Working in historic house museums often can often seem like an isolated job but not in the nation’s capital, where there is the Historic House Museum Consortium of Washington, DC, an active association of forty sites that mutually support and promote each other. Every two years they also host a half-day symposium that attracts about one hundred museum guides, docents, and interpreters. This year it was held on September 17 at the impressive George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia and I joined Dr. George McDaniel of Drayton Hall and Rebecca Martin of the National Archives to talk about various aspects of tours and the visitor experience:
- George laid out that the visitor experience is much more than the tour and extends to the visitors’ planning, arrival, and departure. He emphasized the importance of little things, such as the directional signage, staff hospitality, and the condition of grounds and restrooms can have on visitors’ attitudes even before the tour starts
- In “Before You Get Engaged: Advice for Lovers of History and Historic Sites,” a light-hearted perspective on visitor engagement, I discussed three issues to consider before getting engaged with visitors: don’t marry a stranger (know your audience), don’t share everything you know about a site on a tour (keep it mysterious), and let them know what you care about (keep your passion alive).
- Becky closed the session with a series of practical approaches for keeping tours interesting and engaging, including a very clever “90 second story” tactic and an approach for handling groups of mixed generations. Her guides are asked to develop stories limited to 90 seconds, which seems to be the right length to convey sufficient information while maintaining interest. For groups with children and adults, she’ll often shorten the tour or include activities to keep the children engaged, and then make herself available afterwards to the adults to answer questions or show them another section of the site.
Associations like this are rare and in my travels across the United States, I can only think of a handful, so kudos to them for creating and maintaining this group–and I hope it inspires you to do the same in your region.