Sunday, July 6, 2008

More on Not Boring Houses

Responses continue to trickle in to my various queries about historic houses. I greatly appreciate everyone who shared information, perspectives, their own visitor experiences, and requests to share what I learned. As I'm sure many of you know from your own work, attendance at historic house museums is declining, in some cases precipitously, so much so that many, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, feel it's a time of real crisis. For some interesting reading, take a look at the Trust's Forum Journal, available partially online for a summary of a forum held last year addressing the issue.

So, although sometimes I do find historic house tours boring, the larger question for me is to further explore why our visitors (and our non-visitors) find tours boring and which historic sites have successfully engaged visitors of all types. For a visitor perspective, check out Connecticut Museum Quest, where Steve (who I don't know, except from reading his blog) is visiting all the museums and historic sites in Connecticut. Some trends have emerged: some historic sites (the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, for instance) have successfully become places of civic engagement, where real issues are revealed and discussed by visitors. Interestingly, on the Tenement Museum's website it says, "Guided Tours are the Heart of the Tenement Museum."

At other sites, such as the Anne Frank House, a powerful narrative becomes the primary way to engage visitors (through a carefully designed self-guided tour). At still other sites, the chance to fully be immersed in a historic interior or a landscape, unmediated by guides, ropes or other interpretive material is what seems to attract visitors. Kettles Yard, in England is one place that's been mentioned in this context; Great Camp Sagamore, in the Adirondacks, where you can actually stay in the historic buildings, is another. At still other places, the experience may be primarily an aesthetic one.

At still other places, I think visitors greatly appreciate the chance to find the similarities and differences between the people of the house and their own lives--and care considerably less, I think, than many museum professionals, about the differences between types of furnishings. Many historic sites have undertaken interesting projects to reveal that sense of universal human stories at a particular place. At the Davenport House in Savannah, special tours focus on a bout of yellow fever in the community; at Chateau de Mores State Park in North Dakota young people to give award-winning tours to young people. At Historic Cherry Hill, in Albany, NY, a carefully scripted and presented tour brings to life a family struggling with the loss of their place in the community. And of course, many sites have done serious, thoughtful work about interpreting slavery and connecting contemporary visitors with those stories of a particular place.

All those exciting examples aside, I think we all know of a historic house, in a community, that was saved because it was given to the historical society, or it was the richest man in town's house, or it was about to be torn down. I think it's a great challenge for those smaller historic sites, not connected to great men, women or events, to find the element--whether it's narrative, or programming, or contemporary artists reflecting on the house's history--that can really resonate with visitors and draw new visitors to those sites. And so in this project, my colleague Kristin Herron and I are looking to find those exemplary historic houses that do a great job at connecting with all types of visitors. So please keep sharing stories of your visits and your historic houses!

Top: The lake at Great Camp Sagamore, Raquette Lake, NY
Center 1:
Guide outside the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, NYC
Center 2:
Historic Cherry Hill, Albany, NY
Bottom: From Steve's Connecticut Museum Quest blog, and originally captioned, "Every historic house has to have...a boring dining room."

1 comment:

Steve said...

Linda - Thank you for the link to my museum (etc) blog.

My somewhat unique take on this topic is colored by the fact that I've been to more museums already in a year then most ppl go to in a lifetime. One becomes jaded to the repetitive nature of not only HHM's, but kids museums, nature centers, etc.

But by "jaded" I don't mean necessarily negative. I LOVE these places and am always looking for the uniqueness in each one. Personally, my interest is not in the old chairs or colonial brickwork.

My interest lies in who sat in that old chair and what prompted the person to go with brick rather then the standard clapboard of the day.

A decent docent is also key. I've met some that are just wonderful (The folks at the Smith-Harris House in East Lyme CT are top notch) who can make the most mundane fact interesting.

So that's my short answer: Engaged, informed tour guides who tell stories of the men and women who lived in the house versus script-reading folks who are under the impression that that's the first stone hearth I've ever seen.

That said, I tend to ask unique questions and notice odd little things around the HHM's. So extra credit goes to those guides who handle my nonsense with skill.