Overcoming Stigmas through Interpretation

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.

Morning Room at Barker Mansion

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).

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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.

Couple in Monuments Room at Bootleggin

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.

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Scary good changes

Change is scary.

 Change is good.

Change is hard.

Change is easy.

What’s your take on change? Is it scary? Good? Easy? Hard? I believe it is all of the above. At the Barker Mansion, many changes have been made over the last 21 months.

Some of the changes were good (and easy). Getting rid of mold and asbestos in our basement was an easy decision to make and has led to a good change. We now have a clean, well-lit space for future programming.

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Above: The basement at Barker Mansion during the renovation process.

Investing staff time and hiring qualified people like Jackie and Emily to organize our precious archival photos and documents was an easy decision and a change that’s led to all sorts of good. The materials will soon be available digitally to researchers across the globe. Intern Anna is continually researching bits of our past that make us change our story, just in the slightest ways.

Some of the changes were good (and scary). Opening up the mansion to after-hours tours during the Halloween season and letting folks wander in the dark was a scary thought. TJ’s Barker Blackout Tours, however, were among our most popular events for the year.

Another scary good change has been allowing the consumption of alcohol on-site during events such as bridal showers, or Austin’s upcoming Painting the Past program (think wine and canvas-type event). I initially worried about the protection of the artifacts if people were drinking and got tipsy. So far, folks have been extremely well-mannered and my worries have amounted to nothing. It’s been a good change.

So what about the hard changes we’ve made?

Some changes have been hard in the matter of time they consume. Designing a website. Branding the mansion. Deep-cleaning every square inch. Working to the wee hours of the morning so contractors can finish the basement work on time. Staying up all night during Night at the Mansion scout sleepovers. Despite the amount of time all the aforementioned tasks have taken, they have been extremely worth it and have led to good change.

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Above: Night at the Mansion scout sleepovers.

Other changes have been hard due to the unknowns. Will people complain if we change our tour times and offerings? How will people respond to more authentic (and way toned-down) Christmas decorations? Will teachers grumble if we scrap a long-running field trip program and replace it with more historically-based material? What will people think if we rope off certain rooms to protect the artifacts? All of these questions posed great concerns to me, and still do. While we certainly take criticism for some changes, others are met with great acceptance.

Please wish us luck, foresight and wisdom as we continue to make scary good changes at the Barker Mansion.

Jessica Rosier, Director

jrosier@emichigancity.com

A Night at the Mansion

This past Friday, the Barker Mansion held the first ever Night at the Mansion event. Basically, the mansion allowed two troops of girl scouts to spend the night in the mansion. They received a tour of the mansion (including a “behind the scenes” tour), had dinner in the Barker dining room, and watched a movie and played games in the drawing room. The girls spent the night and enjoyed a nice breakfast in the morning. Before I left for the night, I had the opportunity to speak with some of the troop leaders and the girls.

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Jessica getting everyone ready for the night.

I first talked to Amy and Kelly from Troop 00012 about their experience having the scouts visit and spend the night. They thought it would be an interesting, fascinating idea for the group. Amy mentioned how she used to visit the mansion a lot when she was a kid, and Kelly told me that she visits all the time for different events and weddings. They both had an amazing time. They found it to be a very rich learning experience for the girls and themselves. Amy really liked that she was able to share the mansion with her own daughter, Juliana. Kelly made a great point that every time you visit, you notice something new. They also enjoyed the large group aspect for the fact that the girls asked a variety of questions during the tour.

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The girl scouts of Troop 00012.

I also spoke with the troop leader for Troop 30204, Joan. Whereas Troop 00012 consists of girls around the age of nine, Joan’s group consists of teenagers (around 15 and 16). She mentioned to me that her and her girls are always looking for fun and exciting things to do. All of them are very interested with history, and they thought coming to the Barker Mansion satisfied that interest greatly. Joan mentioned a cool part of the mansion were the carvings in the wood and the architecture overall. Her and her daughter, Anastasia, love architecture, and they really enjoyed the mansion’s. Joan felt that visiting the mansion gave all the girls a real appreciation for history. She also said the visit and tour brought history to life through the mansion. Being able to walk in and around the many rooms and halls of the mansion allowed the girls to see history as more than just names and dates.

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The girl scouts of 30204.

As great as talking to the troop leaders was, I also made an effort to talk to the girls. I always find it important to get the different perspectives. I had the pleasure to sit down and speak with Amelia, Krystani, Juliana, and Megan as they played checkers. Off the bat, all four girls exclaimed how awesome and cool they thought the mansion was. After being able to walk through the mansion, Amelia said it felt like a dream. She, and many other girls, wished to own and live in the mansion. Her favorite part was the library since she loves books. Krystani had a harder time picking her favorite part because she loved all of it too much. She was very ecstatic about the entire thing, wanting to go on the tour the moment she walked through the mansion’s door. Krystani made a great point about not being able to touch anything. This made everyone see with their eyes and really take good looks, maybe even double takes, of everything they saw.

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Asking and answering questions about the mansion.

Mentioned before, we had a few teenagers a part of the scout’s night over. I had the opportunity to speak with two of them, Anastasia and Gwen. Both thought the mansion was really cool, and they thoroughly enjoyed touring. Anastasia talked about she recently visited Europe, a visit she loved. She compared visiting the mansion to Europe based on the architecture. Her favorite aspect of the mansion was the architecture, finding it really cool and fascinating to examine. Gwen’s favorite part was Catherine’s room. They thought spending the night was a great idea since they were able to walk through the mansion as a smaller group. It was like being a part of something, something in history.

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Learning about the mansion on the tour.

This was the first time the Barker Mansion ever allowed people to spend the night. The girls of Troops 00012 and 30204 loved the fact they were first, the trendsetters. We loved having them as much as they loved being here. The best part for us is that we were able to share the mansion and it’s rich history with a great group of young people, children and teens. We would love to have them, and any other similar groups, back again.

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Everyone together for a fun time.

Miguel Valencia