At a Glance: Preservation, Conservation, and Restoration in the Historic Southern Home

Over the course of the WPAMC 2016 Southern field trip, the class learned different philosophies that museum professionals employ to interpret historic properties. Although there are certainly industry “best practices” that appeared again and again, it seems the delivery of history to visitors is dictated as much by personal choice as protocol. While some institutions favored strict preservation, some used restoration, others liked reproduction best, and many institutions used combination approaches. Although no approach is correct or wrong, it is interesting to compare the effect of each on the visitor experience.

Drayton Hall in Charleston, South Carolina.

At Drayton Hall the furnishings have been removed, and everything is preserved. Even vandalism from late nineteenth-century looters!

Drayton Hall in Charleston, South Carolina.  The house is unfurnished and everything is preserved–even vandalism from nineteenth-century looters!

Built in 1738, Drayton Hall in Charleston, SC is an example of a property with a preservation philosophy. The home is unfurnished and the staff at Drayton Hall have taken great care not to add to or change the aesthetic of the home.  Although in some places the plaster molding may be broken or the paint peeling, action is only taken to stabilize deterioration never to rebuild or replace. Using this approach allows visitors to see the original building materials and to understand the effects of time on the structure.

Prestwould Plantation in Clarksville, Virginia

In Prestwould's main salon sections of restored wallpaper and finishes mingle with untouched surfaces.

Above: Prestwould Plantation in Clarksville, Virginia.  Below: In Prestwould’s entry hall, sections of restored paint and finishes mingle with untouched surfaces.

Ideally, every historic home would be perfectly preserved without need for intervention. Realistically however, this can seldom be the case. Prestwould Plantation in Clarksville, VA was erected in 1795 and strikes a balance between preservation and restoration. At Prestwould much of the furnishings are original but fully or partially restored to a like-new appearance. This allows viewers to visualize both the original appearance and the appearance after aging.

Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina


Above: the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC.  Below: this cut velvet wallpaper at Biltmore is a modern reproduction.  The original was removed to save it from further damage.

Some historic properties, however, do not have the luxury of original furnishings, or have circumstances which prevent their use. Completed in 1895, George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore, in Asheville, NC has many rooms furnished with reproductions. By using reproductions instead of originals, visitors can still experience the original aesthetic, but fragile objects can be protected in climate and light controlled spaces for future generations to enjoy.

The various approaches seen on the southern trip provided WPAMC Fellows with the chance to explore different methods of interpreting historic spaces for visitors. Which is your favorite method and why? Leave a comment below!


By Kristen Semento, WPAMC Class of 2017

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *