This research series written by Natalie Baerselman le Gros will explore the David Parr House in its journey from private space to public institution. In doing so we allow a rare insight into the various considerations and contemplations of this fledgling space including matters of conservation, the presentation of various histories and methods of public dissemination. 

Presenting the House Museum

The phenomenon of the house museum relies on the spaces’ role as a home. However, one house is rarely home to only one person or peoples before it is made public. Many of our great national houses are typical of this, having been lived in for centuries before being opened to the public. Locally, for example, the Wimpole Hall site has been inhabited in some manner since Doomsday times. The house we see today was home to numerous families since 1650 until it was donated to the National Trust in 1976 by another Elsie. There are notable exceptions to this for example, another local institution, Kettle’s Yard House, designed for public consumption from the off. The House Museum is a complex space telling multiple stories, following numerous timelines on many overlapping layers. These spaces incubate the lives and memories of the families that inhabit them, they map the history of the property, its renewal of ownership, its evolving footprint, bending to technological development. For the public-making of such a complex space to be successful and comprehensible it is typical for an institution to choose a single significant narrative to represent within the property and to the general public.

Number 186 was the home of David Parr for 40 years, from 1887 to 1927. As you walk through his house you can feel his influence, his fingerprints on every surface, his creativity in every sunlit room. He brought the ornamental style of the grand houses and public buildings that he worked on, to the quaint spaces of this Cambridge terrace. Here he lived with his wife Mary Jane, of whom little is known, until his death in 1927. The house is his life’s work, his catalogue raisonné, evidence of exquisite skill and keen aesthetic sentience. However, the house was also home to David’s granddaughter Elsie, who we know moved into 186 after his death to care for her grandmother. Subsequently the house cradled Elsie’s own family, including her two daughters, for an even greater length of time. Through-out that near century one would expect significant alteration considering the vast changes in fashions and trends throughout that period and the hosting of so many new personalities. However, the house’s artistic significance endures and succeeds the temptations of new bold interior design trends. That is not to say that Elsie and her family are invisible or silent residents in Number 186’s history. Her presence is felt just as keenly throughout the house, not only in its mere existence today but through her own subtle additions. For example: in the dark-toned over painting in the hallway and floral wallpapers in her daughter’s rooms; in more mundane trappings such as modern telephone lines, doorbells and guttering. Also in her belongings: her coat hangs in the hallway, a score sits on the piano, her wedding photo is framed on the wall. These personal touches evoke the activities of everyday life perhaps hanging up her coat as she returns from a visit to the local shops or teaching her children to play the piano.

The melding of these two world’s, David’s and Elsie’s, epitomises the overlapping nature of the House Museum. The significance of the David Parr House, as discussed in a previous blog post, is the product of David’s own creativity. As a result, if its current custodians were to chose a narrative to present to the public, the logical decision would be that of David Parr. However, to make this decision disregards Elsie’s role as protector, caretaker and conservator of her grandfather’s creation. Significance also lies in Elsie’s maintenance of Parr’s spectacular interiors and her adaptation of those spaces as her daily lived environment. Rarely do we see such significant evidence of the lived quality of a house museum, despite that being what separates it from the traditional museum. To return to an earlier example, in the public-making of the Kettle’s Yard house, Helen’s bedroom (Ede’s wife) was closed from public viewing, the only private space in the house. Today its aesthetic has been manipulated to match the rest of the house and thus it has been opened to the public. Therefore, at Kettle’s Yard there is a problematic dichotomy of public and private and thus the imagined functional liveability of the house. The Parr House, in this early public state, is the most honest version of a house museum. We can see how Elsie has been forced to update the space for modern comforts and technological advancement. We can see aesthetic choices she has made as a resident, accommodating her family. Amongst all this we see reverence of the past, conservation of creative marvels, and the protection of family legacy.

Defining the House Museum…

The House Museum is a steadfast feature in the cultural landscape. It forms the backbone of many renowned tourism institutions, such as the National Trust and English Heritage. Although not without exception, the House Museum is often a formerly private residence, posthumously opened to the previously uninvited public for their exploration. In spaces imbued with the actions, events and memories of past inhabitants, these ‘Homes’ (as distinct from ‘Houses’) offer the visitor a view to a way of life, or a certain person’s way of life. This presentation is concerned with the communication of narrative and creating an air of authenticity in order to facilitate a tangible experience of a time gone by, relatable to one’s own existence. Said House is often noteworthy in some manner, perhaps once home to an important figure or the place of some momentous event. This connection lends the House a significance that deems it not only worthy of being made publically accessible and preserved for future generations but also of its partnering with the term ‘Museum’. This significance is often characterised as its ‘Spirit of Place’.

The ‘Spirit of Place’ is a largely woolly term, employed excessively by the likes of the National Trust as exemplary of a property’s significance. Aside from the term forming the first principle in the National Trust’s conservation manifesto, under the umbrella of ‘significance’, it is often applied with little to no definition or explanation. In most instances it serves as a justificatory term that goes little further than to say there is just ‘something about the place’, perhaps an anglicised derivative of ‘Je ne sais quoi’…

The David Parr House differs from what might be considered a ‘typical’ House Museum in that it is not the home of a famous artist, historical character or aristocratic figure. The house is not exemplary of spectacular architecture, bygone or contemporary. Nor is it the site of an important meeting, a scientific discovery or meaningful event. Its uniqueness, its significance, is derived from its normality, its everyday relatable nature. The visitor can revel in the familiarity of this house, it differs little from their own. David Parr was an artist of extraordinary talent yet a man of ordinary nature. His home, no grander than mine or yours, was transformed through his vision into something of a treasure trove. We are used to the grand estates of the National Trust, the enviable acres of English Heritage but the David Parr House is unexpected, a physically manifested juxtaposition between the unassuming outside and the incredible inside. Here-in lies the root of the House’s ‘Spirit of Place’ and the justification for its conservation and protection for present and future generations.

The core fundamental characteristic of the ‘House Museum’ is not made obvious in its title, yet it is one that is similarly fundamental to the David Parr House and which defines its significance. Its most crucial feature lies in another juxtaposition, that is, both the union and opposition of House and Home. This juxtaposition designates the House as a vessel, an object whilst the Home implies inhabitation on a personal level. It is the conveyance of a sense of homeliness that makes a House Museum a success. Jim Ede, the father of Kettle’s Yard, attempted to craft homeliness to promote the appreciation of art in everyday life. Whatever you feel about Ede’s success in this, the David Parr House is undeniably a shining example. 

It is indeed the comforting homely-ness of the David Parr House, its believable live-ability amongst the exquisite decoration, which makes it significant and distinct from the typical House Museum. It is an admirable ideal of what all similar institutions strive for, yet it is exemplary of what is all too often lost in the public-making of a space. However, I believe this home’s enviable raw materials pose a bright future for the David Parr House.

Natalie Baerselman le Gros is a graduate of Central Saint Martins and the University of East Anglia. Her interests lie in the phenomenon and formation of the House Museum and its potential as an exhibitory and communicative space.

Read more by Natalie at www.artifactuality.tumblr.com or follow @natalielegros on Twitter.