Since the AASLH offices were closed for Memorial Day, I decided to take my son on an outing–just the two of us. Nick is ten years old and just finished the fourth grade where Tennessee students get their first taste of American history. He is also a history buff, like his mom. He likes all kinds of history and visiting the Stones River National Battlefield in our town is one of his favorite things to do.
For this adventure, I decided to take him to a different historic site in the Nashville region where I have received great tours in the past. This site will go unnamed, but it is a historic house museum that was the epicenter of a major Civil War battle. I thought it would be a great way to kill a few hours and spend some one-on-one time with my youngest child and fellow history geek.
After the tour, all I could think about were the opportunities the site missed to move our visitor experience from just okay to great. My background prior to AASLH is that of an historic house director, and I work closely with our Historic House Affinity Community and our historic house workshops, so I know I am not the typical visitor at this historic site; however, the whole experience ended up leaving me frustrated.
As I was driving us home from the site, missed opportunities kept going through my head that would take this historic site tour from “meh” to great. I give you these five suggestions in hopes that you will think about how they apply to the tours at your site.
1. Listen to your visitors. This historic site has a sister site in the same city. They are operated under the same umbrella organization. The tour guide started by asking how many people have been to the other site. Only two out of the twenty-four on tour raised their hand. He went on to say that they tell a lot of facts about the battle at the other historic site, so he doesn’t go into that in depth on his tour leaving his visitors with a huge knowledge gap. He asked an important question, but did not change his approach to interpretation based on the information gleaned from his guests. Site interpreters must be flexible enough in their approach to meet visitors where they are in order to make them feel comfortable and for them to understand the history we want to share with them.
2. Connect to something relevant to current events. To me, the cool thing about history is how it is always relevant to something going on today. My son and I visited the site that day because it was Memorial Day. The main story of that site includes numerous stories of men who gave their life on the battlefield surrounding that house. Memorial Day was never mentioned on the tour. I kept thinking as the tour guide talked about the great sacrifices of the battle, how he was missing a great opportunity to connect the history of the site to Memorial Day and its true meaning (not barbecues, but a time to reflect on the sacrifice of men and women in uniform).
3. Connect your tour to the place. This is a problem I encounter at numerous historic sites. What makes historic homes and sites powerful is the ability to connect place to history. So many historic sites give what Max van Balgooy, faculty for the AASLH’s Rethinking the Historic House Museum and Historic House Issues and Operations workshops, calls a “parking lot tour.” Tour guides recite facts and figures that could just as easily been told to us in the parking lot or visitors center. They fail to make the connection between the facts of history and the power of place. The tour my son and I took was at one of the most powerful historic places I have ever been. It was the centerpiece of an intense battle that raged all around the house while the family and neighbors huddled in the basement until it was over. I had one of my favorite tours of all time at this same site with a different tour guide who brilliantly connected the history of the house and battle to the place where I stood. It was a powerful experience that stuck with me for twenty years. The tour my son and I experienced too often drifted into facts and figures that could have been delivered in a classroom or at the library. During the battle, twenty-four family members and neighbors huddled in one room in the basement of the house. We had twenty-four people on our tour (I counted). It would have been such a powerful moment to crowd us all into that room and ask us to imagine the civilian experience during the battle. Instead, we were told we could go in there on our own if we wanted to.
4. Create a dialogue with visitors. The best historic house experiences result in a dialogue between interpreter and visitor. Adults (and especially children) do not like to be lectured at. They want to have chances to contribute to the conversation. Make sure your tours include opportunities for visitors to reflect aloud on their experiences, if that is something they are comfortable doing. Most historic site visits are taken as part of a social outing with groups. I felt I had to whisper or sneak time to talk to my son about what the interpreter had told us because there was no real time for guests to talk with one another because the guide did not leave breaks in his tour. A good social experience also improves visitor’s experience at your site.
5. Leave guests with a Call to Action. Guided tours offer a unique opportunity for us to end our tour with a call to action. The site I visited had numerous signs advertising a fund-raising campaign to restore the extremely significant outbuildings on the property. The tour guide also mentioned how the historic site saved adjacent land from being developed into condos by taking out a loan to purchase the property. These are great things to include, but I wish the guide had taken it a step further to tell us how we could be a part of these efforts to save the battlefield. I encourage you to think how you can incorporate calls to action into your tours.
After our tour, I took my son to lunch. I was frustrated with the tour after seeing all of the missed opportunities to recreate that great experience I had many years ago. I asked my son what he thought of the tour. He said, “It was good, Mom. I loved hearing about all the cool history.” So, despite all my criticisms, my 10-year old history lover left with a connection to the past. I hope the casual visitor who stumbled onto that tour because it was Memorial Day or because a friend dragged them there left with the same feelings. I suspect, however, they just felt “Meh” about the experience. I hope you will learn from this site and think about ways you can avoid missed opportunities and move your visitor experience from okay to great.
Bethany L. Hawkins is the Chief of Operations at AASLH. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.