The following article was published in the National Association for Interpretation‘s Legacy magazine, aimed at professionals working in parks and museums. The content is property of Legacy and was written by Barker Mansion director Jessica Rosier.
If you’ve seen one historic home museum, you’ve seen ‘em all. Only old people visit there. They don’t allow kids inside. Looks fancy; I bet it’s expensive.
Historic home museums can be burdened with stigmas. These stigmas provide a challenge when it comes to attracting visitors and sharing an interpretive story. The Barker Mansion in Michigan City, Indiana was faced with many of these challenges when I began as director a couple years back. I like to stay that the mansion had been asleep for a few decades and was in need of a gentle awakening. Waking up from that deep sleep proved hard. It meant replacing tour scripts with interpretive outlines, shifting from an artifact-based tour to a more stories-based tour, and just getting people to realize we were an interesting place they could visit with nice, welcoming, trained interpreters! I have spent the past two-and-a-half years trying to accomplish these goals through successes and failures. In the following paragraphs, I want to share with you how the Barker Mansion has tried to overcome the stigmas of our sleepy years through interpretation. It is my hope that you can apply some of these ideas, or at least learn from our bouts of trial and error, at your own historic home museum.
If you’ve seen one boring historic home, you’ve seen ‘em all.
On a superficial level, this statement has some truth. What do you expect when touring an historic home? Fine woodwork? Rich textiles? Fancy artwork? Yes, yes, and yes. While some folks can gawk at these features all day, others want more or they’ll quickly view your historic home as just another one they’ve checked off their list. Trust me: your visitors want stories, they want gossip, and they want to feel like an insider. This was my theory, at least, when I started at the Barker Mansion in 2015.
At that time our standard tour was extremely artifact-based and did not apply any interpretive principles. While people loved the grandness of the mansion, I could immediately see their eyes glazing over with the information overload as nearly every artifact in all 38 rooms was described in painstaking detail. It was simply too much for a person’s brain to compute and quite impersonal. Tilden was probably turning in his grave, as his second principle, information, as such, is not interpretation, was violated again and again.
Through researching the family diaries, letters, and scrapbooks, I began to slowly rework the tour outline. We began to focus less on the artifacts and architecture and more on the family story through interpretation. Is a visitor really going to care that Mr. Barker’s cigar box is made of Capodimonte Porcelain that was hand painted in Naples, Italy over 200 years ago? Maybe. What’s going to really pique their interest is that the box was a fixture in the mansion’s library, which turned into his no-ladies-allowed man cave at night, a place where card playing, whiskey drinking, and cigar smoking were commonplace amid cutting business deals with clients from his nearby freight car factory.
To beat the if you’ve seen one boring historic home, you’ve seen ‘em all stigma, you need to get the back story on the home’s residents. While I understand that not all historic homes are going to have documentation on the previous residents, it can be found through creative means. Visit your local historical society to pull records related to the family. Genealogy quests, court records, and newspaper clippings can help you piece together a person’s life in the absence of written correspondence or scrapbooks. If this sounds daunting, or if you have limited staff, consider partnering with local high schools, universities, or senior centers on research projects.
Another easy, but sometimes scary, way to cure the seen ‘em all stigma is to literally let them see it all. Our Behind the Scenes Tour was released in 2015 to explore all the spaces that are off-limits during a normal guided tour. We offer this interpretive tour at least once per month, and tickets typically sell-out far in advance. We keep the tour groups small to allow for an intimate experience. Visitors get to see inside all the closets, cupboards, storage rooms, offices, the basement, and enter the rooms that are normally roped off. We took Tilden’s fifth principle, interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, pretty seriously with this one! This immersive experience takes trust on the interpreter’s part but is one of the most rewarding tours we do based on positive guest reaction. After viewing all of the hidden blemishes and inner workings (even down to the fuse boxes and plumbing) of our home, a guest could never lump us into the seen ‘em all category. Your historic home, no matter how small or seemingly uninteresting, can easily offer this type of interpretive tour. Offer the tour at night and equip each guest with a flashlight for an added feel of excitement.
Only old people visit there.
Don’t get me wrong, we love our senior citizen visitors. Retired folks on vacation and bus groups from retirement homes were the mansion’s bread and butter when I started as director. People of an older generation have a deep respect and interest in the fine details of the mansion. They often have great stories to share about their upbringing, as items inside the mansion spark fond memories from childhood. Welcoming seniors can be great fun, but I did not feel it should be the only group we were serving. To that end, I decided early on that we would target two additional groups: young families and millennials.
Designing programming specifically for families also helped us beat the they don’t allow kids inside stigma, which was quite strong when I began as director (and something we still hear from time to time today). Our garden provided the perfect setting for an inaugural kids program. I called on my friend, and local naturalist, Cookie Ferguson to create “Kids’ Nature Play in the Garden”. During the program, Cookie urged kids to explore nature as a young Catherine Barker (heiress to the family fortune) would have done in the early 1900’s. The activity was priced at just $2 a child (a way to overcome the looks fancy; I bet it’s expensive stigma) and included story time, exploration, a take-home craft, and a snack. Cookie is now in her third year of facilitating this program for us. Although it’s a program aimed at youngsters, it really becomes cross-generational as you see infants, stay-at-home moms and grandparents interacting with their kids in the mansion. If you don’t have the skills to facilitate nature programming at your site, consider reaching out to a local Master Naturalist group in your area to design the program. And if you don’t have gardens or green space at your property, try following the format with an indoors scavenger hunt on rotating topics.
Another program designed to follow Tilden’s sixth principle, interpretation addressed to children should…follow a fundamentally different approach and beat the they don’t allow kids inside stigma is our “Night at the Mansion” sleepovers. Available upon request by scout and youth groups, kids can “camp out” in the mansion’s Drawing Room for the evening. The evening includes a mansion tour geared toward kids and a pizza party. Lights out follow viewing of the movie “A Night at the Museum”. The kids have a simple breakfast of orange juice and granola bars before departing the next morning. Each child walks away with an embroidered Barker Mansion patch and bragging rights that they got to spend the night in Michigan City’s most historic building. This program is, hands-down, my favorite experience that we offer. I love hearing girls giggling in their sleeping bags at midnight as they lay under the ornately-carved plaster ceiling surrounded by world-class artwork. No matter your interpretive site, you can offer an immersive experience like this quite easily (provided you have a staff member or volunteer crazy enough to camp out with all those kids).
We’ve planned a couple programs specifically aimed at millennials over the past year. We struggle to reach this group, which is ironic because myself and most of my staff fall into this category. Our best ideas to reach millennials have involved partnering with local breweries and distilleries, something we felt would appeal to this age group. Our “Hop the Cosmos” stargaze featured our local brewery, Zorn, dispensing beer while the night sky was interpreted via a powerful telescope by friend Brad Bumgardner. To relate back to our historic roots, we created an interpretive display about stargazing during the Victorian era. Folks really enjoyed lounging in the garden after dark and sipping beer, but paid little attention to our interpretive information, so I feel we failed in this area.
Another program geared toward millennials and aimed at defeating our only old people visit there stigma was the “Bootleggin’ at Barker” event, which was a Prohibition-era cocktail party largely organized by social media platform Dig the Dunes. Guests roamed from room to room of the mansion while sampling throwback cocktails prepared by local bars. Mansion volunteers were stationed in each room with “cheat sheets” on the history of the home so they could share interpretive tidbits with guests; this was an attempt to channel Tilden’s fourth principle, the chief aim of interpretation is not instruction but provocation. Our staff was very pleased with the amount of questions we fielded about the artifacts and the Barker family throughout the evening.
These two events obviously took a lot of resources and planning; permits to serve alcohol had to obtained, partnerships established with local breweries and bars, and a big pool of volunteer help recruited. We were very intentional in how we marketed these two events geared toward millennials as well; we placed more emphasis on social media marketing and less on traditional newspaper press releases. We were sure to partner with the businesses that are thought of as “hip” and “cool” too.
Your site may be clouded with some of the stigmas just mentioned, or you may have an entirely different set of burdens to bear. Whatever the case, it is my hope that you could relate to some of the aforementioned examples, and that you find inspiration in designing programming for your interpretive site. Certainly not everything I have tried here at the Barker Mansion has been a success, or has reached the groups I intended. We have had some big misses, along with our successes. I do know, though, that more folks are feeling welcome at the mansion and more are wanting to learn our interpretive story and that can be counted as progress any day.