While in the Lake District, we visited Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum in Grasmere. Dove Cottage, Wordsworth's home during a productive eight-year period is one of the Lake District's most loved attractions and opened to the public in 1890. The accompanying Museum and Art Gallery was relocated into its current space in 1981. This is an organization with a long, rich history and rich and varied collections relating to Wordsworth and the history of Romanticism.
So why was the museum exhibit so well done and the house tour so boring?
Wordsworth--so what do most people know? Poet, daffodils, Lake District (I mean you are at his house), British. That's probably about it. Me too. We visited the exhibit before the house tour, although it appeared that most people went after the tour, but the timed tours led us to head to the museum first.
What did the exhibit do right?
- It used the facts, objects and places of Wordsworth's life in combination with his poetry in ways that let the visitor see and understand how he found inspiration in his own life and the world around him.
- The audio installations were very simple--just a printed version of a poem (here's Tintern Abbey) and headphones. It was really nice both to see the text and to hear the words spoken aloud, reinforcing the beauty of both the spoken and written word.
- The use of contemporary photos helped to reinforce the sense that the landscape Wordsworth knew and loved is still the one that can be seen today in the Lake District.
- It allowed me to gain not only a sense of the man and his work--but a bit of unexpected knowledge. Who knew that his wife had written about those daffodils before he did?
- Barely welcomed by the guide, the tour began with the history of the house--the group of about 10 or so, including children, were given no sense of who Wordsworth was, or why he mattered.
- A host of irrelevant and confusing facts: I didn't particularly care that branches were used as toothbrushes, and cared even less about Mrs. Wordsworth's false teeth.
- Quite surprising handling of original objects from the guide. Although we were cautioned about touching anything, the guide touched and opened a number of objects used by Wordsworth.
- Small displays of objects in each room in tiny cases that looked like they dated from the house's opening as a museum. Locks of hair, candlesticks, and more. They had a fun, antiquarian feel, but did little to drive the story forward.
- Not a single place where the guide asked us if we had any questions. Not one! And even more surprisingly, at the end of the tour, upstairs, he said, "okay, well, I'll just leave you to look around," and went downstairs, leaving us free to roam among several rooms.
Now why would the exhibit (and a changing exhibit as well) be well-done and engaging while a guided tour was anything but? A few purely speculative guesses:
- Exhibits often have a clear planning process, with a beginning and an end. They present, in effect, a blank slate that can be shaped, through both curatorial and design work, into a compelling narrative.
- Historic houses are accretions. In my own work, I've found it rare that a historic site is willing to step all the way back and take a comprehensive look at the interpretation. So a house becomes a bit like sedimentary rock--each layer and each bit of knowledge hardened into the present day.
- Personal connections make a huge difference. If the guide had appeared even a bit interested in his audience, I might have felt differently. If he had made any effort to engage the young children on the tour I might have forgiven other weaknesses. I can only hope that it was the end of the season and he'll spend the winter recharging his batteries or that all guides undergo some sort of regular evaluation.
- Historic houses, more than exhibits, contain memories of how it used to be. "But the trunk has always been on the bed," I can hear someone saying, whether it ever made sense or not. There's a fear, I think, of change that doesn't exist for exhibitions.
If you work at a historic site, take a moment and reflect on the last time you really thought about that guided tour or the way things are shown in the house. Consider how to take a long step backwards to get a clear view of how a visitor might perceive the house. Your visitors will thank you for it.