How would you describe your last visit to an historic house museum? Was it business as usual? Was there a standard guided tour where the purpose of each room was noted, along with the period of the furniture? That, in my experience, is a standard historic house museum visit. In my recent Charleston visit, that was what happened. Velvet ropes kept me from wandering too far into the rooms. We were ushered from one room to the next, feeling as though lingering or get a perfect picture of the room held up the show.
It’s important to have time to take in the small details.
Now, I’m not necessarily complaining, I still loved touching the rail of the staircase and hoping that George Washington had also touched it when he stayed at the house (history nerd moment!). But, could there have been more? When visiting the plantations, we opted not to pay extra for the house tours, because wandering the grounds at our leisure, watching the heritage breeds of animals, and taking in the look of the house from the outside was far more intriguing. Obviously a house in the middle of a city can’t have a farm, but what can we learn from these plantation experiences?
This image is from the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. The second floor of the building was used for important city meetings in the eighteenth century. Now you can wander around and just BE there. It also made leaving on my own more difficult. Just five more minutes!
What did I enjoy the most about the plantations? The opportunity to control my visit was like an historical choose your own adventure book. I was presented with a list of activities, the times at which they would take place, and I just got to be there. I could walk the nature trails, take in the sun, and watch the alligators sun themselves mere feet from me. How can we replicate this experience at the Whaley House.
At Middleton Place I could’ve sat for hours and watched the alligator and turtles in front of an eighteenth-century chapel and ice house on the grounds.
Self-Guided tour days are an option. This allows individuals to enjoy the home at their own pace. We have our docents stationed throughout the house, ready to answer any questions you may have.
Available seating would allow people to sit down and just enjoy the rooms. This, coupled with some activities (board games, letters to read, a sewing activity etc.), might make for an enjoyable time that visitors could customize.
Extended Hours that could include a time for people to explore on their own, but also take part in a scheduled tour may be an ideal combination. This could allow people to explore the home on their own, learn about it in a tour, then revisit some of the things they want to see a bit better once the tour ends.
We want visitors to have time to feel like they are part of the building’s history, not just a passerby.
Since we have already worked to improve the content of our tours, by adding more historical context to the information we know about the Whaley family, improving the visitor experience to fit the needs, interests, and schedules of every visitor who walks through our doors is of the utmost importance.
What do you think? How would you like something like this? What have been your experiences at various historic sites? We look forward to hearing from you!