I've written several times about my ongoing work with the Harriet Beecher Stowe House on re-interpretation. We've talked with visitors, talked with ourselves, talked with a great group of scholars and community leaders, we explored surrendering the chronology and learned a great deal along the way. But still, our ideas remained untested. We've used a version of design thinking to help shape our work and we had prototyped internally, but it was time to take the plunge and actually test out our ideas, in the historic spaces, with real live visitors. Here's how it went.
We decided to rethink four spaces in the house. Two spaces in particular were both exciting and scary--the front parlor and the kitchen. In our conversations with visitors, they had told us they really wanted to be able to sit in the house. So that's what we did in both those spaces. Stowe House is lucky to have a collections manager, Beth Burgess, who cares deeply for the collection and cares deeply about engaging audiences. She's been a valued part of the team since the word go, and her willingness to move and remove objects in the service of interpretation has been so valuable. So the period kitchen table was replaced with a reproduction, covered in brown paper. Several chairs in the front parlor and the center table were relocated and replaced with folding chairs with fabric covers and a simple table on which there were reproductions of news articles and anti-slavery materials. Total cost of all this? Zero dollars. Our overall goal was to more closely align the historic house experience with the Stowe Center's mission which includes: promotes vibrant discussion of her life and work, and inspires commitment to social justice and positive change.
The interpretive staff approached this with some pretty serious trepidation. The education staff (big shout-outs to Shannon Burke and Brian Cofrancesco, my amazing partners in this entire process) and I decided that to start, one interpreter would lead the tour, except in the prototyping spaces, where I'd take the lead. I'm very far from a Stowe expert, but I like a challenge, and I'm confident of my ability to encourage discussion.
What happened? Over the next two days all of us were inspired and moved in so many unexpected ways. It started with our very first group, atypical for Stowe House, where most visitors, are like most historic house visitors, are white, female and over 65. This group, just walk-in visitors, was a small group of African American and Latino local middle school students who give tours at a local cemetery as a summer job. When we got to the parlor, and sat down, I asked everyone to take a document to look at, and asked for a volunteer to read out loud. One student read runaway slave ads and hesitated a bit, and then continued. Their adult group leader gently asked, "what were you thinking when you stopped reading?" He looked up and said, "The ad said the slave was 5'11. I'm 5'11. It could have been me." That stopped us in our tracks. Just the act of reading out loud made something real and personal. We've found that reading aloud also worked for other types of visitors in different kinds of connecting ways--from parenthood to where you're from.
In just our brief experience, we discovered some really important things.
First, what we learned about the internal workings. Although Shannon, Brian and I had these ideas in our heads, we really needed to show the interpretive staff the ideas in action. And once we did, what had been some pretty substantial hesitation melted away. Visitors loved the idea of participating in what seems like a behind-the-scenes process and that made interpreters feel comfortable with the experimentation. The fear of change is powerful, and the simple prototyping was something that everyone could experiment with (it's an experiment!). Seeing is believing. And from our willingness to risk failure (that first tour easily could have gone not so well) and our willingness to learn from every visitor and every interpreter's experience, it's now become something that all of us are invested in. Wrote one staff member after giving her first prototype tour:
I was nervous at first, but as I talked, and as they participated I began to feel really excited and completely invigorated by what was happening. My experience in giving the tour made me feel incredibly excited about what I was doing, and more importantly excited about giving a tour.We found a way to make everyone a part of the process. The prototype tours always include an observer/notetaker and a simple form to collect information and observations from both staff and visitors about what works, what doesn't, and what we can continue to tweak.
And what did we learn about visitors? They love experimentation. They love dialog. They love being fully in historic spaces. Stowe staff have been getting emails from visitors talking about their experiences (how often does that happen to you?) Here's what one visitor wrote:
[The guide] advised us of some experimental procedures we would be involved in that were being tried out as part of the tour. The discussion group catalyzed by viewing media reproductions from the slave era was a terrific idea. After the normal hesitation to speak, our group was really starting to engage but had to break off in order to maintain schedule. My thought was, Is there some way to accommodate an extended discussion during or perhaps at the end of the tour? All in all a great experience.
And a big lesson? Visitors are up for it all if it's framed and presented in ways that encourage--but not require--participation. One of the documents we used in the front parlor were the words to the Abolitionist's Song, sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. As we were wrapping up before my departure, we discussed the ongoing prototyping process, I said, "I bet you some group actually sings this in the tour" Sure enough, Brian tells me that 3 or 4 groups have actually broken into song.
We've got much more work to do, and many questions to answer and explore in the process of developing and refining the experience, but this speedy prototyping brought new energy and joy to our work. Our cost? Still pretty much zero dollars.
(and, in the shameless self-promotion category: if you want to embark on rethinking your historic house interpretation, be in touch. We can work together on a process that can create real change and meaning.)