Museums & Galleries Qld

Geraldine Mate blogs about tours and living history from her Fellowship

Posted on: 16 October 2012

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A different experience – Living History

America is an amazing place, not least of all for the level of service you receive, and not just in the restaurants. In almost every museum, National Park and living history offering I have visited, I can safely say they looked happy to meet me. The volunteers and staff alike are welcoming and informative. And this attitude seems to underpin their approach to interpretation – personal.

Docent (volunteer) led tours and Ranger talks appear to be a fairly standard offering for cultural heritage destinations here. And they are great! Largely well delivered, they engage adults and children alike. Character actors add an extra dimension to understanding both the historical context of the past and the experiences of individuals. This can be a powerful tool in transmitting history in an engaging way. At the California State Railroad Museum, they offer school kids a tour where the history of rail in California comes alive … the foreman directing workers (children aka 19th century Chinese labourers) building the first rail line across the Sierra Nevada to go faster, the ceremonial nailing of the last spike on the Trans-continental Railroad and the fatigue of a traveller (which I must say right now I can empathise with!) … all make the past real. To watch kids almost running to make sure they keep up with the museum guide and eagerly putting up their hands to make sure they get a turn of taking part in the “past” is a wonderful thing to see and really emphasises the power of “interactive” learning.

Colonial Williamsburg, recognised as the masters of this form of interpretation, are, well, the masters. The experiential side of standing in a parlour conversing with someone from the 18th century had adults and children alike completely immersed. And to see an impromptu revival meeting where a “slave” had 21st century visitors singing and clapping for 20 minutes in the street really emphasises the terms interactive and engaged! This is not achieved by accident. An enormous amount of effort goes into developing offerings, ensuring historical accuracy, training staff and monitoring quality. And it works.

However, not having access to actors doesn’t preclude personal interpretation. No-one should underestimate the value of a good story, well told, when it is based in historical fact. I have seen volunteer led tours that have kept visitors entranced for 2 or more hours. The most spectacular was at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, where we were literally spellbound by our guide for 3 ½ hours (I’d never have believed someone could keep the attention of a group of nearly 30 people for that long if hadn’t seen it myself). But in many smaller destination, railway museums and historical sites alike, these tours and Ranger talks greatly enhance the visitors’ experience.

Like the living history actors, effective tours are a lot of work to set up, requiring careful research, training and monitoring. But if you do have interested volunteers, well-presented tours offer a cost-effective alternative to the sometimes expensive option of preparing interpretive panels. For the time and effort of setting up a programme you can provide visitors with a look at the past that can very effectively weave together historical context and individual experiences in the past. This may not be the clean and bright presentation of nice panels, but it is a highly successful means of interpreting collections and heritage sites. And, when it comes down to it, I think that is what we aim for in museums – that we can see visitors enjoy the people and the everyday pieces of the past.

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1 Response to "Geraldine Mate blogs about tours and living history from her Fellowship"

Thanks Geraldine, I have really been enjoying reading your blogposts! Lots of interesting observations and plenty to think about.

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