition is on Addison Mizner and his influence on Palm Beach. The Winter exhibition, which will open February 1, 2011, will feature the work of Joseph Urban.
If you could visit one spot this week where would it be? And why?
I would love to go back to October of this year to see the temporary reinstallation of Alva Vanderbilt's collection of Medieval and Renaissance paintings, sculptures, ceramics and decorative works original to Marble House in Newport, RI, which were removed 80 years ago and will not likely be seen again in that environment. But alas, I missed it!
The above interview with John Blades 2010 © Manner of Man Magazine/Welldressed. All rights reserved. Reproduction is strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher. -