Interpreting Historic Sites: a GWU version

This fall I’m teaching a graduate-level class on interpreting historic sites and house museums at George Washington University, which has one of the best museum studies programs in the nation (I can’t say THE best, because I attended the University of Delaware’s museum studies program).   Historic site interpretation is so popular at GWU that there are two classes:  one taught by me in the museum studies program and the other by Carol Stapp in the museum education program.  My class is focusing its work on Carlyle House, a mid-18th century house in historic Alexandria, Virginia.  Director Susan Hellman has graciously allowed my class examine its interpretation for the next few months and I’ll be sharing a few of those experience on this blog.

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I’ve significantly revised the syllabus for this fall, and because the readings form a core library on historic site interpretation, it might be useful as a bibliography of sorts to readers who are interested in this topic.  Three books are required for the course, including Interpreting Historic House Museums, edited by Jessica Foy Donnelly (Altamira, 2002).  It’s more than a dozen years old but it’s still a good introduction to the many different aspects of interpretation from many of the leaders in our profession.   New to the course and to the field is Interpretation:  Making a Difference on Purpose by Sam H. Ham (Fulcrum, 2013).  Ham is an award-winning professor of communication psychology and international conservation at the University of Idaho.  This book evolves from his popular and practical 1992 book, Environmental Interpretation, but gives much more attention to the purpose of interpretation.  The third book is not one of the usual suspects:  Design for How People Learn by Julie Dirksen (New Riders, 2011).  Dirksen is an instructional design consultant who’s created interactive e-learning experiences for Fortune 500 companies.  Her book is aimed at corporate trainers who have to instruct staff on new equipment, products, or services, but it has lots to offer anyone working in education and interpretation at historic sites.  It’s heavily illustrated and wittily written, so although you’re reading about neuroscience and cognitive behavior, you won’t mind.

Some of you may be wondering what happened to William Alderson and Shirley Payne Low’s Interpretation of HIstoric Sites (1976) and Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage (1957).  I discuss them in the first day of class as an introduction to the topic, but there isn’t sufficient time in this class to include everything I’d like (indeed, I significantly pared down the reading from last year after a near mutiny).  These two books were the stalwarts when I was in graduate school twenty-five years ago (yikes! has it been that long?) but now, they both have significant weaknesses that prevent me from using them in a graduate class.  The Alderson and Low book focuses heavily on methodologies, so after 35 years, it’s woefully out of date (remember film strips?).  Tilden’s book is even older (now more than fifty years) but still the most inspirational book on interpretation, however, it’s not scholarly.

If you have thoughts and suggestions for readings or class activities, I’d love to hear about them.

2 thoughts on “Interpreting Historic Sites: a GWU version

  1. museumpartnersconsulting

    Thanks for posting which books you use. Although I co-teach a museum education course in another one of the best (not the best because I went to Bank Street!) museum studies programs in the country at Seton Hall University, we have had trouble finding appropriate books – there are many outdated ones, as you noted! We generally compile a bunch of articles/blogposts to read for each semester, a mix of scholarly and easy to read. Wish there was a way all of us who work with museum studies students could share reading lists with each other!


    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      Sharing syllabi and reading lists is a great idea! I’ll pitch it to a couple people at the AASLH meeting this week and see if we can collect them in a single easy online place.


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