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Re-Interpreting the Whole-House School Tour

Been there, done that,” is all too often the reason teachers say they don’t schedule school field trips to historic house museums. If you’ve seen it, why go back? The perception that such visits merely involve a walkthrough of the whole house may be at the root of the problem many house museums have not only in attracting school groups in the first place but in promoting repeat visits. This article examines practices related to school tours based on a nationwide survey of historic house museums and describes alternatives to the traditional whole-house tour.


A questionnaire was distributed to seventy-five house museums that had paid staff and offered school programs. Follow-up telephone calls were made to those institutions that did not respond to the survey, resulting in some data being obtained orally. A total of 44 institutions, nearly 58 percent, in all regions of the country, including rural, small town, and large urban areas, eventually responded.


Only sixteen of the responding institutions indicated they offer no alternatives to whole-house school tours. While some of the responding documentary historic houses affirmed having other than whole-house tours, most of those claiming alternatives are in their interpretative approach representative house museums. However, the percentage of alternative tours offered by these museums is a small number of the total school tours provided in a single year. The vast majority report that most of their requests for school visits are for whole-house tours.

Requests for alternative tours range from a high of about eighty percent at the Baltimore City Life Museums to a low of five percent in smaller houses. On average, museums offering alternatives to whole-house tours report 20 – 25 percent of their total yearly tours are non-traditional in form or content. Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of requests for school tours reported by these institutions come in the spring of the year.

The survey data indicate that alternative tours are led by paid and volunteer staff Self-guided tours constitute a very small percentage of the total. Only eight institutions specifically stated that special alternative tour training is given to volunteer interpreters.

As might be expected, the reported reaction of volunteers to doing something other than a whole-house tour was mixed. While most indicated positive reactions from docents, one summed up the negative reactions of others in saying, “The docents are generally resistant to change.” Another noted that volunteers who are uncomfortable with children tend to prefer giving traditional tours. And one respondent mentioned what may be a more common problem — the tendency of docents to slip back into the traditional mode in the course of an alternative tour.

Content and Form of Alternative Tours

Although the survey found a wide range of programs being offered by house museums as alternatives to the traditional walk-though-the-whole-house tour, the content and format differences fall into three categories; focused/thematic tours, outreach programs, and true alternatives to seeing the whole house.

Focused/Thematic Tours

For many house museums, alternatives to whole-house tours in fact mean a focused approach to going through the whole place. Typical of these is the McFadden- Ward House (Texas) third grade, “Etiquette & Social Customs: 1890 – 1910” tour, which stresses calling customs, domestic duties, etc. related to the various rooms of the house.

Zeroing in on Frank Lloyd Wright’s use of art glass, art pottery, furniture, and lighting fixtures is one approach taken in tours of Illinois’s Dana-Thomas House. At Clayton, the Pittsburgh home of Henry Clay Frick, tour themes include “Growing Up at Clayton,” dealing with the daily lives of the Frick children, “Marvels of Victorian Technology at Clayton,” and “Flowers, Fruit, and Ferns,” that focuses on the plants the family used to decorate their home, and includes a scavenger hunt in the greenhouse.

At Minnesota’s James J. Hill House, the “Riddle Tour” poses a number of riddles to students, each of which is solved by exploring a specific area of the house. Once “solved,” the riddle’s meaning is examined within the context of the domestic life of the Hill family. Focus tours given at the Chrysler Museum’s historic houses (Adam Thoroughgood, Myers, and Willoughby-Baylor) include those devoted to home and family life, 17th and 18th century science, and fiber arts.

To acquaint students with the intellectual life of one of nineteenth-century America’s most literary families, a “Journal-Writing Tour” is offered at Orchard House, the Concord, Massachusetts, home of the Alcotts. Using daily records kept by family members, the tour centers around reading diary excerpts with periodic pauses for students to write or draw their own thoughts and impressions.

School programs, sometimes referred to as “lessons” as distinct from “tours,” involve activities carried on either in the historic structure itself or in another space on-site. Such thematic offerings are the most common form of alternatives to whole-house school tours. Often in a workshop format, virtually all of these programs involve either hands-on experiences with artifacts and/or reproductions. Some include a project component in which students make something. Most are longer than the traditional one-hour house tour, though shorter periods are common at lower grade levels (typically 1 1/2 hours). And many also include going through the whole house at some point in the visit.

At Norfolk’s Thoroughgood House, Meyers House, and Willoughby-Baylor House such hands-on programs include, “Bread and Butter,” “Candle Dipping,” “Herbal Dying,” “Sachets and Nosegays,” “Calligraphy,” and “Plastering.” AH of the school programs at these historic houses are keyed to the state’s learning goals. However, only a few house museums report such formal curricular coordination.

The Woodrow Wilson House (Washington, DC) offers elementary school students the program “At Home with the Wilsons,” that incorporates primary source documents and role-playing activities that help children explore the lives of those who lived and worked in the house, including the cook and butler. High school programs include “Wilson and Progressive Reform” and “The League of Nations.” A similar “events-in-the-life-of” approach is taken in several of the thematic programs provided at the President Benjamin Harrison House in Indianapolis. AH of these programs include a partial tour of the house. Harrison’s role as territorial governor is the subject of “Native Americans of Indiana,” while “The Civil War” centers on Harrison as commander of a Union regiment and involves students in role-playing the lives of Civil War soldiers. In a like vein, the Blount Mansion in Knoxville, Tennessee, has students explore the mansion’s role as frontier capitol and the career of Governor William Blount, who was instrumental in moving the territory to statehood.

Living history characters are used in the Orchard House’s “A Visit with the Alcotts” program, where staff members take part in parlor “entertainments” and conversations typical of the Alcotts and their friends. “In the Spirit of Improvement: The Alcotts as Social Activists,” teachers select three of the seven reform movements in which the Alcotts were active to introduce students to the social issues and intellectual climate of the mid-nineteenth century. Students experience through role-playing what it was like to be educated the “Alcottian” method in a program titled, “A Bronson Alcott School Day: Educational Reform in the 19th Century.”

The Francis Land House in Virginia illustrates how a small house museum copes with its tight logistical constraints. Rather than giving traditional tours, a room is used as a “learning lab.” In “Plantation People,” fifth graders use reproductions in role-playing activities in the dining room to re-enact the Francis Land family, local artisans, and Land family slaves. Third grade students in “On Our Own: Plantation Life” explore life on a self-sufficient plantation by playing Colonial period games, watching a craft demonstration, and making a horn book.

In New Orleans’ French Quarter, the Hermann-Grima House offers second graders a “trunk tour” that includes a mid-nineteenth-century cooking demonstration in the house kitchen, a visit to the stable, and presentation of items children of the period would take with them on a trip. The McAllister House Museum in Colorado Springs has a similar trunk component to its house tour, which involves students examining domestic tools and other artifacts in the carriage house adjacent to the McAllister home.

Off-site alternatives to whole-house tours include Norfolk’s Myers House “Sail into History” program involving a tour of the house and sailing on the American Rover, a reproduction nineteenth-century schooner where students explore not only history but aspects of marine biology and ecology as well. One of the Chrysler Museum’s historic house school programs is a three-hour trolley tour taking students to three Norfolk historic sites, where they do hands-on activities and have a living history experience with an eighteenth century free Black laundress.

Outreach Programs

A few of the responding institutions counted outreach programs as alternatives to whole-school tours. Some supply outreach kits of documents and artifacts for classroom use that differ from their pre- and post-visit materials. Others, such as the Chrysler Museum’s Historic Houses and the Francis Land House send interpreters to the schools to do programs on fiber arts, historical costumes, documents, historical archaeology, crafts, and daily life. The McFaddin-Ward House offers two “student enrichment” programs involving classroom visits by museum volunteers (a third grade “Etiquette and Social Customs 1890 – 1910” and an eleventh grade “Literature and the Decorative Arts – -The American Renaissance”). Orchard House offers teachers “A Visit from Louisa May Alcott,” a classroom program with an actress/ historian who recreates the author of Little Women by combining stage drama with living history.

True Alternatives to Seeing the Whole House

While many house museums offer a variety of experiences to school groups, most of them seem to use formats that include touring the whole house at some point during the field trip. Students may see the house from a particular slant or different focus or perspective, but they still see the whole place in the process.

Students in a graduate course in museum education at Northern Illinois University worked with the staff of the Ellwood House Museum (DeKalb, Illinois) and groups of teachers at three local middle/junior high schools in developing two alternatives to whole-house tours.

The first of these alternatives, “Under One Roof,” designed for fifth grade, was limited to the private spaces of the house, specifically the bedrooms of the parents, their daughter, the governess, and the cook. The second, “An Air of Refinement: The Social Customs and Decorative Arts of a Wealthy American Family, 1879 – 1912,” a seventh grade tour, focuses on the public spaces of the house (main hallway, dining-room, parlor, living room, ballroom) and deals with decorative arts, social customs (calling and etiquette), and entertaining, and culminates with students planning an evening of entertainment as it might have been when the Ellwoods lived in the house. In both cases, issues of class, gender, and ethnicity are addressed in the printed manuals and in-house activities. Extensive pre- and post- and in-house learning materials and activities were developed and pilot tested. Docents were given special training by one of the graduate students who had contributed to the project and was subsequently hired as the site’s educator.

By limiting the parts of the house students see during their visit, these two Ellwood House tours represent true alternatives to whole-house tours. 7\11 activities, which are artifact-centered and issue-oriented, take place in the mansion’s rooms, not in orientation areas or other spaces. Docents function as facilitators, not guides in the traditional sense. Inquiry learning using study sheets and questioning strategies focusing on artifacts analysis and interpretation, not dispensing information, is the pedagogical approach taken.

Observations and Recommendations

By their very nature, historic house museums encounter challenges not faced by other types of museums. In the first place, the physical integrity and security of the structure itself and its collections are at greater risk from visitors. The logistical difficulties involved in juggling bus loads of visitors as they move within the confined spaces of a historic house raises both security and pedagogical problems. Lacking the ability to “change” that other museum have by mounting temporary exhibitions, reinstallations, or rotating the permanent collection, and adding high-tech interactive devices in the galleries, among other things, house museums must find alternative ways to increase repeat visits by school groups, particularly those in their local area that may have become jaded with the experience of whole-house tours over the years.

One way to do this is through thematic/focused field trips, that make the point that the past and its material remains can be studied from more than one perspective or point of view. While many house museums are presenting such tours of the whole house, too many do not adequately differentiate the experience as sharply as they might. Using the same activities, artifacts, or teaching methods at various grade levels and “adapting” them to the appropriate developmental level, as their brochures say they do, is not enough. Using different artifacts, tour formats, teaching strategies, and in particular different rooms are ways of really making tours distinctive and encouraging repeat visits both at the same and different grade levels.

At higher grade levels, an issues-oriented approach might be taken, particularly where the house documents differences in class/status, gender, race/ethnicity. There is evidence that some house museums no longer limit their interpretation to the lives of rich or middle-class white folks. It is encouraging that places like the Baltimore City Life Museum, the Francis Land House, Ellwood House, the Chrysler Museum’s Historic Houses, and Dom Robotnika (the Worker’s Home Museum run by the Northern Indiana Center for History) have begun to address issues of social diversity in their tours, some of which directly challenge the consensus history that has been perpetuated far too long by house museums.

A day in the life of the servants of a house could be the focus of a tour. The house as it reflects the lives of women who lived there and the contemporary attitudes on a range of social and political issues (i.e. – women, minorities, labor, immigration) might be other topical approaches to tours that could concentrate on a limited number of rooms or involve more in-depth study of selected artifacts and documents rather than touring the whole house. Time-of-Day and Season-of-the-Year tours are yet other options. In these a tour would focus on those rooms most heavily in use at a particular time of day—for example the kitchen and the dining room at meal time — and the role of various members of the household at those times. Seasonal routines played a more significant part in peoples lives, particularly those living in small towns and rural areas, prior to the twentieth century than they do today. Tours like these would provide opportunities to interpret those artifacts (cleaning and cooking technology for instance), some of which would not normally be on regular public view. “A Death in the Family” tour offered in Winter, for example, would give students the chance to learn about mourning customs of the past and see the house in a very different light. A “Spring Wedding” tour would present the house and the activities of its residents in yet another way. Offering topical tours on these ritual occasions and on seasonal chores or routines only in the season in which they took place might help to alleviate the annual May inundation of school children by spreading school field trips more evenly over the whole year.

In addition to spreading the school visits out over the year, alternatives to whole-house tours would have pedagogical advantages in that more in-depth learning would be possible, and the sensory overload occasioned by the traditional “walk and gawk” house tour lessened. Instead of merely looking at artifacts in terms of their materials, technology, possible aesthetic qualities, and initial intended use, limiting the number of rooms on a tour and giving it a thematic focus would provide more time to explore the social significance of artifacts, their implications for the values, attitudes, beliefs, and assumptions of the society that produced them and how their meanings have changed over time.

The advantages of alternatives to whole-house school tours both to historic house museums and to schools far outweigh the problems involved in developing them. As current practices in house museums reported in this study document, a good start has been made through alternative tour formats and methods in fundamentally changing what millions of school children experience when they take field trips to historic houses. Interpreting a house from different perspective can do much to change teachers’ perception that they’ve been there and done that.

Terry Zeller, Ph.D., is professor of Art and Museum Studies at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL.

Zeller, Terry. “Re-Interpreting the Whole-House School Tour,” The Docent Educator 7.3 (Spring 1998): 8-11.


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