Friday, May 2, 2008

What Makes Historic House Tours So Boring: Upstate Thoughts

In preparation for an AAM discussion of the same name, I queried the Upstate History Alliance list-serv for their opinions on why historic house tours are boring.

Several list members shared their own personal experiences:

"When my oldest was 15 months old, we toured Monticello. Should be fun, right? They've got the money to do things be meet our needs? So I'm holding my precious cargo and we enter the library. He says (says, not yells) in his baby way, "book, book, book" - and points (a full two yards away from any real object) and he is IN MY ARMS. The docent suggested I might prefer to wait on the porch while my husband finished the tour. It still makes me mad!"
Lauren Cohen

"I recently visited several historic house museums in the Hartford, CT area. A couple of times, I was the only person there, so was one-on-one with interpretors. They were all 'stuck' in their format; I introduced myself (if I was the only one there) and expressed what I was especially interested in, but they still gave me their rote tour. I sometimes stalled them by asking (the wrong) questions, or by not having the right reaction to what they were telling me - meaning, they had given the same speech so many times that they had an expectation of how their visitors would and should react. Sometimes they would act disappointed when I didn't respond correctly, or like I was wasting their time by asking unimportant, obscure questions.

Tours are boring when one has to stand through a routine, with no real personal interaction. We have to laugh at the right time, or be awed, or surprised, on cue. Often, when I have a special interest, it won't be addressed because either a) the interpretor doesn't have the information; b) there isn't time, they can't stop long enough to deal with special interests and still keep on time with the other tours going on, or c) they simply don't care, so don't ask for questions."
Donna Nortman

"Most recently I toured several historic houses with some good friends who are not in the field. We selected homes of great interest to us -- either for the architectural design or the significance of its residents and the roles they played in history. In each situation -- I was embarrassed by the quality of the information shared and the manner of delivery. On a number of occasions, it was clear that among the visitors on these tours, some were more informed or as informed as the volunteer tour guides. However, the guides did not encourage discussion or exchange of ideas. Rather, they controlled information and ensured that theirs was the only voice heard. In addition, there was a lot of focus on material cultural and not ideas. I came away from each experience disappointed and our group of travelers would have lively follow-up discussions based upon our "interpretation" of what we saw and how it connected to our prior research on related topics."
Marianne Bez

No wonder that attendance at historic houses is declining when we, members of the profession, find the tours boring. Why is that? a number of list readers shared viewpoints gained from experiences as directors, educators and curators. In particular, Erin Crissman, newly appointed curator at the Farmers Museum in Cooperstown, NY and Ken Shefsiek, director of the Geneva Historical Society,  provided great food for thought.

Erin's thoughts:

Lack of any redeeming connection to the present individual HHM visitor-- almost every house tour I've ever been on is structured like this: A) this is the home of Wealthy McMillionare who was so gracious as to have left us his home as a museum, or his home was rescued from destruction by a patriotic women's organization. B) Here is his sideboard, bed, fancy china, chamber pot, fireplace, etc. C) "back then" everything was different D) Thank you for visiting.

Who wants to stand up for an hour while learning about a person who is presented to you as having essentially nothing in common with yourself?

Many house museum tours are focused on material wealth. Although it seems that an increasing number of Americans are able to purchase larger and larger vehicles, there are many who are not able to do that. There is a vast difference between the refinement with which many of America's HHMs were created and furnished (and even different than the 50s, 60s and 70s when they were made into museums) and the consumerism of today. Something needs to be done to bridge this gap. The act of purchasing a chippendale sideboard in 1770, and purchasing the biggest HDTV available, are two very different experiences in too many ways to enumerate in this email.

And Ken's:

1)It is my experience that oftentimes tours are so boring not because of the material being offered, but rather because the right type of people have not been chosen to be tour guides. There are many reasons for this (it is difficult to turn down a volunteer, guides when paid are paid so low that the pool of possibilities is low, etc.). While I don't believe in the "edutainment" concept (i.e. that people want primarily to be entertained, with only a little education on the side),
I believe that learning occurs better when the teaching is offered by someone who is entertaining. We need to think carefully about the type of person we hire. Guiding/teaching is a type of performance, and we need people that are capable of performing. I think it is a fallacy that tours necessarily need to be interactive (discussions between the guest and the guide, touching things, etc.); we have all had experiences of listening to excellent, engaging presentations by people in any number of fields without have to make a lecture a discussion. This is not to say that discussion isn't good and positive, but I don't think we should always think that that is necessary. "Engagement" can be internal and mental.

2)For regular HHM goers, tours that focus on objects quickly become boring, which is a point that probably does not need to be made. Objects, however, are extremely important, but the objects discussed (unless a guest has a particular question) should not be chosen willy-nilly as they often are. Rather,
the objects chosen for discussion must address an important issue or reveal a relevant context. Oftentimes guides also assume that their guests know nothing, so they start at the ground up, such as explaining the basics of cooking over a fire and the tools of the kitchen, or identifying a Chippendale chair.

Many tours are so tedious because the limitations of archival evidence sometimes impedes the development of good tours. I'm working on a new tour of Rose Hill Mansion in Geneva, NY (1839 Greek Revival), and have access to a wealth of primary documents that will enable us to construct a very "human" tour using the words of the people that lived in and visited the house. I had virtually nothing so personal to work with when I was the educator at Huguenot Street. The challenge there was to focus on those issues that resonated in today's world -- ethnicity, race, socioeconomic relationships. For tours not to be boring, I think they need to be "humanized," by which I mean they address relationships between people. They also need to be evocative, by trying to recreate the texture of life in a particular place. However, these goals require a great deal from our guides, and from us, both in terms of continuing our own education and in finding time to offer appropriate training. Lacking alot of personal materials (letters, diaries, etc.), bringing the people to life takes a great deal of time and work to find and decide what information actually does that.

4)While we are often somewhat burdened with either the house saved for patriotic reasons or the house saved for its architectural/artistic value, that may not be as much of a problem as we think (this is a particular problem for the great architectural masterpieces, as they present a lifestyle that few can relate to). As Erin Crissman wrote earlier today, many of the houses are the house of millionaire so-and-so. If we use millionaire so-and-so as a point of reference to talk about others (the millionaire's family, servants, tenants, slaves, people beyond the household itself, the house in relation to its historic community, etc.), we can bring up issues of class, race, gender, etc.
We generally talk about what the house and the owner are rather than what they are not, but every person and object substantially derives its identity by what he/she/it are and what they are not. HHM tours are often so boring because they don't explore these relationships to the level and sophistication necessary to bring about intellectual and even emotional connection.

In short,
tours are boring because they are insufficiently sophisticated. I don't mean that they have to be overly academic or intellectual, but they are often not designed "to touch us" in thoughtful, intellectual and/or emotional ways. I was inspired when I visited Historic Cherry Hill recently for a regular guided tour by a volunteer docent. She was carefully trained to connect in all those ways, and as I understand it, their training program is rigorous and extended, and guides are carefully monitored. The docent perhaps was not "entertaining," but she understood the complex issues being addressed and was able to communicate them with the visitors.

I hope that this helping of food for thought inspires lively discussion at your own historic site about how to approach the work we do. 

Photo: Unknown historic interior from


Anonymous said...

I see no mention here of the dilemma most guides face - a mixed audience. Two couples with their 10 year olds and six or seven adults with some knowledge of the subject matter. How to make it an engaging experience for all is pretty darn difficult. If you bore the child, he'll hate history and certainly never return to your museum. If you bore the adults, they will write scathing comments about you. What to do?

Linda Norris said...

Thanks for the comments on this long-ago post. I think the problem of a mixed group (of ages, of interests, of what kind of day they're having) is always tricky, but I think a skilled docent or guide is one who is able to be really flexible (and in fact when people complain about tours, that's one big complaint) able to adjust up and down the scale, putting into practical use things like Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences and John Falk's classification of museum visitors. And in many cases, this means having activities for kids to do in the rooms, either by something you carry or by having something in the room to pickup or try. Each tour is its own unique set of group dynamics!

Alia parker said...

We feel happy when we visit some historical places. Because there we can see many things that we did not seen before. In this case local tour guide can help us. Because they have lots of idea and knowledge about the place.