What historic sites are doing great interpretation?
Behind the Velvet Ropes tour at the Gamble House.
That’s a question I’m often asked by my clients and while I can usually rattle off a half dozen examples, it’s usually not very satisfying. If I suggest a ranger-led tour of Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, the behind-the-velvet-ropes tour at the Gamble House in California, and the Dennis Severs’ House in London, you can quickly see the problems—you need to experience them to understand them, plus they’re thousands of miles apart.
Although I’ve been working in Charleston, South Carolina for more than a decade, it was just this past month that I realized that it’s an ideal place for experiencing a wide range of interpretive approaches for historic house museums. In November, I joined Mike Buhler, the executive director of San Francisco Heritage, in Charleston to study a wide range of interpretive methods, from guided to self-guided, from furnished to unfurnished, from exhibits to period rooms, from grand mansions to humble cabins. Heritage is in the midst of re-interpreting the Haas-Lilienthal House, so Mike found the research trip to be incredibly helpful because it showed him various possibilities and clarified what methods would be most effective for his historic house museum.
Charleston, South Carolina has one of the most active convention and visitor bureaus in the nation and it has embraced the value of history and historic preservation in its promotion of the region. This past year they launched a series of videos on different distinctive aspects of Charleston, including “History Lives,” which features interviews with George McDaniel of Drayton Hall, Kitty Robinson of the Historic Charleston Foundation, Charles Duell of Middleton Place, and Robert Russell of the College of Charleston. At 5:41, it’s a bit longer than most videos I’ve shared previously but it’s a good example of content, production, and pacing. If you’d like to see all of their videos, visit the Charleston Area Visitors and Convention Bureau website or their channel on YouTube.
Business card rack with directions to frequently requested destinations.
At the reception desk at the Inn at Middleton Place, I spotted a clever way to share directions to frequently requested places. It’s a plexiglass business card rack filled with written directions to the airport, downtown, and other historic sites on slips of paper. Guests just pick up the directions they need and they don’t need to worry about remembering them or jotting them down correctly.
Here’s an example of the written directions:
Downtown Charleston/Meeting Street
Turn left out of the Inn onto 61. Follow road approximately 13 miles until the road splits. Veer right onto bridge. Travel through 1st light and get in left lane. Follow signs to Calhoun St. Once on Calhoun, travel 9 lights up to Meeting St. Take right on Meeting St. to go to Battery. Turn left on Meeting St. to go to tourist visitor center. Times to avoid: 7 am-9 am and 5 pm-7 pm.
Now you know why they wrote down those instructions!
By the way, if you like contemporary architecture and historic gardens, the Inn at Middleton Place in Charleston is a perfect place to stay. The Inn has received an AIA Honor Award for its contemporary design and fits in peacefully with the surrounding landscape on the banks of the Ashley River. Your stay includes admission for two to the adjacent Middleton Place, where you can enjoy the gardens, even after it has closed to the public.
During a recent visit to Middleton Place, an historic site in Charleston, South Carolina, I spotted an outdoor interpretive sign that’s so nicely crafted that it’s withstood several years of weathering outdoors. The wooden frame supports a one-inch thick plywood panel (two thinner panels secured together) whose edges are sealed and entire surface painted black (black is Middleton’s standard color for sign posts). The interpretive sign is printed on a 1/16″ thick sheet of vinyl (or a similar synthetic material) and glued onto the face of the panel. The top edge of the sign is protected from rain by a copper cap. One corner of the vinyl has turned up over time, but otherwise, the sign seems to be in perfect condition, despite the heat and humidity of summer in the Lowcountry.