Writers’ House Museums

Rita Capurro (University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy)

Writers’ house museums, in the subdivision of museum types, are identified as house-museums and literary museums. The first category includes different types of museums with the defining, fundamental characteristic to represent and preserve the home living dimension. In the context of house museums, writers’ house museums belong to the category of personality houses (Bryant & Behrens, 2007). This broad context includes the houses of artists, musicians, politicians, military heroes, and many others. At the same time, writers’ house museums are also the most consistent examples of literature museums and, as such, at the core of their mission is their relevance as places of artistic creation and their representation through objects and documents of the intertwining of life and literature.

As Dekiss underlines (2009: 783), the musicalized writers’ houses have the strength to use the museum's professional competencies, joined with literature knowledge, to manage the encounter between a writer and an audience of readers and non-readers. The writers’ houses give the possibility to find the connections between the writers and their work but also with the society of their times and the environment. Moreover, the writer’s house can help to understand the author’s idea of the world, his/her human reality, and the connections between his/her work and his/her life. In a nutshell, it can be said that the task of the curators of a writer’s house museum is to “illuminate the […] man and his works” (Parker 1986: 26).

The transformation of writers’ dwellings into museums has developed steadily since the last quarter of the 19th century, and the fortunes of museums since the 1980s have led to a considerable increase and spread of this type of museum. We can recognise in the United Kingdom the initial impulse to visit writers’ houses in the 1840s. The two-volume book by Howitt, Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent British Poets (1847) is considered the pioneer of travel literature linked to writers. The first writer’s house museum in modern terms is the Burns Cottage and Museum, founded in Alloway in 1881 (Booth 2016: 43). Writers’ house museums are spread all over the world. Meaningful examples are in Russia, in the U.S.A., and in many other countries. In France, the phenomenon of musealisation of a great number of writers’ houses started in the late 1980s (Fabre 2021: 172), as well as in Italy, where the musealised houses of writers are about one hundred (Guarino, 2020).

Sometimes, houses fully retain their original aspect, especially when they became museums close to the time of their use by the artist. In these cases, the sense of homely insight helps the visitor to feel closer to the writer in the intimate dimension of the home environment. Often the visits to such places are described as pilgrimages, to recall the sense of sacred in a place touched by an outstanding personality (Hendrix, 2008: 1); the most relevant case of this kind of secular worship, especially for its importance in determining the National Poet in the UK, is the birthplace of William Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon (Thomas, 2012). In the case of writers, it is common to consider the focus of the visit to the writer’s studio (i.e., Casa di Manzoni in Milan, Casa Museo di Luigi Capuana in Mineo, CT) the place where the literary creation was born (Plachta, 2008: 45).

The reasons why furnishings and heirlooms belonging to the writer have shrunk or disappeared altogether depend on many factors ranging from ownership changes to dispersal related to the passage of time. In some circumstances, especially when it comes to writers who lived a long time ago, the writer’s living dimension is reduced to the walls and the narrative thread of the museum is constructed through selected elements that help to delineate their figure and work. For example, in the House Museum of Ludovico Ariosto in Ferrara, only a chair and a cast of the artist’s inkwell are the original objects pertaining to the house (Guarino, 2020: 14). The rest of the house can represent the narrative of the writer through different documents and objects not originally belonging to the house but collected and put on display.

There are several types of writers’ houses, depending on ownership, length of the writer's stay, and relationship to the literary work. Regarding ownership, these museums can be state-owned, local authority-owned or privately owned. The support of these institutions by the state determines their dissemination and promotion. In some cases, such as in the United Kingdom, the high number of writers’ houses open to the public also depends on the desire to strengthen national culture (Watson, 2006; Young, 2015: 237). According to Watson, “In nations actively developing national heritage as a political priority – for example, Norway, South Africa, Hungary, Ukraine, Taiwan, China – writer’s house museums are similarly showing signs of being seen as a way of asserting national cultural capital and international visibility” (2020: 17).

Hendrix (2008: 3-5) underlines that, in some cases, the writers’ houses represent a material way of self-representation of the writer, which can be contrasted with the immaterial aspect of the art of literature. Although not house museums, two significant examples of houses as a reification of the same imagery of the literary products are Horace Walpole’s Gothic castle at Strawberry Hill and Alexandre Dumas’s Château de Monte-Cristo. In any case, the significant variability of the elements that characterise the different writers’ houses museums only allows for generic categorisations. Among the cases that represent a unicum is the home of Gabriele D’Annunzio the Vittoriale, in Gardone Riviera, a work of art in its own right and an expression of the writer’s multifaceted personality.

How to cite this dictionary entry: Capurro, R. (2023). Writers’ Home Museums. In R. Baleiro, G. Capecchi & J. Arcos-Pumarola (Orgs.). E-Dictionary of Literary Tourism. University for Foreigners of Perugia.

  • Booth, A. (2016). Homes and haunts: Touring writers’ shrines and countries. Oxford University Press.
  • Bryant, J. & Behrens, H. (2007). The DEMHIST Categorization Project for Historic House Museums. Progress Report and Plan. https://demhist.mini.icom.museum/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2019/01/Cat...
  • Dekiss, J.-P. (2009). La maison d’un écrivain, utopie ou enjeu de société. Revue D'histoire Littéraire De La France, 109(4), 783–795.
  • Fabre, D. (2021). Maison d’écrivain. L’auteur et ses lieux. Le débat, 2001/3 n. 115, 172-77.
  • Guarino, M. (Ed.) (2020). Musei letterari e di musicisti in Italia. Istituto per i Beni Artistici Culturali e Naturali della Regione Emilia-Romagna.
  • Hendrix, H. (2008). Writers’ houses as media of expression and remembrance. In H. Hendrix (Ed.). Writers’ houses and the making of memory, 1-11. Routledge.
  • Howitt, W. (1847). Homes and Haunts of the most eminent British poets. Harper & Brothers Publishers.
  • Parker, D. (1986). Literary museums: Present opportunities. In W. Barthel & M. Kunze (Eds.). Literary Memorial Museums, 25-29. ICOM National Committee GDR.
  • Plachta, B. (2008). Remembrance and revision: Goethe’s houses in Weimar and Frankfurt. In H. Hendrix (Ed.), Writers’ houses and the making of memory, 45-60. Routledge.
  • Thomas, J. (2012). Shakespeare’s Shrine: The bard’s birthplace and the invention of Stratford-upon-Avon. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Watson, N. J. (2006). The literary tourist: Readers and places in Romantic and Victorian Britain. Palgrave.
  • Watson, N. J. (2020). The author's effects: On writer’s house museums. Oxford University Press.
  • Young, L. (2015). Literature, museums, and national identity; or, why are there so many writers' house museums in Britain? Museum History Journal, 8(2), 229-246. https://doi.org/10.1179/1936981615Z.00000000052