How can a historic house successfully engage the community?
What kinds of exhibits, activities, media presentations – or unique interpretive techniques could be successful?
These are big questions with many possible outcomes. To begin to answer these questions, in the coming summer we will work closely with students to help determine what types of content speaks to them, the kind of interpretation that engages them (and their families), and finally how to share their own creative work based on the stories the Hempsted House has to offer.
Initial thoughts on techniques that might work:
Based on my past museum experience, I can make an educated guess as to some of the stories at the Hempsted House that will appeal to a wide audience. The kitchen has a lot to offer. From the basic idea that there is no refrigeration, or even canning, to the massive foot print of a cooking hearth, a historic kitchen’s basic operation can engage the imagination of almost any visitor. It also provides an opportunity for conversations around social roles that family groups can identify with like: this is how the Hempsted family would have organized the kitchen work, how do you organize the kitchen work within your family? From superstition to food science the Hempsted kitchen could be a great place to start.
Stories of class and station can be fascinating for visitors as well. From slavery to indentured servitude to free Africa Americans to the place of women, the colonial period has a very complex story to tell. What’s more the community is already getting to know the story of Adam Jackson, who spent 30 years enslaved in this house. It might be that we could look at other historic properties that have had success interpreting class and/or slavery for useful interpretive techniques. The Lower Eastside Tenement Museum’s kitchen conversations brought visitors together with an interpreter for active discussions- could this model work for teens and adults? Connor Prairie Interactive History Park used first person interpreters to engage in open ended conversations that often revolved around class and sometimes slavery. Visitors could direct what was basically a dramatic presentation – could this be a way for visitors to explore Adam’s story? Finally Connor Prairie’s very successful Follow the North Star program might be a model for exploring the harsh limits of what was possible in the 1730’s to 1760’s for Adam and his family. While these techniques rely on very well prepared interpreters, there might be ways to use interactive media, games or visitor feedback to promote the same kinds of social interactions between visitors.
It seems that teenagers – and at this point many adults – are never far from social media. Could the Writers Block InK students, our partners in this endeavor, help Connecticut Landmarks create the structure and content for social media intertwined with exhibits? How could that work? Would it provide a successful conversation between visitors around the stories of the Hempsted House?
For now there are many more questions than answers.
Robert Kiihne of RK Exhibits will be participating in the teen audience research this summer and will draft the exhibitions component of the interpretive plan in the fall.