June 21, 2018

Do This, Not That: A Visitor's Guide to Museum Etiquette

So, you’ve decided to visit a living history museum for the first time – now what?  What do you say, how do you act?  Do you ask that question and interact, or simply stand back and observe?  Never fear, we’ve got you covered!  Allow us to be your guides to museum etiquette:


School's out and summer's in, which, for many, means planning the perfect summer vacation!  Visiting local museums are often (or should be!) at the top of those "bucket lists."  As the third installment in a continuing, collaborative series of historical interpretation how-tos, this guide to museum etiquette is intended to answer common questions that visitors may have when attending a living history museum for the first, or hundredth, time.  It is also relevant to historical interpreters, providing both insight and ideas for improving customer service and visitor interactions.


Defining the “Living History” Museum 


Before delving into the do's and don'ts of visiting, let's define the living history museum.  When I tell people I work at museum, sometimes the reaction is along the lines of "oh, that's nice" followed with an "I'm not really that much of a museum person..."  Too often I fear people are turned off by the word "museum," picturing silent room after room of artifacts behind glass cases with security guards and alarms at the ready when people get too close.  While many certainly enjoy the more traditional gallery style museums, myself included, living history museums are so much more than collections of antiques behind glass cases.

Living history or open air museums are like no other sites, offering a dynamic and fully immersive way to experience history.  Visitors literally step into the past, walking through historic villages and structures and interacting with costumed interpreters.  All five senses are engaged from seeing the sites, to hearing the stories, smelling and sometimes even tasting the historic receipts or recipes - it's truly as close to time travel as we can get!


Consulting a more official source, the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM), defines the "living history" museum as:
"[A] site that incorporates historic objects, accurate environments and appropriate recreations [that] make the stories about the people who used those objects more multi-dimensional and effective.  In the effort to 'contextualize' their history, some sites try to recreate a particular time and place in the past, ignoring the intrusions of the present...[other] living history sites...bring history to life...in living animals and plants, in staff performing historic work or trades, and in the effort made to provide an environment rich in artifacts that focus attention on life in past times." - Excerpt from the ALHFAM webpage: "Living History Resources


While living history museums continue to challenge what was once associated with mostly static museum displays, there are still necessary barriers to respect and rules to follow.  "Don't touch" has become "please touch" in many cases with increasingly interactive, hands-on experiences.  However, in striving to provide an equally accurate experience, there are still priceless antiques and other hands-off exhibits.  With all of the excitement and lack of glass cases, sometimes museum manners slip our minds...So, with the living history museum now defined, let's discuss the best ways for both guests and interpreters, alike, to make the most of a museum visit!



The DO's of Museum Visits


Please note that the following guidelines are by no means all-inclusive, and that it is always best to refer to the official onsite policies of an institution. 


DO dress for the weather

When visiting living history or open air museums, as the name suggests, be prepared to spend some time in the great outdoors!  This means wearing comfortable clothing and appropriate footwear for walking.  Don't forget the sunscreen or umbrellas, or even winter coats and hats, depending on the time of year and daily forecasts.


DO dress for the weather
DON'T choose fashion over footwear for walking!


DO respect the interpreters, and expect respect in return

For visitors, this includes listening and, even better, engaging in conversation with the historical interpreters.  Don't overlook the power of just a simple "hello" or "thank you" to brighten someone's day!

DO actively listen & join in conversation

DON'T ignore attempts at engagement


For historical interpreters, this includes everything from greeting the visitors at the door, to sharing relevant, exciting information, and actively listening and responding to the guest's interests and needs.  Our job is equal parts education as it is customer service.

DO greet visitors at the door

DON'T be caught unaware!


DO ask any and all of your questions! 

Please, share your story and ask your questions, no matter how simple or silly, deep or profound - don't be shy!  We live these interesting discussions as repeating the same spiel to hundreds in a day can become tiring.  Challenge us to become better historians by asking that question, and we will do our best to provide an accurate, informative answer.

DO ask any and all of your questions!


DO ask before touching when the signs are unclear

Hands on or hands off?  At many living history sites, the majority of exhibits are not protected behind glass.  There won't be alarms that screech if someone gets too close, and, for the safety and preservation of the artifacts, it is always best to err on the side of caution.  Please assume that an exhibit is hands off, unless clearly indicated by signage or invited to touch by staff.  It never hurts to check with the interpreter, who will be more than happy to give the go-ahead when allowed.

DO look for signs saying "please touch!"

DO look for hands on activities!

DON'T handle hand off artifacts!

Failure to obey museum policies threatens
the safety and preservation of its artifacts


DO be mindful of personal items not part of the exhibit

In some places, there may be food items, clothing or other historical, personal effects that appear to be part of the display, when they are actually part of the interpreter's impression.  For instance, covered baskets may function as purses, concealing modern items or even that day's lunch.  Even things like bonnets or hats which can be costly investments, though tempting to try on, are best left to the owner's to handle, alone. Just as it would be inappropriate (and downright odd!) for us to rifle through your purse, eat your food, or try on your clothing, please, again, be mindful of personal items not part of the exhibit!

DO be mindful of personal items not part of the exhibit!
DON'T try on hats or go through covered baskets without permission


DO respect any ropes, barriers and closed doors

Ropes, barriers and closed doors solely exist for your safety and the safety of the artifacts in the exhibits.  Though it may be tempting to reach over the barriers for a better look at an object, see what's beyond the ropes, go upstairs or look behind a closed door, please refrain from tampering with these safety measures.  Try asking the interpreter your questions instead!

DO respect any "private" or staff only signs

DON'T open closed doors, especially those marked off limits

DON'T cross the ropes or take down exhibit barriers 


DO follow the food and drink policies in buildings

Many sites restrict food and open beverages within their historic buildings.  While sometimes inconvenient, enforcing these policies protect the buildings and their artifacts from accidental spills and critters.

DO follow signs regarding food and drink inside historic buildings

DON'T bring food, candy or open drinks inside,
unless permitted by the establishment

Accidents sometimes happen...
but by restricting open food and drinks,
we can protect our historic structures!


DO restrict cellphone usage to appropriate situations

Just like in any other interaction, frequent texting or lengthy phone conversations are best kept outside.  Inappropriate cellphone usage detracts from the other visitors' experiences and impedes interpreters from doing their job, which is engaging you!

DO feel free to use cellphones whenever appropriate
DON'T allow usage to detract from another's experience!


DO follow all photography policies & be courteous with your cameras

It's always best to look up the policies for photography and video recordings before a visit.  Each institution will have their own set of rules for where and when photography, with or without flash, is allowed.  In our historic village, visitors are welcome to photograph any building and interpreter, as we have all signed photo releases.  As far as courtesy, most historical interpreters are more than happy to be photographed, as long as it doesn't interfere with another visitor's experience or disorient us with flash.

DO feel free to photograph when allowed
DON'T forget personal space! 


DO share your experience and come again! 

Did you enjoy your stay?  Share your pictures and stories with family & friends!  Living history museums thrive on your positive, personal recommendations and feedback to better the experience for all.  Consider supporting the museum with a membership to save a bundle on your next visit.

DO share your favorite memories
and visit us again, soon!


Questions & Comments? 


Are you planning to visit a living history museum this summer?  If so, which one(s)?  What's the one piece of advice you would give to a first time museum-goer, and how might a museum better respond to that concern?

Do you have a historical interpretation topic that you would like to see addressed in the future?  Let us know!  (See the full list covered, here: Historical Interpretation How Tos)



Acknowledgements 


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

Special thanks to the GCV interpreters and friends, Judy Johnson, Ariana Nicodemus, and Allison & Stephen Schmidt for your generous time and contributions to the series!  I simply cannot "thank you" enough for pretending that it was summer in all of these pictures, when it was clearly not - you four are the best!


Resources 

June 18, 2018

Fashion Show at the Bement-Billings Farmstead Museum

My passion is for historical fashions and the study, construction and wearing of them.  So naturally, when Rhonda, my dear friend and the dressmaker, proposed an afternoon of fashions back in February, I jumped at the chance to fulfill a longtime dream.  

Timeline of historical fashions, 1810s-1860s.
(Photographs courtesy of Carrie T.)

Our fashion show took place two Saturdays ago on June 9th as part of the annual tea and quilt turning event hosted by the Newark Valley Historical Society.  This active historical society oversees and cares for two historic sites, including the Bement-Billings Farmstead Museum, and a nature trail in the heart of Newark Valley, northern Tioga County, NY.  For more information or to plan your visit, please see their website here: Newark Valley Historical Society or on Facebook.  


I was so impressed with my first visit to Newark Valley and the historic farmstead.  Rhonda serves as both the curator and costumer at the Bement-Billings House, which preserves the early domestic life and agriculture practices of the region, and was where the event took place.

Front of the Bement-Billings House.

Back of the historic house.


Tea & Quilt Turning 

The tea, arranged by the members of the cooking and guides guild, was set up in the two parlors.  Four types of tea sandwiches, including cream cheese, ham, chicken and egg salad, melt-in-the-mouth lime puffs, coconut macaroons, and maids of honor tarts, my personal favorite, were among the homemade treats served.


The early parlor.

The front parlor.

After the tea and fashion show, the quilt turning, featuring both antique and modern creations with their unique stories, commenced in the reconstructed, Herrick family threshing barn.

Catching the end of the quilt turning.

The ladies made sure that we enjoyed our fill of the delicious tea treats ourselves!  

(Photograph courtesy of Rhonda B.)

Relaxing with company and conversation after the show.


Historic Fashion Show

For our contribution, Rhonda and I had been brainstorming ideas for months.  Finding enough models to do a traditional fashion show was ruled out early, but setting up the three bedrooms and modeling two garments each was the perfect solution and allowed for a complete timeline of fashions.  Together, thanks to large historic wardrobes (as well as some sewing to fill the gaps), we ended up assembling eleven outfits, three eras of undergarments (in addition to those we were wearing) and all of the accessories for our display.

Apparently I've accumulated quite the historic wardrobe over the past few years of sewing...after packing four, overflowing laundry baskets, two bonnet boxes, two dress forms and their stands, and a backseat full of dresses, there was barely any room for us in my car!

The backseat was taken over by two dress forms,
bonnet boxes and dresses!

Wondering if the trunk with four laundry baskets
and other assorted garments resting on top was going to shut...

While Rhonda and I unloaded the car, Carrie, a member of the Newark Valley Historical Society and docent at the Farmstead, arranged each of the bedroom displays.  She then patiently helped us in and out of our outfits and snapped pictures during the fashion show.  I am so grateful to her as we could not have done it without her unwavering support and artistic eye - many, many thanks to you, Carrie! 

The 1810s display was set up in the pink bedroom:  Everything from the proper undergarments, to a morning robe and day dress were laid out on the bed.

1810s fashions.



The 1830s display featured Rhonda's late-30s dress and chemisette on the form, and a complete set of undergarments and working attire on the bed.  

1830s fashions.

Those long, corded stays were finished right before the show!
Blog post to follow...

The last and largest of the rooms held our 1860s display:  When were originally planning the show, fashion and fiction came up as a possible theme.  Perhaps that's Meg March's ballgown on the bed, and Jo's day dress and skating attire on the chair?

1860s fashions.


It was fun to pull all of the red and green themed winter attire!

For the more traditional "fashion show," Rhonda and I modeled four dresses (worn over the proper undergarments and fully accessorized) to show the changes in silhouettes from 1810 to 1860.  I thought our hand lettered cards (made the night before haha) added to our presentation.  As one of us walked through the two parlors conversing with guests about our respective decades, the other dressed upstairs.  Based on the kind words from several of the attendees, our format seemed well received! 

Rhonda in 1810s and me in 1830s before the show.
Please ignore that my eyes are shut LOL
(Photograph courtesy of Carrie T.)

Our hand lettered cards!

Rhonda modeling her purple 1840s dress and bonnet.

Couldn't resist a picture in my new 1860s dress with the 1860s display!
(Photograph courtesy of Rhonda B.)

Before packing up for the day, Rhonda and I had fun taking a few pictures around the Bement-Billings House and grounds: 



Just look at that delightful pineapple wallpaper!!
(Photograph courtesy of Rhonda B.)

I learned that this amazing fireplace cover was designed and hand painted by Carrie!

It was getting dark in the house by the time we finished.
(Photograph by Rhonda B.)


Thank you to Rhonda, Carrie & the Newark Valley Historical Society
 for the wonderful opportunity to present historic fashions!