EAST HAMPTON, N.Y. — For years, visitors to the Home Sweet Homemuseum, just a few blocks west of this village’s fancy shopping district, have been told that this 1750 saltbox was the birthplace of the actor and playwright John Howard Payne (1791-1852), and that it was the house he had in mind when he wrote the lyrics to what would become one of the most famous songs of the 19th century.
Originally penned as the climactic number for a now-obscure 1823 opera, “Home Sweet Home” would be sung by homesick Civil War soldiers and in the parlors of America for decades to come: “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home. Home, home, sweet, sweet, home! There’s no place like home, oh, there’s no place like home!”
The story of Payne’s connection to the house in this scenic village on the East End of Long Island is almost as sentimental as the emotions expressed in the song, which the museum was founded in 1928 to celebrate. There’s just one problem: It’s not true.
“Payne wasn’t born here — he never lived here,” Hugh King, site director for the village-run Home Sweet Home museum, said of the dwelling. “And this house was not the inspiration for the song.”
Payne is actually thought to have been born in New York City, the sixth of nine children born to William Payne, who was from Massachusetts, the museum says. His mother, the former Sarah Isaacs, grew up in East Hampton.
The institution’s original premise was based on local folklore perpetuated in the late 19th century, when the song was still well known. One reason it gained currency is because Payne did have some legitimate East Hampton connections: His father taught at Clinton Academy, across the street from Home Sweet Home, before he was born. (The academy is now a museum, too.) And an aunt may once have lived in the house.
In 2004, seeking definitive information on who owned the property and the house, Mr. King and Robert Hefner, a historic preservation consultant, combed through two centuries’ worth of land ownership and census records, and determined that although the home might have been sweet for someone, that someone was never John Howard Payne.
Other documents uncovered by Mr. King and his colleagues suggest that the house was not the inspiration for the song, in particular an angry letter from Payne’s grandnephew to The New York Herald Tribune when the museum first opened, decrying the whole story as a fiction.
So what does a museum do when it turns out that its longstanding narrative is wrong?
Home Sweet Home has been rearranging its exhibits and refocusing its interpretive tours, following American Alliance of Museums standards to present “accurate and appropriate content.”
During the last couple of years, material in the seven-room house has been presented in new ways and tours have been revised. The site is now less about Payne and his song, and more about Gustav and Hannah Buek, a wealthy couple from Brooklyn who purchased the house in 1907 partly because they were charmed by the “Home Sweet Home” legend.
When Mr. Buek died in 1927, the village bought the house from his widow and, as it was amply furnished with “Home Sweet Home” paraphernalia that the couple had collected, turned it into the museum. It was a hit with a generation old enough to recall the song, which had been one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorites.
“We’re not relying on the myth of John Howard Payne having been born here,” said Richard Barons, executive director of the East Hampton Historical Society, which shares stewardship of the museum with the village. “But we are explaining that the myth is probably why the Bueks bought the house.”
Relying on an insurance inventory from 1916, museum administrators have restored the house to the way it was during the Colonial Revival period of the early 20th century. Now visitors see Mrs. Buek’s extensive collection of lusterware dishes and a dining room table set for dinner. The original Georgian paneling from 1750 has also been restored to reinforce architectural authenticity.
Other museums also face the challenge of revising and reinterpreting their narratives when new information arises. Among them is Monticello, the Virginia home of Thomas Jefferson, which opened to the public in 1920. By the 1990s, the story told there was starting to expand to include the 607 slaves that he owned. But the institution received a powerful jolt in 1998, when DNA sampling linked descendants of the Jefferson family to those of Sally Hemings, a slave at Monticello, confirming long-lingering rumors that Jefferson fathered children with her.
“Now in every single tour of the house, Sally Hemings is brought up,” saysLeslie Greene Bowman, president and chief executive of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates the house and grounds in Charlottesville. “Now we have ‘Slavery in Monticello’ tours.”
Although she was not involved in the reinterpretation, Ms. Bowman said that the foundation responded appropriately to the DNA findings, which put Jefferson in a much different light. “We’re not the Chamber of Commerce for Thomas Jefferson,” she said. “We have an obligation. We operate in the public trust. That’s a huge mantle of responsibility.”
A 2015 survey of 7,089 Americans found that they deemed museums — history museums and historical sites particularly — more trustworthy sources than teachers, local newspapers, Wikipedia or academic research. “I think the reason why is that original objects or artifacts are viewed as inherently trustworthy,” said Susie Wilkening, senior consultant for the museum research and development arm of Reach Advisors, the firm in Quincy, Mass., that conducted the survey.
Ms. Wilkening applauds the efforts of museums like Home Sweet Home to set the record straight. Besides, she adds, “you don’t need to make anything up. History is pretty darned fascinating.”
Judging from the guest book, the new narrative seems to resonate with visitors. “American history at its best!” a visitor from Austria wrote last summer. The museum is open from May to September and attracts around 1,000 visitors annually.
Mary Busch, now a full-time East Hampton resident who has been visiting Home Sweet Home since she began spending summers in the area, likes the museum’s emphasis on life in the Bueks’ era. “You feel as if you could be stepping back in time and going into someone’s house in 1916,” she said.
As for the reinterpretation playing down the Payne connection, she said: “I’m not sure you have to deny the connection to him or the song. But I’m glad it’s not the shrine that some people tried to make it into.”
Mr. King said that it would be hard for the museum to disengage from John Howard Payne entirely, particularly because a colossal bust of him greets visitors at the entrance. The sculpture, which Mr. King said is too large to move, once stood in Prospect Park in Brooklyn when Payne’s fame was at his zenith.
“We’ve pretty much proved that he never lived here,” Mr. King said, “but we’ve still got his head.”