Throughout my time as a museum professional, I have worked at several different museums each with different classifications, rules, and operating procedures. Before entering the museum world, I used to think that most museums operated in a similar way. However, that could not be further from the truth. One of the most common questions I have gotten since leaving the National Park Service for the private sector has been some variation of: “Why can’t I use my National Park Pass here?” It is an understandable question that I am here to answer.
Museums can be categorized by many different subjects. For example, there are art museums, history museums, science museums, zoos, gardens and more! There are also different categories on how museums operate, fundraise, and are preserved. For example, George Washington’s Ferry Farm and Historic Kenmore are both historic house museums. They are owned by The George Washington Foundation, a private, non-profit organization that is charged with caring for the properties. Ferry Farm and Kenmore are funded by your donations, admission fees, and fundraising events. However, the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. is a National Park Service (NPS) property, operated by the government and funded, in part, with tax-payer dollars.
In addition to the NPS sites, the United States government also created the National Register of Historic Places. The National Register of Historic Places is a list of places that are worthy of preservation but are not necessarily and, in fact, are not usually operated by the U.S. government. Sites on this list are able to apply for certain grants and funding through the NPS. They also receive certain tax breaks and can work towards becoming a National Park Site. Fun fact, there are almost 100,000 properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places!
Of those 100,000 National Register properties, some also have the distinction of being National Historic Landmarks. Landmarks are sites that are again, not necessarily government-run, but have been recognized by the federal government as being nationally significant, meaning they correlate to a significant part of our nation’s history. These properties are also able to apply for certain grants and tax breaks. Not all properties on the National Register of Historic Places and not all properties listed as National Historic Landmarks are museums and not all of them are open for public visitation. However, being on these lists adds a layer of protection should the owners of that property need assistance in preserving the site.
Along with National Register and National Historic Landmark status, there are also several types of Easements that can be put in place to protect historic sites. Two types of easements often used in the museum world are Conservation Easements and Preservation Easements. These easements are agreements between the government and a property’s stewardship organization that allow for the government to step in and take over the operation of a property if the private owners are not caring for it properly or it becomes endangered in some fashion. Easements also allow the government to have approval over major changes to the properties to ensure they maintain their historic or natural significance. Private easements can also be created between two parties such as a historic site and a local conservation organization to protect the natural areas of a historic site.
The George Washington Foundation is a 503(c) (3) non-profit. This designation gives our organization certain tax exemptions. We are a private foundation that operates the two historic sites. These sites are not National Park Service sites and do not receive direct taxpayer funding from local, state, or federal governments. Both Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm are on the National Register of Historic Places and also are both National Historic Landmarks. Additionally, Ferry Farm is under a conservation easement with the National Park Service. All of this means that while we still operate as a private foundation, there are several layers of protection to ensure these treasured historic properties are preserved and protected for decades to come.
As a private organization, we rely on admission fees and your generous donations to fund our sites. We are not part of any National Park or state park pass system. Your ticket purchase helps preserve and promote the legacies of these two sites. Perhaps that is why we are so appreciative for each and every guest who visits. If you would like to support The George Washington Foundation, please consider a donation. We hope to see you at the National Historic Landmarks of Historic Kenmore and George Washington’s Ferry Farm soon!
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services