Live Interpretation is about living history, museum theatre, tours, roving interpretation and other forms of person-to-person interpretation.

Here I hope to explore all styles of live interpretation with postings from me, links to resources, relevant research, comments by leaders in the field and anything else I can think of that helps us understand and become more effective at one of the most powerful visitor experiences.

I welcome your comments and suggestions!

Dale Jones
Making History Connections

Friday, September 12, 2014


I have developed a strategy for creating engaging tours that I call "THE CAST." Why "THE CAST?" Because the staff who present tour experiences at your site are "THE CAST" in a museum production.

Based on recent visitor research, THE CAST combines themes, visitor engagements, authenticity, tour structure, and training into one strategy. An excerpt of if is below, but if you would like more information email me at dalejones@makinghistoryconnections.com

"THE CAST" MODEL of Tour Development
Elements for developing an engaging and memorable tour for your visitors

By Dale Jones, Making History Connections

If you are looking for a way to make your tours more engaging for visitors, which in turn will make them more interesting for your tour guides, try this model. Recent research has confirmed these strategies; use them for your tours and you will be on your way to creating a tour experience that visitors find engaging -- and memorable.

Why “THE CAST?” First, a tour in many ways is like a play. By keeping that theater mindset of a cast, you are more likely to treat the presentation as an event to design carefully and then rehearse, or practice, for creating the best experience possible for the public. 

“THE CAST” also provides an easy mnemonic device to help remember the key elements:


And finally, the model is based on visitor research, and it works!

Each element of THECAST model appears below with a short description.


Email me to receive the rest of the article!


Monday, September 16, 2013

Thoughts on tours 

After a long hiatus, I am back to write again, beginning with thoughts about tours of historic houses, and tours in general.

Historic house guided tours have received a reputation over the last couple decades with many museum visitors, and also with museum professionals, as being boring.  There is no other way to put it.  Let me give you an example of a young curator’s experience.

Michelle loves historic homes – so much in fact that even when she is not curating her own site, she visits them on vacation. A couple summers ago Michelle headed on a trip to a southern city where she was looking forward to touring historic houses. That is, until she went on her first tour.  The guide droned on and on and would not release the visitors even though the time to end the tour had long lapsed. It was excruciating!  Even though Michelle had planned to visit other sites in the area, she could not bring herself to take a chance on getting another tedious tour.

Think about your own experiences. Are you one of those thousands of visitors to historic houses that have had the misfortune to take a bad tour?  When I ask that question at workshops and training session I conduct with museum staff, I always get a knowing laugh from the audience, followed by everyone raising their hand indicating they know just what I mean.

While some consider bad tours to be merely a nuisance, they're really much more than that.  Tours that are long, boring and not engaging to either adults or children are actually a real drag on the whole museum profession.  Research conducted by Reach Advisors indicates that tours are one of the least favorite ways for people to experience interpretation – only 45% of visitors surveyed indicated that they liked that form of interpretation.  While some might say that's not bad, it’s almost one-half of visitors.  It really is an anchor for the profession that is weighing down reputation, attendance, and therefore revenue. Very, very bad.

Why is it so terrible?  In Michelle’s case above, her dreadful tour had a distressing effect on nearby sites because she did not visit them … or bring the sites money from her admission and store purchases.  That unpleasant tour experience is why so many visitors who like and enjoy history do not like historic house tours. If visitors have an unsatisfying, dull tour, they will often avoid going on another tour.  It’s not worth the risk of wasting time, just as Michelle felt.   And not only do they have an unpleasant experience, they are probably not going to say good things about the house they visited. As a matter fact, they are probably going to have some pretty negative comments about the tour that they will pass along to others.

While that all sounds bleak and depressing, it doesn't have to be that way.  Just as boring tours can give visitors a lasting negative impression, so too can engaging, relevant tours provide visitors with great experiences and lasting positive impressions.  I am sure all of you have had the experience of going on a really superb tour. When that happens you talk about it with other people.

Engaging tours can have an impact.  Let me give you two examples. A couple years ago I was touring plantations in Charleston, South Carolina and partaking of all the African American experience tours that I could. I went on one tour at the Magnolia Plantation that was perhaps the best tour I have ever had, and when I recounted my trip to others I always mentioned that site and that tour.  I also urged anyone traveling in that area to go on the same tour.

Another good example is the success of the Tenement Museum, built in large part on the excellence of their tours – at least that is how I heard about the Museum years ago while working at Baltimore City Life Museums. Visitors would come on our tour, have a great experience, and then tell me that I should visit the Tenement museum if I wanted to see another good tour. When I visited there a couple years ago, I could see what all those visitors meant.  It really was excellent.

That’s the upside of good tours.  Visitors have a good experience and want to share it with others.  As you probably did when you had a good tour, they enjoy telling people about it and recommending it. As you can see, if good tours are a regular occurrence at your site, then you have a lot of goodwill ambassadors out there promoting your site.

Fortunately, there are strategies for developing and techniques for delivering engaging, meaningful tours – and all of it is supported by recent research.  Over the next few months I will present strategies and techniques to create engaging tours that leads visitors to connect with your site and mission, elicits their good will and perhaps support, and increase the chances that they will praise your site to relatives, friends and acquaintances.

Following the posts on tours, I’ll begin presenting strategies and techniques, and the research behind them, for other live interpretation – museum theatre, living history, free-range, or roving, interpretation and others.

Stay tuned!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Thinking about Quality

As I look back at the past year, one key thought regarding interpretation keeps bubbling to the surface -- the importance of quality in interpretation. Quality, however, is a subject we often talk about only indirectly.  Over the past several years I have developed and used a rubric for assessing live interpretation -- tours, museum theatre, living history, demonstrations, and floating interpretation.  As a last factor I always include overall impressions of the quality of the experience.  It's difficult to quantify -- it seems too ephemeral to measure, but it is there -- often in the form of someone "liking" something they have just seen, but being unable to put their finger on what it is that they like.

I have noticed in my visits to sites that a quality interpretive presentation has the power to override elements of an experience that are not quite so good. A relevant example: A quality presentation can overcome a dreadful script in museum theatre. Several years ago I conducted an evaluation of an exhibition at the Hershey Museum to assess visitors' reactions to their visit. One element was a recreation of a 1930s tour of the factory. I had read the script before I went to Hershey, and it was without a doubt one of the most dreadful scripts I have read.  When I saw it performed, however, the actress was so charming, so charismatic, that she overcame the script and mesmerized the audiences.  When I analyzed the data, I discovered that the performance was indeed the favorite part of the experience for visitors, and that visitors who saw the performance learned much more than those who did not.

On the other hand, who among us has not been on an historic house tour, with a guide that droned on and on, making us want to flee in desperation an incredibly boring experience. Even thought the house itself may be beautiful, with high quality objects, the lack of quality of the tour guide presentation can override the rest. 

Much of this appreciation of quality lies in our appreciation of beauty -- our pleasure in a thing that is well done or constructed.  I saw a talk recently on Ted.com by Denis Dutton on the evolutionary basis of appreciation of beauty (see: A Darwinian Theory of Beauty -- video here;  transcript here.) In his talk, which itself is a thing of quality with the addition of animation by Andrew Park, Dutton discusses the beauty of skilled performances:
...one fundamental trait of the ancestral personality persists in our aesthetic cravings: the beauty we find in skilled performances. From Lascaux to the Louvre to Carnegie Hall, human beings have a permanent innate taste for virtuoso displays in the arts. We find beauty in something done well.
So it is -- when we see or experience something well done, something of beauty, we enjoy it, we like it, we want to experience it again.

And here is my wish for you:

May your New Year bring you quality in all your endeavors!

Happy Holidays,


Tuesday, September 14, 2010



This is a follow-up to my previous post “Minds-on Engagement.” To summarize briefly, last March, to collect information for a workshop at which I was presenting, I contacted several listservs and asked for examples of successful interpretive strategies that incorporate hands-on or minds-on engagement for use in a space where people are not permitted to touch objects (i.e., an historic house). From across the country, professionals sent examples. Below are their comments on hands-on engagements.

Everyone seems to agree that hands-on engagements, which take many forms, can enhance visitors’ experiences in a variety of ways, some of which are supporting interpretation, providing opportunities for social interaction, helping create long-term memories, and just offering a fun experience.

Overall approach

For hands-on to be most effective, several people noted that activities should be relevant to the interpretation and not done just for the sake of using hands-on. 
The approach really makes a difference in the strategy of engaging the object. Do they approach their objects from the perspective of a story, individual personality, manufacture, or just typically how it was used and its place in society?
Tony Shahan
Newlin Gristmill

Using objects

How an interpreter utilizes an object can make a huge difference. See below.
Some objects can talk by themselves;  for example, if you present the Stanley cup to Canadians, you can write a book on the subject to accompany the display, but, by itself, the presentation of the cup will suffice to trigger our imaginations and conversations.

Likewise, if you put a harpoon or a broad-axe in the hands of a ten year old, this visitor will live a transformative experience, becoming a whaler or a lumberjack, at least in imagination.  Other objects will require an explanation that can be academic: how, where, when it was made, using what material, etc…

An object can also be presented in an evocative manner: what it meant to the maker, to the owner.  The interpreter can also embark upon a dialogue with the object: asking questions to the object or expressing his desire for it.

An object can be presented in an animistic manner: does it have a soul? If this object could talk  what would we learn that has remained hidden for centuries?

Finally, an interpreter in costume, whether he uses the first or third person approach, is irreplaceable: he can provide insight on the relevance, deep meaning of the object and on the life and hopes and dreams of its maker or the one to whom it was destined
Denis Blais
Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation
Gatineau (Qu├ębec)


Often relatively inexpensive replicas or reproductions of objects relevant to the interpretation can be purchased or made by local craftspeople and then used in a variety of ways as indicated below:
We have wool cards and a spinning wheel in the room, so generally I am carding or something while I talk. The kids are allowed to card and to try the spinning
Michelle Zupan
Hickory Hill & the Tom Watson Birthplace
Thomson, GA
We have replicated newspapers and sat out magazines of the era and encourage people to sit down and read them.

We have a Monopoly game sat up on the dining room table and our guides usually have a game going between tours.

We have a rotary phone which we encourage people to pick up. When they do, they hear a two sided conversation going on, with a 3rd party trying to interrupt them so she can use the line. Of course dial phones and party lines are completely foreign to kids and many adults today.

We allow people to open the fridge, check out the stove, walk through the garden, which the local garden club has adopted and keeps it up for us.
In the kitchen….we have the one touchable item in the house. Since we had a number of irons in our collection, I had our exhibits staff paint one bright reddish/orange(to distinguish it for the others, and to represent heat). I explain that we will now break a rule, and that this bright orange iron is the only thing they may touch in this house. I then hand it to an adult, who passes it on. As they are handing this 7 lb. iron around, I ask them to imagine having to use this to iron clothes--no cool to touch, no handle, no steam, no temperature control. It might be 90 degrees outside, but the coal burning stove would have to be heated, this iron would have to be placed on the hot stove until it was hot enough. Then imagine trying to iron clothes for the master or mistress of the house without scorching or burning the clothes.

I have a coal shuttle with the same reddish/orange painted on the handle with coal inside. This bucket weighs about 18 lbs, which I caution adults about before they try to pick it up. I then ask them to image having to carry this bucket from room to room, floor to floor as not only the stove, but also the fireplaces all used coal. These two touchable items have been very effective on the tour. And because the visitors are told that these are the only exceptions in these houses, we have never had a problem with people trying to handle artifacts.  
Dawn M. Willi 
Lakeshore Museum Center 
Muskegon, MI
I've also wanted to have an historically accurate space in one room and then in surrounding rooms each kind of thing (tea service, chairs, lighting etc.) in the historic space would be available to see in multiples and close up and with reproductions....
Jessica Neuwirth

Where I could, I placed hands-on objects throughout the house that the docents could use.
Karen Yaffe Lottes
We give a brief introduction of the family that lived in the house and try to give them an idea of how long ago this family lived. Then each child gets an object to take with them on the tour. While on the tour of the house they need to figure out in which room their object might have been used, who used it and what it was for. We have a couple of key items that can be touched that are in the house too that the guide can take out and show or pass around.
Rebecca Floyd
The Mark Twain House & Museum

Baskets, boxes, trunks, drawers, haversacks

Sometimes it is useful to have a container to hold your activities.
I am currently working on developing a series of backpack education kits for our environmental programs. When we are out on the grounds with the public, the backpack will act like a mobile classroom with the educational props necessary for the lesson but also allow us to do opportunity learning. A similar approach could work with haversacks, strategically positioned trunks, or drawers throughout the house. 
Tony Shahan
We have special "touch" baskets in each room with materials that relate to what visitors see in the room.  These items can be passed along and discussed.  For example, eighteenth-century style playing cards in the parlor, a piece of sailcloth canvas where we have a floorcloth, etc.  It has been successful with both adults and children.

In one of our children's tours, they carry around haversack bags with "mystery" objects in it which we have them open in specific rooms.  You could easily adapt something like this for adults too.
Sarah Coster
Carlyle House Historic Park
Use an item similar to one on exhibit for "show and tell." Have it with you in a pocket or basket (perhaps a needle-work tool, toy, kitchen gadget). It might be an original from the collection that's a less valuable duplicate or a good reproduction. Draw it out and discuss it, show it up close, compare it to the item on display in the room (and out of reach).
Carol Verbeeck
California Bound!
In the sewing room I provided a basket with sewing cards already created (using knitting needles and cardstock) and visitors can practice a few stitches as seen from a copy of a period sewing book. 
Kelly McCartney, Curator
Historical Society of Frederick County
Use the bag idea or touching basket idea that others have suggested but add a puzzle or game dimension to encourage social interaction. Have visitors guess the use of a mystery object (e.g. an ice cream fork in the dining room, a wireless curling iron in the bedroom).
Leslie Goddard
There are other ideas like giving visitors an accessories kit of reproductions (think American girl dolls and all their associated stuff that’s almost more compelling than the dolls themselves to kids) that they could take along on a tour and figure out where each thing was used, what for, and let them experience how these things felt and worked...
Jessica Neuwirth

Manufacturing or process or activity

Coordinating the hands-on activity with the process being interpreted can be a great way to get people, especially kids, interested in the process.
With manufacturing [interpretation] typical strategies are having replicas that can be handled (or sat on), modeling or other manipulatives that connect to construction methods or materials. For example, with blacksmithing you could have wooden mallets, hammer cold modeling clay (it has a similar textural feel to hot metal in working with it), then they learn techniques in safe manner, have a tiny bit of experience and therefore some connection when they go visit the blacksmith
Tony Shahan

Journals and Activity Sheets

The physical act of writing can involve students in a very simple way.
We give students journals, printed on cardstock, where students can write about or draw something they see in the room. This is a basic "hands-on" activity that is a good way to start observation and discussion. Sometimes I will vary it by asking students to write a question about the room. I explain that asking questions is a good way to learn about a subject. (I usually use this in our collection of arms and armor, but it could work elsewhere.) I have found that this approach engages their attention. Frequently other students will have the same question. Also, if someone knows the answer to any of the questions, it allows that student to shine.

You could also ask them to write a few words to describe the space. That naturally leads to a discussion about what they noticed, and what prompted their reactions to what they see.

We sometimes use Venn diagrams to ask students to compare/contrast two different spaces. In a historic house you could use that to compare, for example, public and private spaces or areas that might be from different historical periods.
For younger students, we have developed activity sheets that are like a "seek and find" with images that students can find in the room. That makes it a game and everyone (including parents) likes the slightly competitive aspect of trying to find them all. You could create a sheet like this with images to find, plus background information about each object or decoration.
James Stein
Museum Educator, Philadelphia Museum of Art
A scavenger-hunt list works well with children, too. One challenge with this approach is that kids seem to want to make a timed event out of it, so finding a way to re-direct that energy may be necessary.
Carol Verbeeck
Students do a “History Hunt” of the permanent exhibit.  There are 5 -6 groups of 5 students and a parent with each group.  Each student gets a “history hunt” – 81/2 x 11 paper with  6 color photos of something in the exhibit.  (There are 6 different history hunts so they are moving in different directions.)  When they locate each primary source in the exhibit, they have to “read” the exhibit to discover:  What it is, date, how it was used.  These are all collected, taken back to school and cut apart to create timelines.  From the timelines, students are able to write an historical narrative.  Adults have answer keys to the history hunts in order to offer more information and guidance.  Teachers also receive a Pre and Post Visit “teacher’s guide”.
Michele Dunham
Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm

Primary Document Reproductions

Visitors are looking for ways to help them find meaning in their experiences, and incorporating reproduction primary documents is an invaluable way of engaging them. 
[W]e pass out 2 or 3 reader cards and have the students read from their card. These are excerpts from diaries kept by Southern children during and after the Civil War. The kids are asked to interpret what they read - like the importance of a cannonball destroying the smoke house table (Carrie Berry of Atlanta). In the bedroom we do the reader cards again.

When we go out to the back porch we look at photos of soldiers from Georgia, Army camps, and such, and talk about the life of a soldier, then hear from the man who was born in the house and a reader card from his autobiography on how he saw the life of a soldier as a young 6-7 year old.
Michelle Zupan, Curator
The rest of the activities consist of looking at a copy of a advertisement, photo, or receipt from our archives and having the docent engage the visitors in a dialogue.
Kelly McCartney

Clothing & Costuming

The opportunity to try on reproduction period clothing can be fun and valuable for both young and old.
[We have used] costumes in a non-costumed site. One thing we have done that any historic site could do, is have a costume with all layers made and a mannequin of the same size. This allows us to challenge kids to figure out what order all the layers would go on in, and allow them to tie the ties, button the buttons, etc. without worrying about ruining historic clothing.
Trena Winans-Bagnall

The house itself – it’s physicality

The simple act of encouraging people touch to touch the exterior and relevant parts of the house (that are touchable) is a good strategy.
Call attention to wear marks, careful repairs, etc. that tell visitors how well-used or well-loved an item might have been. Make it personal.
Carol Verbeeck

Separate space for activity

Sometimes an historic space is not conducive for an activity but a nearby space allows for relevant activities.
We have a no touch guided tour that takes about an hour. We have experimented with two kinds of experience that we primarily market to schools and home schools.  One -the students still go on a no touch tour that we try to keep shorter. Then we take them to a space where one of our teachers leads them through an activity where they get to see and touch toys, games, books, and clothes that were typical of the time period. We show them pictures of the members of the family and reiterate some of the details form the tour.

The other attempt we are making is that since the house is guided it doesn't allow for a lot of interaction within a family that may be on the tour. We have exhibits separate from the house that have places where a family can sit together and read a book, draw, color or play a game related to some aspect of the house or its history.
Rebecca Floyd

The value of hands-on activities in engaging visitors, enhancing learning, connecting family and group members, and in helping to create long-term memories has become clear through recent research, confirming what many of you have known for a while.

This list above is only a beginning of possibilities. Please feel free to add your own thoughts and comments below.


Dale Jones

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Great Live Interpretation at ALHFAM

Last month I was at Old Sturbridge attending the 2010 ALHFAM (Association for Living History, Farms, and Agricultural Museums) conference.  While there I was privileged to see a truly great example of live interpretation done by a master of the trade – Jim O'Brien. Jim, who is Coordinator of Special Events at Old Sturbridge Village, presented “Tales of a Yankee Peddler” and told stories about his encounters while traveling. It was an engaging, fun way to present stories and information about the time period of 1830s Massachusetts.  

Jim incorporated many interpretive techniques, but some of the ones that shone were:

  • Movement: Jim’s use of movement made his presentation visually interesting – bouncing and rocking in his chair to simulate riding on a stage coach; leaning forward to stress a point; standing for emphasis; and using hand movements effectively.  He used movement vertically and horizontally and also provided almost pantomimed actions that supported his story.
  • Stories:  His presentation unfolded through short, well-told stories.
  • Historical plausibility and authenticity:  Jim’s background research on peddlers was apparent through the stories that he crafted in historically plausible ways – they were excellent extrapolations of solid research.
  • Expressive voice: He used variation in volume – loud when necessary contrasted with soft and quiet; his expressiveness in both his character and in character’s voices that he created was engaging; pacing – parts of the stories were fast, others slow.  All of those combined to create interesting stories that were enjoyable to hear.  
  • Audience involvement: Jim directed attention to specific people in the audience with comments and questions and let the whole audience feel involved by doing that.
  • Practice: Jim’s presentation – his stories, voice, and physicality had clearly been done before – perhaps not scripted, but well-practiced.   

There were other factors contributing to Jim’s success including  accurate clothing and a peddler’s box of reproductions that he could refer to and use, but it was Jim’s skill that pulled it all together into a great bit of live interpretation.

ALHFAM is a wonderful organization of dedicated professionals. For more information, visit ALHFAM at alhfam.org

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Last March, to collect information for a workshop at which I was presenting, I contacted several listservs and asked for examples of successful interpretive strategies that incorporate hands-on or minds-on engagement for use in a space where people are not permitted to touch objects (i.e, an historic house). From across the country, professionals sent examples.

Responses were practical and thoughtful, and I organized them into the categories below. I also looked up sources people mentioned and found relevant comments in listserv archives and in a few blogs. Responses fell into four broad categories:

• Minds-on engagement
• Hands-on activities
• Personal connections
• Overall approaches

Tony Shahan from Newlin Gristmill in Pennsylvania framed the conversation with his comment about engaging visitors, relevancy and connections:
Activities should match the themes – a natural connection or flow. I always feel the key is to make relevant connections not just keep hands or minds busy.
With that in mind, below are engagement strategies.  I'll post “Minds-on Engagement” first followed by “Hands-on” in my next posting, although often the line differentiating the two is blurred. The contributor’s name follows the comments.

Everyone seems to agree that using hands-on activities can be an effective way to engage visitors. Other times there just is no way to do that either because of space or budget limitations to buy suitable reproductions. But in all visitor encounters, there is the opportunity to engage them mentally. The strategies below for engaging visitors rely on activities or approaches that don’t involve handling or touching objects.


A well-told, relevant story is one of the most successful ways to engage visitors, as noted below.
Use storytelling techniques to make the "stuff" come alive for visitors -- anecdotes about an item, the person that used it, etc. Transform it from a "thing" to a story.

Carol Verbeeck
California Bound!
They do a typical tour of the farmhouse – storytelling skills are what keep them engaged. It is about the people and asking the questions to engage the students in thinking like a historian.

Michele Dunham
Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm

Roleplaying can be done in a variety of ways to help put visitors in the mindset of someone living in another time or culture.
One of the most engaging historic house museums tours I have been on was at the James J. Hill House in St. Paul, Minnesota. This brilliant tour placed visitors in the role of potential servants. We were toured through the house, which has very few artifacts if any (the tour was awhile ago, I can't remember all the details) and our possible duties in each room were described. It helped that this tour was well researched and designed and the staff involved in the tour were talented and well trained. It really was incredible!
Lisa Craig Brisson

A role playing activity can be great and pull the whole story, object, and experience together or can be a play acting time without real purpose that distracts from your interpretive themes.
Tony Shahan
Newlin Gristmill


Engaging the audience by asking or responding to questions or facilitating conversation can lead to a great experience and engage visitors mentally. Unfortunately, not responding to visitors or failing to vary a presentation, as is noted in a couple responses below, can lead to a really bad tour experience.
With children, I like to ask lots of questions about what they see, rather than the usual "This is a _______" approach. Instead, "What could you use to _________?" "How is it different from what you use today to ________?"

Carol Verbeeck
I might ask older students what are some reasons to have a period room inside an art museum? You could similarly ask your audiences what are some reasons to preserve a historic structure? That makes people think about why they're there in the first place. You could also ask what did they learn from seeing the real thing that they wouldn't have learned from reading about it or seeing it online, which makes a slightly different point.
James Stein
Museum Educator, Philadelphia Museum of Art
As we conduct tours, we try to help our guests get into the history by asking them to compare their lives to how the family lived in 1890.
Dawn M. Willi
Lakeshore Museum Center, MI
Tours are boring when one has to stand through a routine, with no real personal interaction. We have to laugh at the right time, or be awed, or surprised, on cue. Often, when I have a special interest, it won't be addressed because either a) the interpreter doesn't have the information; b) there isn't time, they can't stop long enough to deal with special interests and still keep on time with the other tours going on, or c) they simply don't care, so don't ask for questions."
Donna Nortman
from Linda Norris May 2, 2008 blog
The Uncataloged Museum
Most recently I toured several historic houses with some good friends who are not in the field. We selected homes of great interest to us -- either for the architectural design or the significance of its residents and the roles they played in history. In each situation -- I was embarrassed by the quality of the information shared and the manner of delivery. On a number of occasions, it was clear that among the visitors on these tours, some were more informed or as informed as the volunteer tour guides. However, the guides did not encourage discussion or exchange of ideas. Rather, they controlled information and ensured that theirs was the only voice heard. In addition, there was a lot of focus on material cultural and not ideas. I came away from each experience disappointed and our group of travelers would have lively follow-up discussions based upon our "interpretation" of what we saw and how it connected to our prior research on related topics."
Marianne Bez
from Linda Norris May 2, 2008 blog
The Uncataloged Museum
Not a single place where the guide asked us if we had any questions. Not one!
Linda Norris, Harder to Do--Guided Tour or Exhibit?
Sunday, January 3, 2010
The Uncataloged Museum

Oftentimes finding ways to stimulate visitors’ powers of imagination is one of the best ways to engage them. I have found that visitors can have their imagination piqued and become more immersed in the experience just by asking them to close their eyes and imagine an activity or event. Like storytelling, you want to use evocative language. In the bedroom, we have all of the lady's under garments laid out on the bed with her dress hanging in the wardrobe. I'll ask the women on tour to imagine having to wear all of these clothes, even in the summer heat. Since our houses are not air conditioned, this is especially effective when it is hot outside.
Dawn M. Willi

Incorporate senses

A great way to engage is to use the senses of touch, smell, taste, and sound. It can be quite simple – spices, scents, a recording of music the people would have listened to – but it should be relevant to the interpretation.
Incorporate senses -- just focus on senses other than touch. Have visitors sing a period song around the piano -- (something simple like “Bicycle Built for Two” is easy). They could even try to guess the tune from some sheet music before you play a snippet on an unobtrusive CD player.
Leslie Goddard
We have a Depression Era radio which we've gutted and refit with an IPod so that it plays soap operas and radio shows from the 30's, which people will often sit and listen to. It has been a huge success.
Dawn M. Willi
The kids are then invited (with the teacher's permission) to try a piece of homemade hardtack (we get a predictably mixed reaction from that).
Michelle Zupan, Curator
Hickory Hill; the Tom Watson Birthplace
Thomson, GA 30824

Activities in room

Sometimes a simple activity is a great way to connect with audiences. Below are activities that can occur within a room or space in which objects cannot be handled.
In the front parlor we discuss common parlor games and include laminated cards of such games that visitors could try right there. In the dining room there are laminated illustrations of silverware and visitors can practice “setting” the table because there are no artifacts on the table.
Kelly McCartney
Historical Society of Frederick County
Another surprisingly effective and simple activity is that we typed up a variety of rules about manners at the table and put each rule on a separate card. We pass them out to kids and have them go around and read them. To make this work really well, it helps to act out bad manners a bit and discuss why they might have had those rules. They love it!! I am amazed how many kids come back years later for day camps and remember specific rules from that simple activity.
Trena Winans-Bagnall
Midland County Historical Society
• Play a parlor game (pick a verbal game).
• Act out period good manners and bad manners.
• Play "I Spy" with an object, trying to find its historic counterpart in the room.

These types of activities are often presented as "kids" activities, which always strikes me as so unfortunate. Adults frequently enjoy them even more than the kids and prefer them over the hands-off, didactic lecture approach. When incorporating hands-on, sense-activating activities, you give visitors more than just information, you give them the feeling of the period. And that contextual and sensory information helps anyone enter into the history more emotionally.
Leslie Goddard
In each room, they “play” Same and Different – comparing their houses with this house.
In the kitchen, there is a wooden dough box that houses 26 artifacts, one for each letter of the alphabet and these are used to tell the story of how Joshua Van Hoosen lived on the farm. Although the students are not able to touch these artifacts, they do get to “role play” when the girls put on aprons (letter A) and the boys bandanas (letter B). They stretch with a rhyming activity halfway through the alphabet.
The group is divided into 5 small groups and they rotate through the house (very tight space!) and sometimes outside in nice weather, to do their chores-carding wool, weaving, stuffing a mattress with newspapers, carrying water with wooden buckets and yoke, doing laundry with washboards. We do not use water for any of these – make believe only. When I do smaller camp groups, we actually use water outside. They make butter in the kitchen and move upstairs for an economic role-play called “I Need a Pair of Socks”.
The key is active engagement and imagination.
Michele Dunham

The interpretive angle we take is the Civil War Through a Child's Eyes. The cabin is 3 rooms, so we start in the main room and brainstorm about what the room was used for and how that compares to today.

Michelle Zupan


Interpreters often forget the value of humor – humor that is relevant and appropriate of course. One of the participants in the workshop pointed out how effectively that the guide’s description of why they could not touch anything was both effective and funny. While none of the listserv respondents mentioned humor, in visitor studies I have conducted, visitors often mention humor as one of the reasons they enjoyed an interpreter or tour guide.

Museum Theatre

While there were no responses on museum theatre, I have to say that when done well, it is an incredibly effective way of engaging your visitor. I have used it in one form or another for over 25 years ranging from one person to mult-actor shows, covering a wide range of time periods and topics for tens of thousands of visitors. I could go on for hours about its power and effectiveness, but I’ll do that another time. In the interim read about my recent keynote at the Connecticut League of History Organizations on Tips for Doing Great Museum Theatre

Next post I'll share information on "Hands-on Engagement" that I received.


Dale Jones, June 16, 2010