Chicago Conference Theme: Modernity Meets History (Special Opportunity Deadline: December 19th)

El tema del congreso de Chicago DEMHIST 2018 está disponible en español AQUI. – Le thème du colloque de Chicago DEMHIST 2018 se trouve en français ICI.

NOTE: The conference has been announced to provide prospective conference attendees the opportunity to think about a potential paper, panel session, or poster they would be willing to develop for an official Call for Proposals deadline to be announced in January with a due date of early March.

Modernity Meets History: Historic House Museums of Today for Tomorrow – October 14-17, 2018  – Chicago, Illinois, USA

The 20th anniversary meeting of the International DEMHIST Committee, to be held in Chicago in 2018 will explore concepts of modernism and modernity as paradigmatic tools for how we explore the collections, narratives, buildings, and public engagement strategies of historic house museums. This theme follows on from the 2017 DEMHIST conference that met around the theme of “relevance.”

Frank Lloyd Wright house in Oak Park, Illinois. Photo: Daniel Ronan

Why explore modernism and its extrapolations for a historic house museum conference? The term modern is not so modern, first being used in the 16th century to describe something “of or pertaining to present or recent times.” Therefore “modern” per se relates to the new and innovative at the time of inception/creation/building: what is historic now was once modern, new and innovative. By defining a specific period of time as “modern”, do we negate the inherent modernity of all innovative houses and buildings? The fluidity of terminology between modern, M/modernism and modernity is fundamental to this question. Also to be considered is the difference between modern and contemporary. Although there is often a conflation of the two, one becomes historic with time and the other does not. How do they differ in the functionality of Historic house museums?


Chicago is the birthplace of American architectural modernism. As the city of the New Bauhaus School’s relocation in 1937 in the lead up to World War II, the city counts among its buildings some of the most reputable architectural resources including the largest number of Ludwig Mies van de Rohe designed buildings in the world, and the works of renowned Chicago-based architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Bertrand Goldberg. Chicago is the springboard from which we will engage in issues of cultural, social, and technological change that affect house museums regardless of the time period and geographic location. Examples of the modern through history include such houses as Hampton Court Palace and it’s forward thinking water systems bringing fresh spring water from over three miles away; Cragside House, Northumberland, built in 1869-1895 by the industrialist Baron William Armstrong and the first house to incorporate hydroelectric power for lighting purposes; or “Modernist” houses such as Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye in Poissy from 1928-31.


Historic house museums represent an unrivaled immersive opportunity for the public to connect with history through the houses and their collections. From artists and writers to royalty and landed gentry, from politicians and robber barons to scientists and inventors, from farmers and clergy, we use the architecture of our dwellings and the stories of people and the places they inhabit as a starting point through which we view ourselves. The history these places embody reflect moments and narratives curators and public engagement professionals seek to make relevant.

Reflecting on the house museum’s relevance as a cultural institution, explored at the London DEMHIST 2017 conference, we are increasingly pushed as museum professionals to contextualize house museums not as isolated institutions, but as a reflection of their broader social and political context and impact. To remain relevant, house museums must bring a modern sensibility, identity, and dialogue to their formerly contemporary, once modern-day houses. In this process, the meaning of house museums continues to be deconstructed and reconstructed. We value the history of the historic house, while questioning whether examining modernity as a consideration in the construction of a house, its collection, and its interpretation, creates a space through which we can understand and influence the future of the house museum field.

Alexander Calder sculpture in the Loop, Chicago. Photo: Daniel Ronan


The conference will be organized around the following themes as they apply to modern/ism/ity and modern thinking in the historic house museum context. The questions under each theme seek to begin a conversation about how these ideas may be explored through four conference formats: paper panel-sessions, lightning talks, debates, and posters on academic and practitioner-based subjects. The questions provided are suggestive as we seek to explore the conference theme.

Modernity as viewed through Society & Politics

How do house museums reflect and communicate national and social identity? Considering the role of some house museums as symbols of power or dissent, how can house museums present these ideologies in an inclusive manner when engaging a varied local and tourist based public?

Modernity as viewed through Architecture & Technology

How have house museums reflected architectural trends and new technologies? What developments in architecture and technology have deepened our understanding of house museums? What advancements in architecture and technology inform our understanding of these spaces?

Modernity as viewed through Arts, Culture & the Humanities

How can historic house museums reflect modern understandings of art, culture, and the humanities? What is the role of the house museum in interpreting the use of the arts, culture, and humanities as a form of intervention in the home?

Modernity & the Future House Museum

Do concepts of modernity provide a lens through which to view today’s house museums? Do they contain ideas that can be adopted to help shape (house) museum institutions of the future? How can a modern lens inspire future approaches through which we can examine the effectiveness of the house museum?

(NOTE: The date is in 2017, a previous version stated the wrong year.) 

The Chicago DEMHIST 2018 conference has been approved to submit a full application for the Terra Foundation for American Art’s new Art Design Chicago initiative. This initiative seeks to highlight Chicago as a global center for art and design, illuminating the narratives of artists and designers from around the world and their connection to Chicago.

As a part of this exciting initiative, the Chicago DEMHIST 2018 host committee, in partnership with the Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios Program (a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation) is organizing a panel showcasing the interpretive techniques of modernism at four house museum sites. The panel will address the artists or architects and major works of art and design present at each house museum which express aspects of the modernity of their time, in addition to their relationship to the influence of Chicago as an international art and design center.

Two additional panelists will be selected to join the Roger Brown Study Collection, located in the heart of Chicago, and the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens, the site of the sculptor’s home in Winter Park, Florida, in a lively discussion on modernism in historic house museums. At this time, the host committee is soliciting house museums outside of the United States.

The panel will focus on how artists’ and house museum ties to Chicago relate to the larger definitions of modernity in terms of art and design, and if and how staff at these museums convey these related narratives through their interpretation or programming – and why.

The host committee seeks house museums where the artist/designer/architect associated with the museum had a connection to Chicago. Some connections may include:

  • Studied or studied with someone who studied or taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago or the Illinois Institute of Technology
  • Major commission or work(s) in Chicago – architecture, outdoor sculpture, murals, etc.
  • Extended stay or habitation in Chicago
  • Connections to or affinity with concepts of modernism as represented by individuals such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, or Mies van der Rohe
  • Influence of artistic practice by tenets of Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, or Mies van der Rohe

The deadline in order to participate in this special opportunity, which, if the grant is successful, will include full conference registration for panel participants, is December 19, 2017. If interested, please email Daniel Ronan, Chair of the Chicago DEMHIST 2018 Host Committee, at

Additional special opportunities will be made available on this website as they may become available. 

Comments are closed.