I was fortunate to moderate a lively discussion at AAM on why historic house tours are so boring--and what we might do about that problem. The group included staff from houses with limited visitation--up to houses with audiences of 55,000 visitors per year.
Some of the issues mentioned included the fact that visitors come to learn what they want to learn--but what they get is perhaps the last bastion of the fully mediated experience. In most parts of the museum world, discussion and change is well underway about how to provide visitors with the opportunity to create and control their own experience. All too few historic houses provide visitors with that chance. Several mentioned the need for some sort of unmediated space and time for visitors to explore and learn more. Visitors want that as well--a random search of Flickr turned up the photo at the top of this post: it's titled, "Our Guide Concluded and Allowed Us to Explore."
Many in the group also noted that most tours still focus around furniture and that visitors aren't given the tools to understand how these furnishings, this house, relate to me. And that, as one participant said, "we assume that visitors get it." Very few of the participants had used any sort of real process in developing tours, and very few had used front-end and formative evaluation to test their tours on visitors. It seems as if many historic house tours are stalagmites, slow accretions of knowledge (true or not) that grow up organically, with few chances taken to really evaluate and/or start anew. One participant noted that she was now using the process of interpretation used in exhibits, particularly Beverly Serrell's book, to develop tours. And I was surprised to see that this approach, developing a big idea and developing interpretive techniques to convey to others, was a new approach to many.
Two comments particularly struck me--they were very different and convey the challenges we face in connecting with our visitors. One participant thought that all this interpretive work was "all about distracting the visitor." She argued for a quiet tour, a reflective tour, a chance to be fully in the historic spaces, with the opportunity to look, see and touch on her own. As I think about compelling historic spaces I've been in, I realize that those are the sites that are memorable to me as well--the sites where, on your own, you can feel the presence of the past.
At the same time, another participant noted that we were neglecting the place of laughter in the historic house museum--both in the past and on our tour. I think perhaps what that really means to me is that we neglect the place of emotions in historic house tours. Think about your own home--it probably is a place of joy, sorrow, pride, and a host of other emotions. How many historic house tours connect you emotionally to the lives of the house's inhabitants?
One participant said, "but how do I do all this? I'm the only staff person!" Scroll down for resources, but also consider seeking funding. Depending on your state, state arts or humanities councils may fund interpretive planning. IMLS and the National Endowment for the Humanities also support interpretive planning and implementation. Seek out an intern from a local college or graduate program, enlist volunteers in doing research, find a theater group to help train your current volunteers, and most of all, embrace change!
What can you do to change the interpretation at your site?