Monday, September 23, 2013

Historic House Museums: It’s about emotional stories, presentation.

The culmination of our work with the students this summer was an open house, where we asked the students to share the stories of the Hempsted Houses with the public in any manner they liked. 

Well, we did give them some parameters.  To prevent utter chaos, we broke the students up into small groups, and each group had responsibility for a single room.  We also did not allow them to make any permanent changes to the room, though we did allow them to handle most objects, sit on most of the seating furniture, and if they desired, invite the public to touch as well.  Our basic rule was that the room had to be returned to its original condition at the end of the event.

Other than that, the students were given complete freedom to do what they wanted.

First up, how they told the stories they shared.  I’ll be blunt.  The idea of a guided tour never came up, which is not a surprise given how, throughout the summer, the students made it absolutely clear that they did not like guided tours (or, in their words, “lectures”).  Additionally, none of the students at the open house even mentioned the idea of using technology in their interpretation

Instead, most of the students did what I would call a mixture of first-person interpretation and museum theatre.  That is, if you as a visitor walked in the room, they had a fairly set “skit” they wanted to share with you that gave you a strong sense of the story, like in museum theatre.  But they did not view the audience as a passive observer but instead as an active participant, turning to the visitor to ask questions, tell them things directly, or even asking them if they wanted to do something (such as butter making).  In this way, the students also served as first-person interpreters, going back and forth unconsciously between moving the story along and engaging directly with visitors.  It was pretty astounding to watch them do it so easily, as it should have been a difficult thing to accomplish.  

 Here, a student presents in “first-person” mode, interacting with visitors.

By recreating specific individuals from the Hempsted and Jackson families, and giving those individuals things to say and do, the stories naturally rolled out of the students.  In particular, most of the students focused on the story of Joshua Hempsted and Adam Jackson, and the nuances of early 18th-century slavery in Connecticut, though one group instead decided to depict a schoolroom from the 1830s, when the family opened what is likely one of the very earliest desegregated schools in the country in the house. 

What was most remarkable of all, however, wasn’t so much their methods of telling stories, or even the stories themselves, but the emotions of it all.  That is, these students brought a high level of emotion to their presentation by squabbling amongst each other, singing lullabies to an infant (OK, a doll), expressing sadness, delight, loneliness, or even horror.  They laughed, teared up, yelled, rebuked, and comforted.  And visitors responded. 

Students presenting in “museum theatre” mode, but note at the very beginning and end the anger expressed towards the (unseen) slave, flipping quickly to a beautiful lullaby in the middle.

In post-visit interviews of adult visitors who were not related to the students, time and time again I was told how the palpable emotions of the students affected visitors, and engaged them much more deeply in the stories of the house.  The emotions proved to be an amazing catalyst for connecting with the stories, and for vividly remembering the experience even several weeks afterwards.  The day after the open house, I put it my own way to James Chung (also of Reach Advisors), when I said “I think the house was . . . happy.  It certainly has not been as alive as it was last night since probably the 19th century, the last time children lived in the house.” 

Which brings us to a rather big conclusion.  Over the past several decades, the presentation of historic house museums has been rather . . . sterile.  How many times have you walked through a historic house museum and felt that you could have given that tour, despite knowing little to nothing about the people who lived in the house?  We have been hugely successful at stripping these idiosyncratic, passionate, complicated places of all personality.  Instead, we need to bring the messiness of emotions and the human condition back into these houses and make them, once again, homes, if they are going to be relevant to visitors today.

Over the next couple of posts I will discuss in more detail the overall themes we found in our work with the students.  You can count on my returning to this big conclusion to pick it apart a bit more. 

Susie Wilkening is a Senior Consultant and Curator of Museum Audiences at Reach Advisors.  She is leading several phases of audience research for this project.

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