Living in History: 5 Great House Museums in Washington

Washington's most fascinating house museums allow visitors to relive history by roaming through rooms

Pope-Leighey House Photo by Todd Franson

Pope-Leighey House
Photography by Todd Franson

Maybe you have faded memories from many years or decades ago, of visiting an old house preserved as a museum — a stuffy, drab kind of place both physically and mentally. It felt like a place somewhat lost to time, stuck in a kind of historical coffin of its own design.

Fortunately, most historical house museums today, at least those of any renown, don’t fit that characterization. Even relic-filled places like Colonial Williamsburg have evolved with the times and especially the great strides made in historical preservation over the past couple decades, says Karen Daly, executive director of the Dumbarton House.

During a recent tour through this Georgetown mansion, Daly points to the dining room wall’s bold green paint. “It doesn’t feel very old and historic to most of us,” Daly explains, which is why the walls had been painted white at Dumbarton up until very recently. But a thorough paint analysis confirmed other recent research discoveries that this shade of vibrant green was in fact the room’s wall color two centuries ago. Describing her work as “a constant detective process,” Daly doesn’t allow herself to get too convinced of any one thing. “Something new might come up next week — we might find a smoking-gun letter that says, ‘The dining room was purple!'” Daly adds with a laugh, “That’s how work goes as a historic house museum professional.”

As you can imagine the Washington area is particularly rich in this sector of the museum industry. And it’s a thriving one too, boosted in part by the advances in the field, as well as a sense of growing appreciation for preservation among the general public. And no doubt some are just falling in love with historic house museums in an echo of Daly, who earned a Masters in Museum Education from the George Washington University. “I love all museums,” she says, “but I like how a house museum can very easily bring to life history, and art, for visitors. I think they can immediately access it in a way that you can’t when you just have paintings on a sparse white gallery wall.”

Certainly a visit to any of the following five house museums — scattered on four historic sites in D.C., Maryland and Virginia — will offer a trip to remember.

Doug Rule is a theater critic and contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

Please Leave a Comment