When I decided to get a history degree without a teaching certificate, I somewhat naively thought that I would be escaping the teaching business. My parents are both teachers and I thought that I would try something different. This summer has taught me otherwise. Through the process of guiding at Historic Deerfield as part of the Summer Fellowship Program, I have discovered that I have some sort of innate teacher gene. It turns out that I love talking to people about history! I am actually not altogether surprised that I enjoy guiding. Guiding was one of the parts of the program that I was most looking forward to. However, I am surprised by just how much fun it is.
I have now given tours in two houses. Frary House, the first house that I guided in, tells the story of C. Alice Baker and the Historic Preservation and Arts and Crafts Movements in Deerfield in the 1890s and 1900s. Ashley House, my second house, explores the life of Reverend Jonathan Ashley, the town’s Congregationalist minister in the mid 1700s, and also exhibits part of Historic Deerfield’s fabulous decorative arts collection.
These houses were both a little difficult for me. We only have three days to learn the stories of the people as well as the various objects before we give our first tour. Since I am most familiar with early American history, Frary House was a little bit out of my area of expertise. Also, I have been primarily exposed to written history, so touring in Ashley House, a gallery of early American furniture, was a little bit intimidating as well.
Despite these challenges, I thoroughly enjoy giving tours in both houses. Museum visitors are wonderful because they are voluntary learners. They chose to come to the site and usually are genuinely interested in history, the decorative arts, or at the very least, pretty objects. Thus, they tend to pay attention and also ask insightful questions. I appreciate questions because they force me to think on my feet, and allow me to expand on subjects that I know about, but do not have time to include in the regular tour.
For me, the joy of guiding is its direct connection with visitors. Curators and other museum staff certainly have integral jobs, but they do not get to communicate their love of objects and the past directly to the public very often. There is something wonderful about speaking with visitors, teaching them about the site and its history, and watching them create emotional bonds with the place.
On a recent field trip to Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, one of the museum staff members told us, “We are not in the history business. We are not in the museum business. We are not in the education business. We ARE in the relationship business.” He was explaining that without connections between the staff, the site, and visitors, museums cannot survive. While his approach may be a little bit extreme (I do think that he is in the history, museum, and education business!), I understand where he is coming from. Museum visitors must find a personal connection with the objects that they see and the stories that they hear in order for the information to be memorable and for the visit to be worthwhile.
Successful guiding should facilitate that relationship. I realize that the visitors on my tours will not remember the details that I tell them. However, I hope that they walk away with a connection to Historic Deerfield and a deeper appreciation for its past.
Picture – Ashley House