Docent Educator Logo

10 Red Flags for Historic House Museums

Did you know there are more historic house museums than any other kind of museum in the United States? Of the approximately 8,000 museums in America there are over 3,000 historic properties. Most towns have at least one stately home open to the public. The common thread running through these institutions is “the tour.” Docent-led tours are the primary method of experiencing historic house museums.

“The tour” constitutes the main interpretive scheme and is often the only interpretive program at historic properties. And, it is the docents/ interpreters/guides to whom the vitality of our national heritage is entrusted through the tours they give. By helping to shape perceptions of the past, these tours can have a significant influence on the millions of people who visit historic house museums each year.

Sometimes, however, these tours leave visitors more confused than enlightened. For a recent docent training session, the McFaddin-Ward House came up with “10 Red Flags,” a list of common interpretive stumbling blocks. Docents need to be aware that these content concepts and strategies can cause confusion and sometimes consternation among the touring public. The intuitive docent should handle these issues with care.

  1. Frame of Reference. There may be an event or person who is of monumental importance at a site, but who is completely unfamiliar to visitors. References to this person or event should begin with a brief orientation. An example from the McFaddin-Ward House involves unintroduced references to “Spindletop.” To southeast Texans, “Spindletop” is synonymous with the discovery of oil near Beaumont, Texas, in 1901, which launched the petroleum age in the Lone Star State. A visitor from Pennsylvania was dumbfounded by references to Spindletop. After the tour, she finally asked, “What is Spindletop? To her, , the oil industry began in Titusville, Pennsylvania!
  2. Flying Dates. Throwing out too many dates and numbers will jumble the chronology the docent is trying to communicate. Every property can cite its own humorous examples of this problem. From the McFaddin-Ward House: “Moving into a new home at 1906 McFaddin Avenue in 1907 was 50- year-old W.P.H. McFaddin and his young family, including his 34-yearold wife Ida, 16 years his junior, and their three children, Mamie, Perry, and Caldwell, ages 11, 10, and 6.”
  3. Genealogical Boondoggle. Visitors cannot grasp the nuances of a family’s genealogical tree; in a one-hour tour, nor do they want to. Keeping the key players’ names and descent in order is the best a docent can hope to do. It is helpful to have a copy of genealogical information and a family tree on hand to answer questions, but delving into generations will be beyond the tolerance of most visitors.
  4. What’s in a Name? Going hand-in-hand with the genealogical boondoggle is the problem of names. At many sites where family lineage is discussed, everyone seems to have the same name. At the McFaddin-Ward House there was an ancestor named William, who had a son William, who had a son William. Docents can avoid confusion about the Williams by keeping in mind the tour’s main focus. Interpret the key people and mention the remainder only peripherally.
  5. Correct Address. It is hard to know how to refer to the key players at a site. When visiting the McFaddin-Ward House in the early 20th century a guest would never have referred to Mr. and Mrs. W.P.H. McFaddin as Perry and Ida — their given names. They would have used the more formal tides of Mr. and Mrs. McFaddin. On tour, however, people who never knew the McFaddins refer to them as W.P.H. and Ida. At Monticllo, Thomas Jefferson is referred to as Mr. Jefferson. It remains up to those at individual sites to determine what is appropriate.
  6. If it ain’t Baroque. Unless “the tour” is intended to focus on decorative arts, listing furnishings’ cataloguing information is not necessary. If information about an object’s style, manufacturer, or provenance does not relate to the story a docent is telling, it is extraneous.
  7. The Snooty Factor. Because most historic houses once belonged to members of the social, cultural, or financial elite, tours can assume an air of haughtiness. On a recent tour of a grand home along the Mississippi River, the docent discussed “Sotheby’s this and Christie’s that.” She left the shorts and tee-shirt clad guests feeling shabby and plebeian. Good interpretation is not elitist. As a docent at the Shadows-on-the-Teche in Louisiana was once heard to say, “Now this is everybody’s house.”
  8. Title Search. Many house museums have a variety of owners before being restored into educational institutions. The line of ownership can be confusing, as well as extremely interesting. Docents should acknowledge the lineage and briefly explain.
  9. Constructive-itis. In trying to understand the history of a site, visitors deserve to know what sort of alterations have been made to a property. Drayton Hall in South Carolina is the rarest of the rare — a pristine architectural specimen. The rest of museum-dom must construct precise and concise word-pictures to inform visitors of the construction history of a site.
  10. What’s Outside? At some historic house museums. the outside is not acknowledged; the docent concentrates exclusively on the interior. Nevertheless, the overall architecture and the landscape are powerful pieces of an historic site’s puzzle. The way a building is situated on land may be its reason for being. Discussion of the landscape — both now and then — is integral to understanding a site’s history.

For example, when built in 1906, the McFaddin-Ward House was near the western edge of Beaumont— almost in the country. Cows were kept off the property by a wooden fence. The city has long ago overtaken the area and now the house sits in a rapidly changing urban neighborhood. This information is relevant and provides a context within which the visitor can better understand the entire site.

Jamie Credle is the Education Coordinator at the McFaddin-Ward House in Beaumont, Texas. Ms. Credle received a B.A. in History and English from Salem College, and an MA. in American History from U.N.C. at Greensboro. A previous article authored by Ms. Credle, entitled “Using Quotations as a Theme,” appeared in the Autumn 1993 issue of The Docent Educator.

[Ms. Credle wishes to acknowledge Jessica Foy, curator at the McFaddin- Ward House, for providing “indispensible editorial comments and suggestions.”]

Credle, Jamie. “10 Red Flags for Historic House Museums,” The Docent Educator 6.3 (Spring 1997): 4-5.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *