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

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


  1. Just wanted to provide a link to my blog as you quoted it several times--glad you found it useful.
    The Uncataloged Museum: http://uncatalogedmuseum.blogspot.com


  2. Thanks Linda. I just added it. I enjoy your work!

  3. The blog is a great idea, Dale. Will be glad to share the link with others.

  4. really amazing blog and I was thankful to you for sharing such a useful information.
    - CDC Galaxy

  5. Wow i can say that this is another great article as expected of this blog.Bookmarked this site.. interpretation