Historic home tours are a staple in communities on every continent. People want to honor their famous people and point out elegant architecture. Famous people and elegant architecture attract a certain audience, so together, preservation, careful maintenance of historic properties, and well-crafted historic home tours add to the pride and prestige of every community, and bring in dollars from heritage tourists.
The following techniques can be applied to many interpretive sites, historic and natural, but I want to call attention to historic properties because they are so prevalent, striking, and tell the story of the community, yet they are often staffed by volunteers who love the place but don’t have access to interpretation training.
Before I get to interpretation, I need to say a word about preservation of the resource. In the conclusion of their book, The Gifts of Interpretation, authors Larry Beck and Ted Cable make a simple, but critical statement:
“The first and most important lesson is: Do not destroy the gift.”
This leads to a lengthy discussion, but I’ll make just three notes.
1 – Recognize that your historic property is a gift that offers many values to your visitor and your community. Protect that gift.
2 – Your historic property is fragile. Yes, it may have stood for a hundred years, but it can be destroyed by a few bad decisions. Those decisions can involve turning landscapes into parking lots, removing the site’s small outbuildings, maintaining the structure using modern materials or by workmen who don’t understand historic preservation (see The Secretary of the Interior’s Guidelines for Historic Preservation at NPS.gov), and every small, daily decision that bit by bit chips away at the site’s historic integrity. Do not destroy the gift!
3 – In your interpretation remember that it’s always about the people: the people who built and inhabited the site, more than the structure or the furnishings … and that leads us to the way you present your historic home and your organization to the public and your community: interpretation.
Techniques for memorable interpretation
- The landscaping and outbuildings are an important part of the story. It’s common to protect the massive Victorian home but tear down and haul away the tool shed, the carriage house, the well house, and the storage shed, and to rip out 100-year old plants and replace them with modern varieties. But these complete the story of how people here lived, what they did, and more. They provide interesting and valuable connections – we have a garage, they had a small barn where they kept a carriage, wagon, and fed the horses on the side. Here is where they butchered hogs in early winter and here is where they fed the chickens. These are wonderful elements for interpretation and understanding of life at your site.
- Make a personal, human, connection between people and time. It’s common for beautiful, large, impressive structures to be saved, while the homes of average people, the middle class, face urban renewal. You can’t save everything, nor do you want to, but in your interpretation contrast and compare life in this fine home with life elsewhere in the city at that time. Explain how the average person lived. Identify with your average audience – today’s middle class – and note how, say, a mercantile owner and his family might have lived. Explain the average size house in cost, space, outbuildings, etc., and compare that with us today, then to those who lived in your house museum.
- When you interpret the past know that we can’t imagine the past. Tour guides often say: “Imagine it’s 1888.” That’s not going to happen; we can’t do that. You have to paint that picture for us with your description, or show us a picture, or otherwise bring us into that era. Unless we have studied that time period, we know only a smattering about it, and we cannot imagine it with enough detail to follow your story.
- Begin with the exterior. So often we rush inside, yet it is the beautiful architecture seen from the street that attracts many people to your historic home. Begin with the beauty outside.
- Walk around the structure, noting landscaping, especially calling attention to period, historic/heirloom plantings. Note the outbuildings if present, or show a photograph of them, or show a photo of a typical outbuilding layout and explain the function of the structures (so much gets destroyed over time). It’s important to establish the physical context of the site.
- Note what houses, shops, and offices lined the streets around your historic home. Again, you are building context within the community. Today the home may be the only remaining structure of its kind in the surrounding area, but when built the entire street may have been filled with these beautiful structures. Look for Sanborn Insurance Company city maps. They are excellent resources and can be copied and used as a “pocket exhibit” to show the nearby structures.
- Now begin to focus on the structure itself. Point out elements of the architectural style and note the era it was popular and the years it was built. Help your audience grasp
the elements of this style so they can confidently identify t
he style when they see it in another city, or back home. This should be a learning goal: Visitors will be able to identify four characteristics of a (Art Deco/ Victorian/ Colonial/ Greek Revival) house.
- Know why your site is architecturally and historically significant. There are historic homes everywhere. Why should a traveler skip others but stop at yours? What makes you so special? Be sure that answer is a central part of your interpretive message. Another learning goal: Every visitor will understand that this place is important because … .
- Once you know your significance, create your essential message – your compelling story. From that develop a strong theme that ties your tour together. This should be a complete sentence that you repeat several times during the tour and that the visitor can remember and ponder.
- Know the difference between a house and a home. A house is wood, brick, masonry, construction, and architecture. Sure, there are some good stories there that must be told. But people identify with people. Tell the story of home – a place where people lived, where children were raised, where a family lived and died. Those are the powerful, memorable stories. Tell the stories of home and you will hold the attention and gain the heart of your audience.
- Begin on time and end on time, but plan plenty of time for a relaxed tour.
- Face the visitors, don’t talk to the furniture.
- Speak to the people in the back, then everyone will hear you.
- Be relaxed, you are part of the experience. You don’t have to be like anyone else or do the tour like anyone else. Enjoy the tour and be yourself, with a smile.
- Select the number of “stops’ and limit them to your most important stories, some outside, some inside. You don’t have to, or want to, say something about everything. People don’t want a firehose, just a drink of water. Don’t walk two feet and stop: move some, talk some, and keep the flow going.
- Use pocket exhibits and surprises: have touchable items in a pocket that you can bring out at the perfect moment, stash things, like the mentioned Sanborn map, or a tool, or a unique invention, that you can grab at that point on the tour and pass around or demonstrate to your audience to bring your story to life.
- Use a quote or poem or short story, and select someone from the audience to read it – stash a hat or coat at the right place to dress them and create an instant character.
- Don’t tell how things worked; show how things worked. What do you have that visitors can operate? A mouse trap? An apple peeler? A churn? Simply lifting the lid of a Dutch oven is action and can elicit a “Wow, that’s heavy!”
- Be prepared for odd questions and encourage spontaneity; laugh and have fun.