Penn Undergrad Evaluates Financial Sustainability of Historic House Museums

Julia Bache, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, is working on a long-term research project that’s focused on the financial sustainability of historic house museums.

Majoring in management and real estate at the Wharton School and minoring in history in the School of Arts & Sciences, Bache began the project last summer studying five historic homes in Pennsylvania: Powel House, Physick House, Woodlands and Grumblethorpe in Philadelphia and Waynesborough in Paoli.

Last year, her research examined historic house museums and visitor engagement. She surveyed guests, measuring their emotional experience and feelings against whether they might continue to be engaged with the museum. She looked at how likely they were to become a member or donor, recommend the tour to others or return for future events, all factors that can impact the museum’s financial health.

“The more emotions guests feel and the more relevant the history is to them,” Bache says, “the more likely it is that the guests would stay involved. Meaningful stories are a great way to emotionally draw guests into the history and make the site relevant.”

This summer, she’s mixing in business savvy gained from her studies at Wharton. Building upon her earlier research on financial stability, Bache is studying historic house museums that offer social impact initiatives in order to better understand how these initiatives factor into their operations and affect their finances.

In addition to revisiting Grumblethorpe in Philadelphia’s Germantown section, Bache expanded her research to include the Pearl S. Buck House in suburban Bucks County and the birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts, in Savannah, Ga.

Bache, a Girl Scout for 12 years and the incoming co-president of Girl Scouts at Penn, welcomed the opportunity to include the organization that played a major part in helping to shape her character.

“Studying the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace taught me how this historic asset furthers the Girl Scouts’ powerful mission,” Bache says. “I love giving back to Girl Scouts, and this project allows me to combine my passions for business, preservation and scouting.”

Bache studied the impact of social engagement activities at the three houses. The Low Birthplace works to build girls’ courage, confidence and character through its tours. Grumblethrope provides educational programs for neighborhood children and teens, building leaders through its Youth Volunteer program and the Pearl Buck House offers programs addressing cultural diversity and inclusion under the umbrella Pearl S. Buck International organization.

“While most historic house museums preserve and share history, these museums strive to create a social impact in the world through unique initiatives and programming,” says Bache.

At Penn, Bache has worked with her UScholars advisor, Robert St. George, an associate professor of history, along with Sherryl Kuhlman, managing director of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, on her research into historic house museums.

Kuhlman has helped Bache to think more deeply about the ways to connect the sustainability of the house museums with the community programs they offer, to consider, for example, if the programs are a source of revenue, if they cost more to operate than they bring in or if they result in other benefits, such as more positive feelings from the community.

Bache serves as a great example of the importance of student research, Kuhlman says.

“She is gaining experience developing and testing hypotheses and learning how to determine what kinds of evidence and questions might help her with that hypothesis,” says Kuhlman, adding that Bache’s research is interesting in two ways. “Many non-profits with buildings or space are exploring how they might become more integrated into the fiber of the community, and all non-profits are looking for alternative revenue approaches.”

Bache’s passion for research and historic places began back in high school in her hometown of Louisville, Ky., where she volunteered at Historic Locust Grove, a national historic landmark and house museum. During that time, she also dug into the history of the more than 5,000 Rosenwald Schools that were constructed across 15 southern states to serve African-American students during segregation.

Recognized with a Girl Scouts Gold Award, her Rosenwald Schools project culminated in a touring museum exhibition which has traveled across Kentucky and Tennessee. She also nominated one of the Rosenwald Schools in Kentucky for the National Register of Historic Places, becoming the youngest person in the state to successfully list a site.

It was the chance to do research as an undergraduate student, Bache says, that sealed her decision to attend Penn. She learned about Penn’s Center for Undergraduate Research Fellowships when she attended Quaker Days, a pre-college program hosted by Admissions each spring. Bache applied to be a UScholar soon thereafter.

“UScholars was definitely one of the unique opportunities that contributed to my decision to come to Penn,” Bache, who plans to continue her research next summer, says.

“Ultimately, my goal is to find which factors in house museum operations lead to greater financial sustainability,” Bache says. “I want to figure out ways to make these amazing sites more financially successful, so that they can continue to preserve important pieces of our country’s rich history.”