March 4, 2017

A Day in the Life of a Historical House Interpreter

Guest Featuring Historical Interpreters Judy J., Allison G., Ariana N. and Stephen S. of the Genesee Country Museum & Village, and Special Interview with Judy at the Hamilton House (1870). 

Now that you are familiar with the "Whosits & Whatsits: Defining the Historical Interpreter," our introduction to the job of a historical interpreter, the next step is to delve into the day-to-day responsibilities and public interactions that make the role so rewarding.  

The Genesee Country Village & Museum (GCV&M) features an impressive collection of over forty historic buildings from working businesses and professional trades, to public and religious buildings, and, most uniquely, a wide range of historical homes, spanning the entire 19th century and all class levels.  From humble beginnings on the early-1800s frontier, to the height of luxury and splendor in the late-Victorian period, the village presents an unmatched breadth and depth for historical house interpretations.  

That said, you might be wondering:  what does a day of historical interpretation entail?  Or, more simply, what do the costumed people DO all day in those houses?  How does one connect a family and their household of the past to the visitors of the present?  As the second installment in a collaborative series on historical interpretation, today's post offers both a firsthand account and an exclusive, behind-the-scenes glimpse into the day of historical house interpreter, Judy Johnson, at the Genesee Country Village.  As always, the intention behind this reveal-all post is as much to inform as is to inspire interest in fellow historical enthusiasts to get involved with local living history.  

GCV&M historical interpreter Judy J.

Please note that the following is based on the personal experiences and practices of an average day at the Genesee Country Village & Museum, and does not reflect the policies at all living history sites.  Furthermore, the opinions expressed are those of the authors themselves, not employer or institution, for the purpose of respectful conversation and education only.  

In the Morning:  Preparation  

Arrival in Horseless Carriages 

Contrary to public belief, the interpreters do not live at the village, as nice as that would be.  Instead, many travel a great many miles, having as long as a two-hour commute in the morning, to arrive at the village between 9 to 9:30 a.m.

Need a Helping Hand?  

Most interpreters arrive already outfitted in their 19th century clothing; however, the other option is to come earlier and dress in the staff building.  Donning period clothing can be a different experience than perhaps most modern folk are familiar with.  Among some of the most frequent questions that visitors ask pertain to how long it takes to dress and style the period hairdos.

When asked about this, Judy answered: 
"When getting dressed in the morning, it what you would do for any job you have.  You know you need to look neat and professional, but perhaps in interpreting, there are just more layers.  The first times I got dressed for the museum, it took such a long time, multiple petticoats, and all the strings to tie with corsets and petticoats, oh my! And then there were the hooks and eyes!  From hair to clothing and shoes, it now takes me about 20 minutes to get ready.  You never have to worry about how your make-up is, because no make-up is the way to go." - Judy J. 
New to period dress or can't reach that dress hook in the very middle?  Not a problem, there is an interpreter ready to lend a hand!

HairDO or Put a Cap on It

Equally important to achieving the period correct appearance is the hair styling.  Even the best of caps will not sit right without the proper foundation.  When I first began, I was definitely hair inept; but with lots of practice and help from the talented hair stylists in the village, no need to worry about those tresses sliding down your back in the middle of the day.

Conducting Business  

Like any other job, the morning provides the perfect time to check your mailbox, pick up the building key and radio, and perhaps even socialize over a cup of complementary coffee.  After "clocking in," it is time to walk over to the Town Hall for the morning meeting.

Come One, Come All to the Town Hall 

Beginning at 9:45 a.m., the daily morning meeting in the town hall is the best opportunity to learn about what's happening in the village.  Not only is the visitor "day sheet," highlighting the featured happenings, distributed and discussed, but the lead interpreters address the status of the museum.

Interpreters are also welcome to ask any questions or share interesting stories at these meetings.

Before the Stroke of 10 a.m. 

After the conclusion of morning meeting, it is time to unlock and prepare your building for visitation.  Many of the houses have several doors to unlock, and if the weather is pleasant, the windows can be opened as well.

Next, check the interpreter house book.  Each building has a log that details the day and any important information that the other house interpreters need to know.  Read the previous day's entry, and ideally up to the last entry that you, yourself wrote.

Finally, a sweep of the building, upstairs and downstairs, is in order:

Check that all of the barriers are secure and that the rooms appear to be as they should.  Respond to the radio check, and report anything suspicious or out of place that was not noted in the house book immediately.  Then, it's off to start the day!  

Throughout the Day:  Public Interaction 

The Genesee Country Village & Museum is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.  Some days, you will receive visitors right as you unlock your doors, and other days, you won't see a soul until after lunch.  A historical house interpreter must be prepared and ready to adapt their interpretation for anything - a dozen visitors to two thousand in a single afternoon, school aged or senior citizen groups, our local "repeats" or foreign visitors, and those who want to fly through the building in a few minutes versus those who want to stay and chat for an hour. 

The Hamilton House from afar.

Greeting Visitors at the Door 

The clock just chimed half past, and you hear the first footsteps of the day nearing your porch.  You peek out the window and see a young couple walking hand-in-hand turn to ascend the stairs.  What do you do next? 
"I greet each visitor, by saying 'Welcome to the Hamilton House.'  Then I watch where their eyes fall and start interpreting from there." - Judy J.  

Making the Connection

After greeting your visitor(s), the next step is to initiate conversation.  Some interpreters open with a story about the house or the family that once lived there, Judy's technique is to:
"...See what their eyes first gaze at.  At that point, I will give them some information on that artifact.  That usually opens up conversation about more items.  That also keeps it interesting as an interpreter.  It can get weary some days, if you are just using a rote speech." - Judy J. 

Gauging Public Interests  

Once you have a guest's attention, let their interests be your guide.  Make sure to read their body language.  Are they listening intently and want you to continue, or are they making motions to move on?  Perhaps a change in topics might help.
"Then I tell the guests more information, such as; how the owner made their living, the family, etc.  As interpreters we can have a lot of wonderful information and facts, but as to not overwhelm visitors you needn't share every detail you know." - Judy J. 

Knowing Your Facts  

In a historical home, there are countless directions that the interpretation may take.  You may be discussing historical architecture one minute, and theorem painting the next.  In addition to knowing about the house and family, the furnishings and tastes in decor, be prepared to research the political, economic and societal spheres to place your building within its cultural contexts.  There is no substitute for thorough research, and "I don't know" is an acceptable answer, as long as you are prepared for the next time! 

"Interpreting our village homes is a true joy.  Learning interesting details about the people who lived in those homes, to me makes it more relatable to our village, you are given a House [binder] of information that you learn, so that you can carry on intelligent conversations with guests.  You never know what may peak a visitors interest!" - Judy J. 

Feeling overwhelmed with the research?  My suggestion is to start with the basics - the whos, whats, wheres and whens of the immediate family and structure.  Also, communicate with the other house interpreters, find out about the most commonly asked questions, and better yet, spend a couple of hours shadowing that interpreter.

According to Judy, her most frequently asked questions at the Hamilton House are:
  • How did the owner, John D. Hamilton, make his money? 
  • How many bedrooms are there upstairs?
  • Are any of these furnishings original to the family? 

Rest & Recharge 

Even the best historical interpreters need a moment to rest and recharge.  At GCV, we are allowed both a 30 minute scheduled lunch and a flexible 15 minute break.  When closing a building for any reason, make sure to secure the building and place a time clock on the door so visitors will know when to expect your return.

Also, when outside, make sure to dress appropriately and stay in 19th century character when in the public view.  Each house is assigned a period correct hat or bonnet for use, weather permitting of course.

Forming a Lasting Impression 

Just as important as the initial welcoming, thanking the visitors goes a long way to form a lasting, positive impression of both your personal interpretation as well as the institution as a whole.  Warning: a rude encounter, even if unintentional, may take several positive experiences to counteract the offense.
"When visitors have had their fill of things to see and hear, I thank them for coming.  To me one of the most gratifying moments is when you hear visitors saying to one another as they exit[:] 'that was so cool!'  Then you know you did a good job." - Judy J. 


At the End:  Procedures & Payoffs 

Procedures for Closing 

Often, by the end of the day the visitor traffic slows.  Between guests, historical house interpreters should begin to clean up and prepare the building for the next day.  Depending on the building, this may include dusting furniture, sweeping or vacuuming, wiping down mirrors, putting up fire safety screens, and closing any open windows.

Each interpreter is also responsible for writing in the house book.  This includes, but is not limited to recording a summary of the day, memorable stories, important building changes, and even sharing some interesting, new research that they are doing.

At the Stroke of 4 p.m., the Spell will be Broken 

The museum officially closes at 4 p.m., though there will often be visitors still making their way to the front.

When your building is clear, make sure to lock all of the doors and return to the staff building before pulling out any modern items.  There, "clock out" for the day and return all building keys and radios.

Many interpreters socialize and decompress in the break room or on the porch before heading home and back to the 21st century.  

Closing Remarks 

When I asked Judy what makes working in a historic house so appealing, she replied that "the artifacts are nice discussion points but it's telling about the people that is more my passion...I want to know the people who lived and breathed within those walls, as each of us in our own unique little way changes the lives of others."

The responsibilities are real, but the rewards make all of the research worthwhile.  Are you up to the challenge?

About the Featured Interpreter 

Judy, both friend and dedicated historical interpreter, goes above and beyond to inspire others to love and appreciate history as much as she does.  Most at home in the Hamilton House, she has spent over 1000 hours personally researching the Hamilton family and entertains thousands of guests each season on the glass harmonica.  I cannot thank her enough for her time and contributions to the Historical Interpretation How Tos series - thank you, Judy! 

"In the village, I have had many roles.  I first started out working in the Eastman boyhood home, as a quilter. The next year, I asked for more to do, and was granted five buildings to work in.  It was quite exciting to expand my horizons, to now be working in three different time periods.  The large Victorian house, soon became my favorite building to work in.  In the 2016 season, I was given an opportunity to be a village cook in the Pioneer Home.  I had always said I never wanted to be a village cook, but I decided to take on the challenge.  I actually really enjoyed it! Each season I have worked brings on new exciting things to learn and do." - Judy J. 

Questions & Comments? 

Are you interested in working in a historical house, or do you already, and if so, with which site(s)?  (High fives to my fellow GCV interpreters!)  Feel free to share your experience(s) below.  What excites you most about interpreting in a historical home - the architecture, furnishings or family stories?

What types of historical interpretation topics would you like to see addressed in the future?  (View our page here: Historical Interpretation How Tos)


Special thanks to Brian Nagel, Senior Director of Interpretation, Peter Wisbey, Curator of Collections, and the Genesee Country Village & Museum for photography permission and access to the village buildings.  

Special thanks to the GCV interpreters and friends, Judy Johnson, Allison Gerwitz, Ariana Nicodemus, and Stephen Schmidt for your generous time, modeling talents and willing participation in this adventure!  I simply cannot "thank you" enough for giving up your days to freeze in the snow so I could snap all of these pictures.  You four are the best!


  • Employment at the Genesee Country Village & Museum - Don't just read and dream about historical interpretation someday, join us today!  GCV&M is now hiring seasonal historical interpreters as well as a variety of other listings.  Hope to see you there!  
  • Village Homes - Here you will find the full listing and information on each of the historic homes in the Genesee Country Village.  

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