National News

Old Salem's new, controversial president is changing the way people experience history

Posted July 27

— He's outspoken. He's opinionated. He's unconventional. He's controversial.

He's also the person the restored Moravian town of Old Salem has picked to keep the place relevant to 21st century visitors.

Frank Vagnone is an architect, author, designer, sculptor, painter, blogger and Old Salem's 11th president. He started work at Old Salem in March 2017 after overseeing the operations of 23 house museums in New York City as executive director of the Historic House Trust.

He grew up familiar with Old Salem, having visited when he was a Tar Heel Junior Historian in the late 1970s while growing up in Charlotte.

"And I remember the cookies and the maple trees being red and things like that," he told me during a recent interview in his new home -- which happens to be the oldest home in Old Salem, The Fourth House.

Vagnone's also a nationally-recognized expert on historic home museums and heritage sites. But his blunt approach to keeping those sites relevant hasn't won him any favors. That approach is the focus of his book, "Anarchist's Guide To Historic House Museums," which is well into its third printing.

"I've had people call me a menace. I've had people call me an idiot. I've had people get up and walk out of my lectures," he said. "When the book was published, I was called 'the seven-headed dragon of the apocalypse for history.'"

None of that criticism came from Old Salem's Board of Trustees, which embraced Vagnone's anarchist or going-against-the-established-rules approach.

"The true anarchy is that the traditional model of preservation is you care about the building, then the collections and then you eventually get down to the people and the experience. So people and experience are way down at the bottom," he said.

"Well, the anarchy is that I flipped the pyramid. The most important things to me are the people -- both the visitors and the staff -- and then the experience of the visitors."

Vagnone says this is accomplished by -- among other things -- not letting a plexiglass barrier separate visitors from a piece of furniture, not finding a rope chain blocking you from feeling the heat of a fireplace, or not putting up a sign that says, "Don't lie on the bed."

That doesn't mean he's against plexiglass, rope chains and signs.

"Do I want to break George Washington's Windsor chair?" he asked. "No. But it could be kind of cool to have a reproduction of George Washington's Windsor chair right next to it in the context of the parlor so that I can sit there and experience the tactile, kinesthetic quality of sitting in the chair."

This "experience" is so important to Vagnone, he even spent the night in the Salem Tavern last December using the fireplaces and candlelight -- just like a visitor would have done in colonial times.

For a photo gallery of what Vagnone calls his "One-Night Stand" at the Tavern, click here.

"If you can't engage the environment, you cannot feel a part of it," he told me.

Vagnone and his team are busy critiquing Old Salem's historic buildings, displays and museums to see if and how the visitor experience can be improved. Stay tuned! He says this Christmas will be unlike anything ever experienced in the village.

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