Tag Archives: Sam Ham

Strengthen Your Interpretive Themes with these Tools

I didn’t realize it at the time, but twenty years ago I began working with interpretive themes when I was refreshing the tours at the Homestead Museum in California. The tours were organized and based on recent research, however, they seemed to lack cohesiveness and structure. Armed with a freshly minted M.A. in history, I applied the idea of a thesis to the tour.  It wasn’t until I was introduced to Great Tours by Barbara Levy, Sandra Lloyd, and Susan Schreiber and worked on the interpretive plan for President Lincoln’s Cottage that I developed a much better understanding of how to develop interpretive themes.

Unlike topics, which are simply subjects like colonial life or the Civil War, themes are a complete idea with a message. I often explain them with an analogy to music, where topics are notes and themes are melodies. Since then I’ve been on the hunt for excellent themes, ones that provide a memorable, hummable melody for historic sites that stays with people long after they’ve visited (like the song in the Disneyland ride, “It’s a Small World”). In the years that followed, I’ve treated it like fine art: I’ll know it when I see it.

Thankfully, Sam Ham, the interpretation guru from the West, wrote Continue reading

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 Continue reading