The Curator’s Role in Crowd-Pleasing Events, Part 1: Resource Protection

Each season brings different challenges for curatorial staff at historic house museumsIn the summer, we battle high temperatures and relative humidity, pests, and increased visitation.  In the winter, we deal with cold temperatures and low relative humidity, as well as the pressing question:  what is the best way to decorate your historic house museum for the holidays without jeopardizing the preservation of the house and its contents?    

 Throughout the next couple of weeks, NMSC will present a series of blog posts that tackle this very issue.  In the first post offered here, NMSC Senior Curator Laurel Racine discusses resource protection during holiday events.  We hope that you will find these posts helpful as you strive to balance visitor experience with preservation this holiday season!

[The following post written by Laurel Racine]

Who doesn’t love a festively decorated house complete with food, music, and entertainment thrown wide to the neighborhood?  Of course we all do . . . except maybe when it’s your historic house museum filled with irreplaceable site-associated art and history objects preserved from four generations of the family??

I chat regularly with curators from 80 national parks from Maine to Virginia. I heard often enough about the challenges of planning for holiday events that I created a “Holiday Historic House” information-sharing and support group.  At first we tried to pull back from the holiday theme, but found the main focus in the Northeast Region is truly holiday decorating, most often for Christmas.

Holiday tourism of historic houses is wildly popular as people seek wholesome, family-friendly events during the Christmas season. A well-decorated historic house can connect with people through all their senses and teach them about the past as they enjoy the season’s sights and sounds. While some curators have valid arguments against decorating for the holidays, others have no choice and decorating is a requirement. Then lights, food, music, and entertainment are the natural extensions of the holiday celebration sometimes leading historic sites to relax their policies to further promote the festive feel of the events.

So the challenge for historic house museum staff is to remain focused on the mission, resource protection, and accuracy among all the fun, goodwill, and festivity of holiday events.  Below are some practical thoughts and tips for keeping museum collections and visitors safe.  Future posts will address accuracy, logistics, and revamping a holiday program.


The Lyman Estate in the snow, Waltham, Massachusetts, 2010-2011.  Historic New England property.

The Lyman Estate, Waltham, MA.  Historic New England property.  Image:

  •  Plan ahead for storms because you might need to clear snow and treat ice for visitor safety.
  • Assess exterior and interior lighting to ensure there is adequate illumination for safe access and security of the building after dark.
  • Consider installing a temporary weather vestibule to mitigate the effects of a frequently opening door.
  • Use door mats and floor runners, when safe, to protect floors and rugs from tracked-in snow, gravel, and mud.

Visitor Flow

Tour in Shriver House Museum, Gettysburg, PA.  Image:

Tour in Shriver House Museum, Gettysburg, PA. Image:

  • Manage the number of visitors who can safely and securely be in the building at one time for a quality visitor experience and object safety.
  • Consider floor load, means of egress, visitor proximity to sensitive objects (including wallpaper), size of the smallest space visitors occupy, and sight lines for monitoring visitors.
  • Provide timed tickets or additional entertainment outside the decorated house to alleviate long lines of cold, unhappy people on the doorstep.

Objects at Risk

Staff decorating at Weber County Heritage Foundation, Ogdon, UT.  Image:

Staff carefully decorating at Weber County Heritage Foundation, Ogden, UT. Image:

  • Remember that objects on open display are at heightened risk, especially during the unusual circumstances and increased visitation of holiday events.
  • Move small or fragile objects farther from the visitor path or off exhibit in anticipation of more people in the building.
  • Record any objects moved for safety or to make way for holiday decorations so they do not get lost or misplaced. Photographs can help in replacing objects later.
  • Allow only people trained in object handling to move collection objects in advance of decorators.
  • Make clear that decorators are not to apply any decorations to the building or furnishings with adhesives, nails, or wire.
  • Place Mylar under greens and other decorations to avoid scratching surfaces.


  • Replace burning candles with authentic-looking electric candles.
  • Avoid lighting fires in disused fireplaces because old chimney flues can contain creosote or a crack allowing sparks to contact wood and start a fire.
  • Ensure decorations are made only from fire-retardant materials.
  • Avoid using space heaters.

Pests and Stains

5.  Gov's Refreshments

Realistic artificial food displayed on table at Governor’s Palace, Colonial Williamsburg. Image:  christmas/dec_wmsbgstyle.cfm

  • Serve visitor refreshments only in an ancillary structure to avoid staining and attracting pests.
  • Designate a space for decorators to eat (if needed) and remove food waste as soon as possible.
  • Use realistic artificial food as decorations instead of real fruit, candy, cookies, or nuts.
  • Avoid or actively manage the use of fresh or live plants and flowers in the house.
    • Inspect plants as they arrive for signs of pests or potential to stain.
    • Use only fresh greens (if not using artificial) to minimize falling needles.
    • Cover floors with drop cloths when moving decorations to catch plant material before it drops on rugs or carpets.
    • Place Mylar under floral arrangements to avoid scratching and dampening furniture.

Planning for a holiday event might sound (or feel) like preparing for the seven plagues:  inclement weather, crowds of visitors, broken objects, lost objects, fire, stains, and pest infestations but once the policies are in place and everyone is trained (including management!) it might be possible to enjoy the event as much as the visitors do.


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