Pushing the Envelope in the 21st Century: New Ways of Engaging Visitors at Historic House Museums

Recently, NMSC’s Senior Curator Laurel Racine and Museum Technician Nicole Walsh have been researching new ways of engaging visitors at historic house museums.  This post describes their recent trip to the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut.  

[The following blog post written by Laurel Racine.]

This past December, a few of us at NMSC attended a workshop offered by the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) about the historic house museum in the 21st century.  To follow up on what we learned, we are conducting field research this year at historic sites that are pushing the envelope in audience experience so we can assist NPS historic house museums with doing the same.  We are a Millennial/Gen X-with-Kids team who love historic houses but believe they can be more and do more for every visitor.

One recent visit took us to Hartford, CT, with the main goal of attending one of the Salons at Stowe, a highly-regarded free series of “21st century parlor conversations for everyone interested in changing our world” hosted by the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center .  The Center “uses Stowe’s life and work to inspire YOU to change your world.”  Our evening salon focused on gender bias in the juvenile justice system.  Museum staff set the ground rules and introduced two content experts who spoke for a few minutes before opening up the floor.  We were impressed by the diverse perspectives in the room including the non-profit Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, a Juvenile Probation Supervisor from the Court Support Services Division, two juvenile defense attorneys, parents, teachers, and people wanting to volunteer to help at-risk youth.  It was a great atmosphere for learning about a knotty topic, sharing perspectives, and discussing what to do about it.

We left the discussion with a better understanding of the uphill battle to overhaul the juvenile justice system and a positive feeling that there are people who care and truly want to make a difference.  I’m going to keep in touch with #stowesyllabus where the center shares “What We’re Reading This Week:  Articles and current events that got us thinking over the week!”

Before attending the salon, we went on a tour.  The Stowe House is currently closed for renovations so we saw the visitor center and neighboring Katharine Seymour Day House instead.  (Read about the Day House on the Stowe Center’s website!)  To compensate for the closure, the staff set up a series of exhibits in the Day House covering the same topics as the rooms in the Stowe House.


Katharine Seymour Day House, managed by the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, CT.

We appreciated the interactivity of the tour with plenty of different opportunities for visitors to chime in.  The tour starts with a wall in the visitor center filled with quotations about Harriet Beecher Stowe from her time to today for visitors to reflect on and react to.  Another wall features the covers of books that have influenced social history from the 19th century to today.  The guide asks, “Which have you read?  What did you think?  Is there a book we should add?”

Hands-down our favorite interactive was in the front parlor of the Day House where we gathered around a table to read reproduction period documents while sitting on 19th-century parlor chairs!  Sitting in the room on springy chairs was a totally different experience (obvious, I know, but it is) than the usual stand-behind-the-rope in the hall tour.  Discussing the provocative documents related to slavery gauges the group’s knowledge and beliefs while raising awareness of the roles slavery plays in American society then and now.

stowe center

NMSC’s Laurel Racine and Nicole Walsh reading reproduction 19th-century documents in the Katharine Seymour Day House.

The tour concludes in the front hall with a table covered in butcher paper for visitors to write comments on.  We were fascinated to read what other people wrote about their current state of mind, concerns about present-day American politics, or reflections on the past.

Some of the ideas we can apply to other sites include:

  • Connect site significance to current events to bridge the historical gap and make the site and its stories more relevant.
  • Employ multiple types of and occasions for interaction on a guided tour. Asking people to speak, feel, and write in meaningful ways throughout the tour engages visitors with different learning styles and gives the tour a richer texture than the traditional talking-head tour.
  • Promote civic engagement through on-site and digital outreach. The house tour does not have to do all the lifting.  A small audience can have a deep experience on-site while a wider audience can engage on-line.  Knowing there is something new on a regular basis will keep people coming back.

Stay tuned for more updates on our field research!

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