Rediscovering the Historic House


As we prepare for the implementation of the Lee Heritage Interpretive Plan in the coming years, one of the principal challenges is finding a way to make a tour of Stratford Hall engaging for the broadest possible audience.

An important step toward resolving this challenge took place on October 28 and 29, when we hosted a symposium called “Rediscovering the Historic House.” The purpose of the symposium was to draw together representatives from a variety of diverse perspectives to consider changes to the current historic house tour model. Extensive visitor surveys and other evidence indicate that the traditional historic house tour model, where visitors are guided through a series of period rooms, does not appeal to a growing portion of visitors.

Thanks to the support of the Chipstone Foundation, we were able to assemble a diverse panel of experts to consider solutions to this challenge. Included on the panel were Erica Donnis, from Reach Advisors; Kati London and Demetri Detsaridis of Area/Code Games; Tom Scheinfeld Director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University; Brian Sturm from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, who specializes in storytelling and storytelling theory; Philip Kennicott, the cultural critic for The Washington Post; Phil Bigler, a former national teacher of the year and Director of the James Madison Center at James Madison University; Barbara Charles, an exhibit designer with the firm Staples and Charles; and Jonathan Prown, Director of the Chipstone Foundation. Also on the panel were Cary Carson, retired Vice President of Research at Colonial Williamsburg, and Kym Rice, Professor and Director of the Museum Studies Program at George Washington University. Cary and Kym were included to help provide synthesis among the various ideas and perspectives.

The first day of the symposium began with a tour of the Great House and grounds. The panelists were divided into three groups and asked to develop some new ideas for presenting the story of the Lees and their plantation community, focusing on three ideas: desire, boundaries, and senses. These ideas were discussed and served as a starting point for a wide-ranging discussion of the challenges of presenting multiple stories at Stratford Hall. This exercise was highly useful, and might serve as a model for other sites.

The second day of the symposium was open to the public. Nearly one hundred museum professionals and other interested participants were in attendance and were treated to a series of fascinating presentations by the panelists on their ideas for improving the tour model at historic house museums. All these presentations are available on our website as a podcast.

No magic solutions came from this symposium. There were, however, a lot of great ideas. We will be implementing some of these ideas as the Lee Heritage Interpretive Plan progresses. Check back on this blog for further updates!