Monday, October 12, 2015

A house is not a museum

Your house is part of a community. A museum is a place you visit to see art and artifacts.

That was my reaction last week when the leadership of George Eastman House announced a rebranding of its facility and website, rechristening itself the George Eastman Museum. The announcement said "museum" helped differentiate the place for European visitors, for whom "house" meant "institute."

Eastman's house? Viewed from East Avenue, it's a stunning mansion built by the founder of Eastman Kodak Company, who died in 1932. A more-modern museum, film archive, and research department is attached to the back of the original mansion. 
Drawing Room, George Eastman House, Rochester, NY. (c) DKassnoff, 2010.

I'm debating whether the name change means more than a PR move. "House," to me, meant more than "museum." It says that George lived there -- made his big decisions about business, life, and death. (At an advanced age and in poor health, he took his own life in his bedroom.) Rochester and New York state have plenty of museums, but few visitors assume the historical figures whose works are on display ever lived there.

The Eastman house's director apparently isn't a fan of such dwellings. In his first months at the helm, he took on a very public joust against a local developer who bought property adjoining Eastman's. The developer wanted to build apartments and had zoning laws on his side. The developer won, and the director spent some political capital before getting stakeholders on his side.

He doesn't care for apartments next door. He doesn't care to call Eastman's place a house. But perceptions often are reality. It's a house with galleries, gardens, and archives, and it sits next to an apartment structure. That sounds like a neighborhood to me.

I hope I'm wrong about this, and George Eastman Museum gains a larger following. 

In my corporate life, I spent hours explaining to journalists that George's house was not "the Kodak museum." This name change isn't going to alter that perception, either.