by Alyssa Nordhauser
I think we can come to some sort of agreement that historic house museums (HHMs) are in need of something. This begs the question ‘How do you connect with your guests in a way that makes their visit memorable?’
I’ll be honest, I’ve been to dozens of other historic house museums but many of them start to blend together after a certain point. This isn’t to say that they’re not impressive sites or buildings, they are. They can just feel so… similar.
Then there are the ones with sheep. Yes, sheep.
One of my most memorable experiences visiting a historic site involved helping a guy dressed in colonial era garb shear a sheep during a grade school trip to Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, NY. This the experience that still stands out to me so many years later. I realize that not all historic house museums can provide sheep but is there an equivalent experience that’s specific to your site?
It’s not the easiest thing to do and might require you to step back and take a more holistic view of your property and see it through the eyes of a first time visitor and ask yourself:
-How is information conveyed?
-How can we make the story of the site and its occupants come alive?
-What catches the eye? (beyond just the decor)
-How and at what point does the staff interact with the guests and/or with the site itself?
-Is there enough visitor feedback?
This is part of what we aim to do with the pilot project for the Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums, to “position Latimer House as an essential community resource that bridges past and present and unites diverse audiences by acting as a center of social history, explorative experience and common identity.”
We as house museum and historic site administrators, educators and programmers should never stop asking ourselves these kind of questions and constantly try to re-evaluate things, whether using fancy metrics or anecdotal feedback.
I realize not all historic sites can have actual sheep, but they can provide a chance to have an interactive experience, to create a (distinct) memory. There’s no one easy answer, but would this be as rewarding of a profession if there was?
(Disclaimer: Though I’m the editor of this blog my opinions do not reflect those of the Historic House Trust of NYC.)