The Driehaus Museum

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Brigid Maniates

Published on March 17, 2013 , Modified on March 18, 2013

  • Description:

    The Richard H. Driehaus Museum has one of the best museum locations in the city of Chicago. Situated right off the Magnificent Mile on Erie, it stands next to the College of Surgeons building. The central location allows for tourists and residents of the city to easily find and access it. The museum even has an elevator that spans all the floors of the museum, very rare in most house museums.

    However, the physical ease of getting to the museum does not negate the difficulty in understanding the purpose of the museum or its collection. The mission statement states the museum was founded by Driehaus to “influence today’s built environment by preserving and promoting architecture and design of the past.”1 How the museum hopes to promote this vision is not stated, nor who is supposed to be influenced. The museum succeeds neither at being a house museum, or a place to display the Louis Comfort Tiffany Collection of Richard Driehaus.

    As a house museum, the objects displayed should facilitate an understanding of the Nickerson family and life during the Gilded Age. As a place to display beautiful objects, in essence a sculpture museum, there should at least be an initial orientation to the artist and his or hers designs. Instead, within the museum both were sorely lacking. Many, but not even all, of the rooms have a single sign naming the room and often pointing to one or two interesting elements, such as wallpaper or an excellently carved piece. Even though Tiffany pieces were displayed in many of the main floor rooms, they went without being interpreted, let alone identified.

    That begs the question, who exactly is supposed to be the audience of the museum; an erudite consumer of Gilded Age domestic wares, or novices? The public that is served by the Driehaus Museum is limited by the display and interpretation practices of the institution. The displays and interpretation do not provide modes of entry for those who are not intimately acquainted with a house of this period, or innately enamored by how the building looks. The signs in each room do not provide points of entry to the collection, instead delivering only technical terms and proper names of furniture companies. That information, though useful and interesting to those “in the know,” creates barriers to those who are less informed.

    The museum has numerous opportunities to actually facilitate multiple points of entry into their collection, but instead seems not to choose to use them. As a museum educator, I saw many ways that the Driehaus Museum could embrace the variety of information housed within it. I have personally seen the way that visitors of all ages engage with content through a variety of channels, often those tailored to their own interests. Making the museum relevant to its visitors should be of fundamental importance. For example, the preservation process took five years to complete, so an exhibit, display case, or any information on that process could be an excellent gateway for those interested in the technical aspect of preservation. For students, it would be nice to provide information on how the house was used, and compare it to how houses are used now. (How many bedrooms are in your house? Are your living room and dining room connected? Do you think it would be comfortable to sit in this furniture?) For those with an interest in period homes, a description of the collection would be exciting and useful.

    Though I understand the difficulty in providing many points of access, especially in such a small museum, having no access points becomes more of a hindrance than economic prudence. The central location of the museum is its greatest asset; if the content and display practices went beyond the minimal, it could be a “must see” for students, residents of Chicago, and tourists alike. Currently, though it has an amazing collection, it leaves even the most informed visitor feeling adrift.

    1. The Driehaus Museum, http://www.driehausmuseum.org/about/view/about.

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