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Interpreting the Historic House Museum

Anyone who has taken “the tour” at more than two historic house museums knows the variety and quality of site experiences is striking and telling. The American house museum culture offers everything from the structured sophistication of a Winterthur tour to the folksy and often improvised guided adventure delivered at “Every Home Historic House USA.” Yet, the docents at both institutions are in the same business. One has had the good fortune of training, coordination, and resources while the other relies on passion, instinct, and the history learned through life experiences. Though a uniform manner of tour presentation would lessen the vibrancy of the history that museums teach, it would be beneficial for house museums to pay as much attention to their tours and the docent programs that produce them, as they do to other areas of museum operations.

From the museum education perspective, sometimes there is an imbalance of priorities. Asked what she needs from her museum, a docent recently answered, “I wish they [someone in charge] would tell us where to go.” Meaning, there is no one at her site to coordinate the arrival of bus groups and tell docents what route to take in order to prevent groups from running into each other. When asked, “Anything else?” the same docent replied, “It would be nice if someone made sure the lights were on and the trash has been picked up before the tours begin.” This docent works at one of the more important house museums in her state, well-known for its architecture, history, and decorative arts. Why would a museum go to the trouble of amassing a collection and spending large sums on structural restoration and leave docents who present the site to the public to interpret by default?

As a Colonial Williamsburg interpreter put it, “Objects do not speak volumes.” The museum field needs skilled interpreters who can use collections to illuminate the past. It is up to house museum managers to ensure that their staffs —volunteer and/or paid — have the training and structure required to make a meaningful visit for those who seek them out. At the McFaddin-Ward House the all-volunteer docent corps must complete a thirteen week training program that includes three book reports, a written test, and an evaluation tour before being “turned loose” on the touring public. Along with this, docents have a coordinator who manages tours, schedules, and volunteer recognition. Although such a program may not be possible or appropriate for all historic house museums, the following are suggestions for empowering the docent at any house museum.

The Job

Docents need to know their job —what is required and what is expected. If making the house ready for tours is the docents’ responsibility, they need to know it. A written job description detailing the nature of the work is appropriate for good management and should be given to aU docents. If you do not already have written job descriptions, an interesting exercise is to have docents write descriptions of their jobs as they see them and compare their thoughts with site management’s expectations. The McFaddin-Ward house has a volunteer manual detailing all aspects of docent service including job responsibilities and tour logistics.

Hierarchy and Rewards

Beyond written job descriptions, the docents should understand where they fit in the museum’s hierarchy. Docents should know who makes the decisions that affect their job, who is their supervisor, who supervises their supervisor, who schedules docents, who provides new interpretation, and who evaluates the docents. Docents must also understand their value to the institution as the link between the museum and the visitor. Most historic house museums may be experienced only through a guided tour, which makes docents the human manifestation of the museum’s interpretation.

Docents should be rewarded for their service. For most, service is reward enough. Beyond that, however, recognition and site-wide awareness of docent commitment is important to morale and continued enthusiasm. A “You’re doing a great job” sticky-note or recognition at a community gathering can have the same effect as a steak dinner.

Training and the 4C’s

Training should come at a variety of levels. Let’s call them the 4C’s — content, communication, customer service, and continuing education.

Content — Docents should understand the rationale for the house being a museum, i.e. “Why is it historically important?” They need to be aware of the documentary basis for the site’s interpretation — i.e. “How do we know what we know?” And, they need to be aware of up-to-date research about the site. The savvy visitor can spot a phony, and a decent thrown out to interpret something she knows little about is an historical interpretation phony. At the McFaddin-Ward House along with classes that emphasize local history, family history, architecture, domestic service, decorative arts, and museum philosophy, each docent receives a manual, which is updated annually, delineating all aspects of the site’s interpretation. Tour development revolves around grasping the central theme and sub-themes (each room has a theme) that define the site experience.

Communication — Most house museum docents have an affinity for history. They seek out knowledge about the subject. However, communicating history to a visiting audience is something different all together.

Theme development and presentation are central to good tour communication. As Professor Sam Ham, author of Environmental Interpretation: A Practical Guide for People with Big Ideas and Small Budgets, preaches, “People don’t remember facts. They remember themes.” Along with theme development, topics such as vocal quality, gestures, eye contact, and questioning techniques should be part of training. These areas do not necessarily require outside experts. Thankfully, retired teachers, who make up a good percentage of the docent world, should already be familiar with these concepts and may be willing to help in training. Feedback from buddy tours and supervisory evaluations can help the docent develop an engaging style.

Communication training should also include ways to adapt interpretation to fit the audience — how to adjust tours for children, people with special needs or disabilities, connoisseurs, and people who speak languages other than English. Teachers, advocates for the disabled, and local experts may assist in these training areas.

Customer Service —When someone suggested customer service training, a volunteer coordinator was heard to say, “Our volunteers will not appreciate being told they need to improve their manners.” Good customer services involve more than manners. It should permeate all aspects of the docent’s job — from providing a conscientiously delivered tour in a timely manner, to an awareness of visitors’ needs, to an ability to provide information on the best way to experience the community which surrounds the museum. The docent should be familiar with highway names and numbers, the location of neighboring sites, lodging and restaurants, hints on timing and best routes to get to a visitor’s next stop. Local convention and visitors bureau personnel are always pleased to help out with this type of information.

Continuing Education — Because of the changing nature of history and the discovery of new information, the idea “once trained, always trained” does not work at house museums. Keeping presentations fresh and vital requires ongoing maintenance. Many house museums offer interpretation-related lectures, programs and workshops that docents should be strongly encouraged, if not required, to attend. The publication of new research in volunteer newsletters and having interpretation discussion opportunities can enliven and rejuvenate a tired presentation and encourage docent retention.

Finally, evaluation at all levels of your docent program should be routine. The docent organization, training, and tours should all be evaluated to ensure they are working effectively. There should be opportunities for all stakeholders, from the board to the visitor, to change, adapt, and/or celebrate the program. Staff/ docent tour evaluation is a time consuming, labor-intensive, and often anxiety-ridden process. Alternatives, which are often discussed in this publication, are extremely helpful, such as self-evaluation — i.e. asking visitors at the end of a tour “What are you going to remember from this tour?”— and buddy tour feedback. With introspection and determination, docent programs can change the perception of house museums from musty relics into old friends worthy of consideration and preservation. The docent holds the key.

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 M.A. in American history from U.N. C. at Greensboro. Among the other articles Ms. Credle has contributed to The Docent Educator, her most recent was “10 Red Flags for Historic House Museums, ” which appeared in the Spring 1997 issue (Vol 6, No. 3).

Credle, Jamie. “Interpreting the Historic House Museum,” The Docent Educator 9.1 (Autumn 1999): 14-15.

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