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

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 (Québec)


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


  1. Great blog--and some fantastic ideas!

    Most of the examples this time seemed to be focused on kids and school groups, so I want to point out that hands-on (and minds-on) engagement can also work wonders with adults... and not just inside historic buildings.

    For instance, I do walking tours through historic neighborhoods, and storytelling programs at libraries, and even the occasional bus tour--all traditionally "hands-off" settings.

    But when I can hand around a photograph, or pull out a reproduction of an artifact (or even just a representation to give them the idea), or set up a little display table next to the podium, and suddenly there's a hands-on moment they didn't expect? Kids aren't the only ones who perk up.

  2. Steve,

    Good point. You are absolutely correct. The examples all came from respondents to listservs, and I had expected more examples for adults. Like you, I have found adults to be just as receptive, if not more, to relevant hands-on opportunities. When doing design of experiences or training of staff for adult programming, I always include hands-on or minds-on information.