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“Hands-On Hands-Off”: Techniques to Promote Controlled Involvement

After two and a half years of anticipation our “house museum” was ready to open. It was with enthusiasm that I joined my fellow docents on an orientation tour. We were all excited — our training was about to begin! As we entered the large entrance hall, many exclamations of wonder were heard; quickly followed by those of surprise. “There are no ropes, how can we control group behavior?” “People will touch!” It was a babble of disbelief

Touring this museum was sure to be a challenge . . . letting the public get so close to artifacts and reproductions! Needless to say we all had our misgivings, but we managed to delay our many questions about our role as docents while we enjoyed our first glimpse of the restoration magic that had been performed on this 1897 home. It was so beautiful. To those of us who had seen this house before the work began, this transformation was nothing short of a miracle.

As we reassembled in the meeting room, however, my feelings of delight were replaced by questions of doubt . . . “If we take the group into the rooms, how can we keep visitors from touching?” “I don’t always want to be saying, ‘Please don’t touch’ as I guide my groups.” “What if someone sits on the furniture?” I think we were all feeling fearful. I know I was. House museums I had visited before were all the same in one feature. Each had ropes strewn across doorways. A fleeting memory of narrow plastic runners also pops up. You almost had to walk toe-to-heel to keep on that little plastic path. If we went into the rooms, I, as a docent, would be in the midst of the group; not in front as I am supposed to be. Maybe I would end up at the rear of the group as once happened to a friend on a house tour she was leading. I definitely did not want that to happen to me.

Now, my enthusiasm began to wane. This task looked too daunting. I took a deep breath, stopped my negative thoughts, and began to listen to the brainstorming going on around me. My trainers and my fellow trainees offered great ideas.

It took a while to formulate all of our techniques but the house has been open for almost a year now and, by trial and more trial, we developed some very comfortable and workable techniques. One technique used to keep visitors from sitting on chairs is a fairly common one, used in many house museums — ribbons. A ribbon placed across a chair provides a subliminal message to visitors not to sit on artifacts. The ribbons often bring questions from our guests, which provide the docent with an opportunity to explain why we discourage sitting on chairs.

Another solution if ribbons are not appealing is to slide chairs under tables. However, to give the house that “lived in” appearance, we leave chairs situated in ways that look as if someone just got up from sitting in them.

Docents and interpreters will often wear white cotton gloves such as those worn by curators. Without repeatedly saying, “Please do not touch,” the glove becomes a tool to educate the visitor on why not to touch artifacts. Visitors are naturally curious and feel compelled to open a drawer or cabinet. Wearing white gloves allows the docent to open it carefully and to satisfy the visitors’ curiosity. “The use of the gloves reminds people that everything in the house is over a hundred years old,” says one docent, “and tells children they can touch with their eyes but not their hands.”

How do you make a house museum interactive? Use reproductions! Is there a house museum in the country that does not have a stereoscope in the parlor or sitting room? How much is it mentioned on tour? How often is it compared with today’s viewmaster? Allowing visitors to use a reproduction stereoscope enables the visitor to “interact” with the past while preserving it. This “interaction” opens a dialogue about how people entertained themselves or friends, what the pictures show, travels of the time, and much more.

We have provided many reproductions in the museum. Imagine a child’s surprise when he or she is handed a paper doll of the Victorian period to play with for a few minutes. Think how special someone will feel if they are given a penny to put into a metal action bank. Other reproductions include toothbrushes, a rug beater, a telescope, and a popcorn popper. AH in some way can be used or at least touched by visitors.

Nothing says “living history” like a working, historic kitchen. All people can relate to kitchens. They are an essential part of daily life. At the 1897 Poe House, we cook on a refurbished 1902 wood stove. What better interpretive technique exists than the smell of food cooking? From cooking in a fireplace, to a wood stove, to our modern countertop ranges, all visitors relate to what goes on in the kitchen, the work it takes, and inventions to save time and energy. The kitchen allows visitors to use all their senses.

These are just a few of the techniques docents and exhibit designers can use to involve visitors without risk to an institution’s collection. At the same time, these techniques help us achieve our teaching objectives, and our goal of making visitors feel welcome.

Margaret Hast is a retired elementary teacher. She has been a docent at the Museum of the Cape Fear for four years. Leading tours gives her a chance to teach children again but in smaller doses. Margaret calls it her “kid fix.” Leisa Brown has been curator of education at the museum in Fayetteville, North Carolina for eight years. Prior to that, she was site manager at Somerset Place, assistant site manager at the Elizabeth II, and historic interpreter at Bennett Place —all state historic sites in North Carolina.

Hast, Margaret and Leisa Brown. “‘Hands-On, Hands-Off’: Techniques to Promote Controlled Involvement,” The Docent Educator 9.1 (Autumn 1999): 16-17.

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