Farmer Tom…Forgotten?

by Jessica Michonski

 Monticello Gardens,  photo by the author

To visit the home of a historical figure is always an experience to be partaken…especially for a historian. In July 2019, I had the privilege to visit Monticello – Jefferson’s estate in the mountains of Virginia – while on vacation with my family.

I was enthralled with the classic architectural details of the house, the beauty of the surrounding countryside, and enjoyed walking the extensive grounds and gardens. The small museum gallery that was near the visitor center was also a highlight, with its mixture of interactive and standard exhibits that gave much more detail about the people and objects of Monticello.

For a plantation, though, I was disappointed to find that agriculture was barely presented. Horticulture and food were discussed in great detail, but very little was said in regard to the actual crops and animals being raised by Jefferson. Nor were the revolutionary experiments that he was conducting in soils or animal breeding discussed.

There were several minor mentions of Monticello’s agricultural activities scattered around the site. Examples included a mention of sheep in a panel about textiles, two postcard-size butchering diagrams in the smokehouse, and a small 10-foot section in the museum gallery that features a plow with Jefferson’s wooden moldboard design. All of these are tantalizing hints of a forgotten legacy – one that is on par with importance with his political achievements.

I do not fault Monticello’s staff for choosing the areas to focus as they did: they are faced with the same issues that many museums face in order to make their content relevant in a digital age. They are shaped by political and social perceptions of the current age, and what people are willing to fund. They also chose their narrative based on the seeming wealth of scholarly research available on Jefferson.

What is interesting to note is that while Jefferson is lauded as the father of modern American agriculture, there is actually very little published about why he is called such. Upon searching, it surprised me to find that there was hardly any literature available for academics, let alone the general public. So far, I’ve been able to locate one book from 1991, and several academic journal articles from 1945 that were specifically devoted to Jefferson’s agricultural activities. Being used to having multiple sources about figures like “Farmer” George Washington at my fingertips, it seemed very inconsistent that so little research exists for the contributions that affect our daily lives even now in 2019.

It would be fascinating to see what “Farmer” Thomas Jefferson’s agricultural journals hold. Certainly with a growing increase in non-chemical methods of agricultural, it would be of interest to see at least where the current no-till planting practices developed from.

Who knows? It may take a book to hold them all.

Barbara McEwan,Thomas Jefferson: Farmer, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Press, 1991).

Agricultural History, Vol. 19, No. 3, 1945.

Jessica Michonski has a B.S. in Agriculture and History with plans of becoming an agricultural historian. She previously interned at Howell Living History Farm and Old Sturbridge Village, concentrating on the agricultural presentations of both. She also presented a session at the 2017 Annual Conference called “Wanted: Young Employees.”

Following some conversations the author found the following additional source:

M. L. Wilson, “Thomas Jefferson – Farmer”, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 87, No. 3, Bicentennial of Thomas Jefferson (Jul. 14, 1943), pp. 216-222.

Blog editor Martha Katz-Hyman did a little digging and found the following sources on Jefferson’s agricultural work for those interested in more information.

Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s Farm Book, with commentary and relevant extracts from other writings; ed. by Edwin Morris Betts (Charlottesville, VA: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1999; originally published in 1953). The blog author found a transcription of the Farm Book online at the Massachusetts Historical Society. You can access it here:

Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book, 1766-1824, with relevant extracts from his other writings; ed. by Edwin Morris Betts; Peter J. Hatch (Charlottesville, VA: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 2012; originally published in 1944).

Posted in Agricultural Museum, ALHFAM, Education, Historic Agriculture, Historic Farming, historic houses, interpretation | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Have Actors, Will Travel!: Reconnecting Hawaiʻi and New England through the Humanities

by Mike Smola

Moses Goods portraying Henry ʻŌpūkahaʻia
Photo Credit: Gina Maeda

Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives has spent the last eight years developing a very successful History Theater program through our Oʻahu Cemetery Pupu Theatre program. These are first-person, scripted portrayals of actual historical figures from Hawaiian history. The last several years of the program, Hawaiian Mission Houses (HMH) has had sold-out performances and had to expand the program from two to three weekends. HMH has also begun to partner with museums, churches, and community groups to travel these portrayals to Maui, Kauai, and Hawaiʻi Island. From September 29 to October 23, 2019, “My Name is ʻŌpūkahaʻia,” with a companion Hawaiian cultural program performed by musician and vocalist Poʻai Lincoln, the Cultural Programs Coordinator at HMH, will be travelling to New England and Washington, D.C. to reconnect the historical ties between New England and Hawaiʻi through the story of ʻŌpūkahaʻia.

Poʻai Lincoln, Cultural Programs Coordinator, Musician, Vocalist Photo Credit: Brandon Hagio

Theater and dramatic presentations coupled with other humanities fields such as anthropology, ethnography, music, literature, and history, can be a very powerful method of interpretation and education. HMH has certainly found this to be true through its own program. In the words of a theater reviewer in Honolulu, “It’s entertaining, educational without being didactic, and an engaging introduction to important figures in Hawaii’s history.” The key, HMH has found, is the inclusion of verbatim quotes from primary source research material rewoven by talented scriptwriters. As the HMH staff is fond of telling guests, “We don’t have to put words in these peoples’ mouths, because we have them through the use of letters, diaries, and newspaper stories– we use their own words.” This is something the HMH staff and the audience feel make the portrayals authentic and real in ways that a normal theater production might not.

ʻŌpūkahaʻia (later given the name Henry), was a Native Hawaiian born during King Kamehameha the Great’s wars of unification that would unify all of the islands into a single kingdom. His immediate family was killed during a rebellion against Kamehameha’s rule. ʻŌpūkahaʻia was taken captive but later given to his uncle. He left Hawaiʻi in 1807 aboard an American merchant ship. The journey took about two years to New Haven, Connecticut. In New Haven, ʻŌpūkahaʻia fell in with a group of Yale students connected to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in Boston. ʻŌpūkahaʻia converted to Christianity and toured New England to gain support for the American Board’s efforts. ʻŌpūkahaʻia was a powerful public speaker, and his efforts led to the formation of the Sandwich Islands Mission. This mission set sail in October 1819 and arrived in Hawaiʻi in April 1820 with seven American couples, five children, and four Native Hawaiians who had attended the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut. The changes in Hawaiian government, society, and culture over the next 70 years would largely come about due to the relationships between the Hawaiian royalty and these missionaries in the first 35 years of the Sandwich Islands Mission.

The history theater programs are always followed by a “talk back session” that involves the actors, theater director, and Hawaiian Mission Houses staff. This where the different fields in the humanities intersect and really come to life. This part of the program is also where the interesting discussions of history and the different aspects of theater are really considered and discussed with the guests in a relaxed and welcoming environment that promotes discussion about the program they’ve just experienced.

“My Name is ʻŌpūkahaʻia “will be touring the east coast to churches with historical connections to the missionaries and ʻŌpūkahaʻia, museums, living history sites such as ALHFAM members Old Sturbridge Village, the D.A.R. Museum, universities such as Yale and Williams College, and organizations such as the American Antiquarian Society and the Congregational Archives at 14 Beacon Street in Boston. There will also be discussion programs funded by MassHumanities featuring scholars from Massachusetts and Hawaiʻi to unpack the nuances and impacts of this one Hawaiian man’s journey that led to massive changes in his homeland. For a performance schedule and more information visit

Mike Smola is the Curator of Public Programs at the Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives and is the researcher for the History Theater programs. He has been an ALHFAM member since 2011 and served on the ALHFAM Board from 2016 to 2019.

Photo Credit: Pacific Edge Magazine
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Colonial Cooking: When THEY Won’t Let You Use the Hearth

Excerpt of an article written by Clarissa F. Dillon, 2003, Past Masters in Early American Domestic Arts, Haverford, Pennsylvania.

ALHFAM members can access the full text of this article and thousands more though the A.S.K. database. Not a member? Join today!


Courtesy DAR Museum

There are many reasons why some colonial cooks are faced with sites that won’t let them use the hearth. Through the presentation of period food preparations, even without a fire, visitors can perhaps go away with a greater understanding of lives of people in the past as well as an appreciation of their skills.


Cucumbers were usually pickled to last until the next harvest. Most pickling receipts called for heating the vinegar before pouring it over the prepared fruit, but it is possible to find some that worked “cold.”

The best Way to pickle Cucumbers

Take the least Cucumbers, rub them well, and put them in a Pot or Barrel, then put in a Round or Layer of Dill or Fennel Seed in Branches, and upon that a Layer of Cucumbers so as not to touch one another; strew on them some Ginger, Mace, and Cloves finely beaten, some whole Pepper, and a little Salt; then lay in another Layer of each, and fill up the Pot with white Wine or Elder Vinegar. This Pickle serves for Grapes, or other Things.[1]


Dairying is an excellent activity for “cooking without a fire.” If you have a program that goes on all morning, churning can be the first step in a more complex preparation. After making and paddling butter until it is completely clear of buttermilk, you can move on to an odd but evidently desirable eighteenth-century dish. You’ll need to bring two hard-boiled eggs with you.

To make Fairy Butter.

TAKE the Yolks of two hard Eggs, and beat them in a Marble-mortar, with a large Spoonful of Orangeflower Water, and two Tea Spoonfuls of fine Sugar beat to Powder; beat this all together till it is a fine Past[e], then mix it up with about as much fresh Butter out of the Churn, and force it thro’ a fine Strainer full of little Holes into a Plate. This is a pretty Thing to set off a Table at Supper.[2]

Grinding Spices With a Cannonball— No, Really!

If pounded in a mortar with a pestle, peppercorns bounce out all over the place. Grinding, a circular movement with pressure, is better. With a cannonball, spices can be pulverized in a small wooden dish quickly and effectively. By rolling it under the palm of your hand, you can “grind” the peppercorns using the weight of the cannonball with very little effort on your part. You can also hang a small iron pot from the crane, which has been swung out into the room, put the spice(s) in it, and then put in the cannonball. By gently rocking the pot back and forth, you make the cannonball go round and round, pulverizing the contents, again with very little effort on your part. There are period references to this: “Note, That the Seeds are pounded in a Mortar; or bruis’d with a polish’d Cannon-Bullet, in a large wooden Bowl-Dish.”[3]

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared as: Clarissa F. Dillon, “Colonial Cooking: When THEY Won’t Let You Use the Hearth” in Debra A. Reid, ed., Proceedings of the 2003 ALHFAM Conference & Annual Meeting, 119-133.

[1] Martha Bradley, The British Housewife:- in 2 vols (London: printed by S. Crowder and H. Woodgate… [1756]; facsimile reprint in 6 vols by Prospect Books, Tomes, UK, 1998), Vol. IV, p. 574.

[2] Glasse, op. cit., p. 142. There is a very similar receipt, using twice as much of the ingredients, called “French Butter” in Smith, op. cit., p. 101. Her final instructions do differ: “…when it is well mix’d force it thro’ the corner of a coarse cloth, in little heaps on a china-plate, or through the top of a dredging-box.”

[3] John Evelyn, Acetaria. (London: Printed for B. Tooke…1699; facsimile reprint by Prospect Books, London, 1981), p. 102. Cf. Nott, op. cit., n.p. [M 72} and R. Bradley, op. cit. [Part II], p. 36.

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The Safe Handling of Objects

Written by Jamie Rigsby, Farmers Branch Historical Park, 2010.   ALHFAM members can access the full text of this article and thousands more though the A.S.K. database. Not a member? Join today!

Few museums or living history sites have conservators on staff. Therefore, the first line of defense to prevent or suspend damage to artifacts are the curators, collections managers, interpreters or any other person on staff who comes into proximity of the collection. Most of the damage caused to works of art is preventable, and good handling and storage techniques can make a big difference in the preservation of a collection.

DAR Museum

DAR Museum

Before handling any object, here are a few questions to consider:

  1. Is it necessary/safe to move the object?
  2. Where are you going?
  3. What is the best way to pick it up?
  4. Do you have the right equipment/manpower to move it?

The Three Main Factors of Objects Handling: You, The Environment, and The Object


  • Remove jewelry, name tags, belts or anything that could scratch or catch on an object.
  • Pull back hair and loose clothing that could get caught on an object.
  • Wash your hands.
  • Wear gloves. White cotton gloves are appropriate for most handling procedures. Use nitrile gloves when moving objects with slick surfaces like glass or ceramics, or any surface that could catch on or attract cotton fibers such as fragile paper or veneered wood.
  • Keep your gloves clean, and try not to touch anything but the object you are moving. Be careful not to touch your face or hair as you may transfer oils to an object.
  • Use both hands and move slowly.
  • Update inventory records immediately.

The Environment

  • Plan the route you are going to take from one place to another.
  • Measure doorways or narrow spaces to be sure the object will pass through easily.
  • Make a place for the object to avoid having to move something else while the object is in your hands.
  • Move any tripping hazards or things that you could bump into on the way to the new space.
  • No plants, food, drinks, or smoking in the collections area.
  • Use pencils, not pens, when working near collections, as pencil marks are often easier to remove than ink.

The Object

  • Treat each object you handle like it is the only one in existence.
  • Find the center of gravity of an object and use both hands to move it.
  • Move any parts (i.e. lid to a teapot) separately.
  • Stabilize any loose components (i.e. doors on a cabinet).
  • Don’t pick up any object by handles, rails, or rims.
  • Use carts to move objects or boxes whenever possible.
  • Don’t push, pull, or drag any object across a surface.

Sometimes being thorough and methodical can do more for your collection than spending money on state-of-the-art equipment. As with the medical field, the first rule of conservation is “Do no harm.” Beyond that, do the best you can!

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared as: Jamie Rigsby, “Caring for Collections with a Small Budget, Little Time and Limited Staffing: The Safe Handling and Storage of Objects” in Carol Kennis Lopez, ed., Proceedings of the 2010 ALHFAM Conference & Annual Meeting, 131-135.

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Sainte Marie among the Hurons, Part 2


The Jesuit priests could be found at various villages of the Wendat on any given day, conducting services, and teaching and preaching Catholicism with the help of various Donnes who signed contracts with the Jesuit order for work in exchange for food shelter and clothing.

In the later years of Sainte Marie, an increasing threat from the Iroquois in Wendat territory began to make its mark. This threat was compounded by a drought and crop failures. The increasing effects of disease began to weaken the Wendat to the point where the Wendat confederacy not only lost its people but its overall strength as well.

During the spring of 1649, Fathers Jean de Brebeuf and Gabriel Lalemant lost their lives to Iroquois attack and torture, and their bodies were returned to Sainte Marie by several Donnes for burial. Donne and Shoemaker Christophe Ragneoult described the condition of the bodies. He reported that one of tortures might well have been a mock baptism with boiling water.

The Wendat, fearing more attacks, prepared to head north to safer territories, but the Jesuits convinced the Wendat leadership that a journey north to Manitoulin Island was too far and very dangerous. It was decided that all would leave, both French and Wendat, and head to the nearest island some twenty-five miles distant to establish a new mission there. But before they left, they decided to destroy Sainte Marie by fire.

This was a very difficult decision for all to make, as the Jesuits and the workers had put ten years into the building process. Father Paul Ragueneau stated, “And thus in a single day and almost in a moment we saw our work of nearly ten years consumed by fire.” The feelings and emotions of the men who labored to build the mission can only be imagined.

The French and Wendat attempted to reestablish the mission community of Sainte Marie but the Jesuits only remained in the territory for one more year. Crop failure and starvation proved to be too difficult to overcome, and the Jesuits decided, after much debate, to return to Quebec. They extended an invitation to the Wendat to journey back with them and settle in Quebec. Some 500 to 600 agreed, and the remainder, barely a thousand, promised to join them but never did. They instead joined another group known as the Petun, who abandoned the territory and travelled west, ending up in Kansas to become what is now known as the Wyandot.

With the mission of Sainte Marie gone and the peoples dispersed, the grounds that Sainte Marie was built upon stood empty. Early settlers in what is now Simcoe County knew that there was something of significance at this place, and they called it “the old French ruins.”

In 1855 Jesuit priest Felix Martin conducted very minor excavations of the site and found several artifacts, one of which was a seventeenth-century trade axe. Kenneth Kidd conducted more in-depth excavations for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto in 1941. His work continued until 1943, when funding for his explorations ran out. Work continued later between the years 1947 to 1951 by Wilfred Jury, the curator of the Museum of Indian Archaeology, University of Western Ontario.

Work began in earnest on the reconstruction in 1964, continuing under the direction of Wilfred Jury until 1967, when the work was completed. Even during excavations, visitation by the public was common place.


There have been many changes at today’s Sainte Marie among the Hurons. The beginnings of the interpretive program took shape early in the very early 1970s with the introduction of interpreters in period clothing. An agreement was reached with our neighbor, the Martyrs Shrine, which stands on a hill directly across the highway from us. It was agreed that young Jesuit novitiates would don the long black robes of the Jesuit and interpret to the masses of people that began to come through the gates.

Interpretations of the reconstructed site expanded and improved with ongoing investigations in areas that dealt with the physical buildings as well as the original personnel that inhabited Sainte Marie. This included research that included lifestyles, biographical information on the men, and aspects of their daily lives, such as what they wore from day to day.

A giant step for Sainte Marie’s interpretation program came in the form of its Indigenous program. A multi-talented man named Bill Parker from the Algonquin tribe was hired, and he was able to use archaeological finds as sources for recreating early Huron pottery. In 1984 several Ojibway women were hired to be seasonal interpreters in full period clothing. These women became the basis for the programs we have developed and built over the years since.

Today we are pleased to have an average of 27,000 school students visit us yearly, with an average general public visitation of 75,000 people from all parts of the globe.


Your visit will include free-flow touring as well as some in-depth special presentations that may include traditional fire-starting techniques to our very own ALHFAM people doing sessions right on site.

An evening program with a sleep-over will be part of our program, with some traditional foods from the time period and a chance to enjoy some friendly conversations about our history both past and present and, indeed, some spookiness.

The incredible story of Sainte Marie among the Hurons was then and continues to be a big attraction. People have come from all parts of the world to see and experience this part of Canada’s early history. Visitors have included many important people over the years from Pope John Paul II in 1984 to famous actors like James Avery (Uncle Phil of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) and even royalty.

And now the most famous of all: ALHFAM in June 2019! Welcome to a Rendezvous in Time!



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The Honorable Harvest


Submitted by Joel Johnson

When I moved to the Pacific Northwest and began work as an agricultural interpreter at Fort Nisqually, about eighteen months ago, I was eager to learn about the region’s history of indigenous agriculture. I grew up in Tucson, AZ, where recent excavations have uncovered 4,100 years of continuous agriculture near the Santa Cruz River. Amazed by the greenery of the Northwest, I naturally assumed the rich landscape of the Puget Sound would have a similar, if not even more abundant, history of cultivation.

In reality, quite the opposite is true. Though the indigenous camascropinhabitants of the Northwest maintained extensive camas fields to propagate the starchy native bulb and made regular trips to well-known berry stands and fishing grounds, the land was simply too fruitful to require much agricultural toil. As ethnobiologist Gary Nabhan writes in Enduring Seeds, “Why go to the trouble to domesticate a species when you live in the thick of it?”

As its best, agriculture is a bridge between a community’s needs and the land that holds that community. It is both relational and regional, so it should not have surprised me that the historic lifeways of the Sonoran Desert didn’t necessarily translate to life on the Sound.

That said, as you pay attention to the interactions between plants and people in communities around the world, you begin to notice that while plants and techniques change, some things are universal. I have lived and worked on farms in Zambia, Arizona, Costa Rica, Pennsylvania, Fiji, and now Washington, and in every setting, there are historic parallels between the environmental ethics that have shaped and guided the relationships of the oldest and longest inhabitants of these landscapes.

I understand it in terms of convergent evolution. If you look at similar biomes in totally different regions of the world, you notice plants and animals that adapt to their environment in nearly identical ways. Euphorbia and cacti are completely different species, but as they respond to life in the desert over many generations; their form and function have converged. The same is true for those people who have lived close to the land for many generations, and the lessons they have learned are invaluable.

In Braiding Sweetgrass, plant ecologist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer explains it this way:

Collectively, the indigenous canon of principles and practices that govern the exchange of life for life is known as the Honorable Harvest. They are rules of sorts that govern our taking, shape our relationships with the natural world, and rein in our tendency to consume—that the world might be as rich for the seventh generation as it is for our own. The details are highly specific to different cultures and ecosystems, but the fundamental principles are nearly universal among peoples who live close to the land.

The principles Kimmerer describes have influenced the traditional practices of people groups across our continent. I have heard them described by my Navajo cross-country coach, a Puyallup magazine editor, and a Kiowa author. Though she recognizes, “The guidelines for the Honorable Harvest are not written down, or even consistently spoken of as a whole . . . if you were to list them,” Kimmerer explains, “they might look something like this:”

  • Know the ways of the ones who take care of you, so that you may take care of them.
  • Introduce yourself. Be accountable as the one who comes asking for life.
  • Ask permission before taking. Abide by the answer.
  • Never take the first. Never take the last.
  • Take only what you need.
  • Take only that which is given.
  • Never take more than half. Leave some for others.
  • Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
  • Use the harvest respectfully. Never waste what you have taken.
  • Give thanks for what you have been given.
  • Give a gift, in reciprocity for what you have taken.
  • Sustain the ones who sustain you, and the earth will last forever

8V1A6793Whether you work the front desk at your site, interpret trades and artifacts, or coordinate volunteers, by engaging in the work of interpretation, you are engaging in the work of storytelling. And as Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shares, “Stories matter.” Although “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign . . . stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

The principles of the Honorable Harvest not only heal landscapes, they heal relationships. And because of that they are as relevant to our lives today as they have ever been—especially to the sacred, storytelling work of interpretation.

As we engage the public at our many various sites, I can only imagine the environmental, cultural, and personal healing we might facilitate if we truly internalized these principles of place and put them to work as gardeners, interpreters, and storytellers.

These are lessons that have been learned by many so many different groups over so many generations, and when we forget them—when we allow them to be forgotten—we do a disservice to those who came before us and those who will follow us as the next stewards of our homelands.

Images: Fort Nisqually Living History Museum

Joel Johnson is the Trades and Agriculture Interpreter at Fort Nisqually Living History Museum in Tacoma, WA. He is passionate about plants, people, and the stories that unite them. When he’s not dabbling in a 19th century garden, he runs his freelance business, Narratives of Place, providing writing and editing support for all things agriculture, ecology, and environmental stewardship.


Posted in Agricultural Museum, ALHFAM, Education, Farm Museum, food, growing food, Historic Agriculture, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dealing with the Disconnected Visitor

pic 2

By Kimberly Costa, Independent Historian

The main goal of any first- or third-person interpreter is to engage the visitor on a level meaningful to that visitor. To engage can mean a myriad of things: to capture their attention, teach a lesson, give a point of view, to shock the senses or simply to make the visitor think. Finding the right technique for the right person is the key.


Often the best way to draw a visitor into interacting is through watching an interpreter actually do something with a prop, usually within close range. People love to see things being used. Simply doing or showing something gives the visitor the opportunity to ask the simplest of questions: What are you doing? What are you making?

When a visitor is draw in enough to inquire about what something is, or what is being done, it is the interpreter’s role to not only answer the question but to lay the ground work for either more questions or to relate the object to some universal experience shared by both parties. When answering a visitor’s inquiry it is NOT the time for a one word answer. It is an opportunity to draw the visitor and her family closer into the interpreter’s world. Once they are comfortable they will be more likely to ask engaging and direct questions.


Questions in General

The most simple and direct way to engage visitors is to simply speak with and to them. Asking them questions generally elicits a response from someone in the group. When posing a question, do not be afraid to wait for a response after the question is asked. Remember— it is often difficult to be the first person to ask a question in fear that what you say will be seen as stupid or dumb. A good interpreter will give the visitors time to gather their thoughts before delving into something else.

But what kinds of questions do you ask? The real key is to ask a question for which you really want to know the answer. Do you really need the ten year old girl to tell you that she does not like the color green and do you even care? Asking an elderly man what color he likes tells you nothing, but asking the same man if he remembers his mother knitting green socks for him as a child will evoke an immediate memory response. Either he will remember socks or he will not but he will be drawn back to a memory of his childhood and will, hopefully, now have a connection between the object you are knitting and himself.

Catch and Release

Everyone has a story to tell of the time they went to such-and-such site and had the longest, most boring tour of their entire lives.

Interpreters, whether in first- or third-person, should keep in mind that they do not have to share everything about their character and site with every single visitor. The Walking Encyclopedia Interpreter will bore the pants off any visitor and will have a negative impact on the experience. Learning how to read who is interested in what and when that interest wanes is a key element of effective interpretation.

Seeing any one of these signs means it is time to release the visitor back out into the world: eyes drifting around the room, looking for the door, nudging another member in the party, checking the time, shifting from foot to foot, children yanking on adult clothing, glazed eyes, moving towards the door but still looking at the interpreter, and so on.

A good basic interpretation should be about two minutes in length, or a short period of time of any length the interpreter deems appropriate. After the time period has elapsed, the visitors’ reaction should be gauged allowing those who wish to stay and those who wish to leave to do so.[1]

Whether you are providing a first-person portrayal of Dolley Madison or giving a house tour as yourself, the goal for all interpreters is the same: to make the experience meaningful to the visitor. When faced with visitors who do not wish to participate it can often be a daunting job. By engaging the visitors using a wide variety of techniques one has a better chance of reaching a good majority of the visiting public.

[1]This technique is geared more towards the interpreter who is stationed in a room or section of a historic area. It is not for the first person interpreter who has to fill 45 minutes of a program before she is allowed to release the visitors. This does not mean a timed program cannot benefit from this technique, it just means choosing to change subjects when these signs are present, and perhaps switching the interpretation to a more interactive question and answer rather than stand and lecture format.

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared as: Kimberly Costa, “Making Friends and Influencing People: Dealing with the Disconnected Visitor” in Debra A. Reid, Ron Kley, Jane E. Radcliffe, eds., Proceedings of the 2009 ALHFAM Conference & Annual Meeting, 119-125.

ALHFAM members can access the full text of this article and thousands more though the A.S.K. database. Not a member? Join today!





Posted in ALHFAM, Education, interpretation, Living History, Proceedings, Uncategorized | Leave a comment