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20 September 2010

Everything has a story

One of the geekier things I do--and one of the few things that doesn't involve parking my butt in front of a computer--is volunteering as a docent at Riversdale House Museum. It is writing-related since the house dates from the federal era and was built by the Stier family, immigrants fleeing the French revolution, who wanted their home to reflect a grand European style and sensibility. I am lucky enough to be able to pick the brains of the museum staff on period food and clothes, since we have two experts in those fields working there.

But last week I had the pleasure of attending a symposium for museum guides and ushers, and what I learned there relates so much to writing fiction that I thought I'd share it. First some odd stories came up: in one historic house, which shall remain anonymous, the visitors were led around by a strange-looking person, as darkness fell, who at one point opened a creaking door and pronounced, "This is a closet. Would you like to see inside?"

Overwhelmed by the gothic overdose, the visitors fled.

When you give a tour of a historic building, your aim is above all to engage the visitor. You have to establish some rapport with them: why did they come, what interests them about the house, how does their life relate to that of people two centuries ago? Several mentions were made, as an example of museum excellence, to the Tenement Museum in NYC, which I am now longing to visit. And I really think that's what we try to do as writers--look, these people are like us in so many ways. We have shared experiences.

Surveys taken by museums reveal that people really enjoy walking through a site on their own, able to soak up the atmosphere and create their own experience. Yet the Tenement Museum only gives guided tours, as do many places that have a delicate structure and fragile artifacts. The secret of their success is that they relate the museum to people's lives and family stories ("Where did your family come from? When? Do you know where they lived?..." and so on).

When we take visitors at Riversdale to the building where open hearth cooking demonstrations are given, even if no one is cooking that day the smell of wood smoke brings back memories ("my grandmother had a nutmeg grater like that!") and stimulates the imagination. Even seeing someone cook from scratch is a new experience for many people. I gave a tour last week to a woman who was raised in the Appalachians by her grandmother whose house had no electricity and who basically cooked 18c style; she taught me a lot. People love to use all five senses; I encourage people to smell the spices, and pinch and sniff the herbs growing outside.

Above all, holding and touching an item, even a replica or even stuff which is essentially the trash of the past, like these ceramic fragments (which aren't from Riversdale but are very typical of the sort of items found during excavations) brings history to life. What was the story behind these? Was the blue and white import a treasured possession? Who broke it and what happened to them?

Every artifact, every building, has its story and it's the docents' job to bring that to life and make the visitor excited about the past. And that's what good fiction should do--we engage the reader, stimulate their imagination, and make our story part of their lives. It's an amazing process.

Have you visited the Tenement Museum or any other place that fired your senses and imagination?

And now for the obligatory self-promotion and news: Win a copy of Jane and the Damned at goodreads.com--less than a week to go before its release! And I'm happy to announce that my Regency chicklit Improper Relations is a finalist in NJRWA's Golden Leaf contest.

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10 Comments:

Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I love visiting old houses, Janet! Long before I was a writer, it was one of my favorite things to do on family vacations as a child, from Hampton Court and the Tower of London to Williamsburg. I have visited to the Tenement Museum, which is fabulous (it's great to have a restored historical housing that didn't belong to the rich and powerful). I visited a lot of country house and castles in Scotland when I was writing Beneath a Silent Moon, and I based Dunmykel primarily on two of them--Drum and Dunrobin.

11:03 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Nice post, and very true about engaging the reader, especially with material specifics as in imaginary gardens with real toads.

I have not been to the Tenement Museum, but My son went once, though, and had a wonderful little story about it. To wit, though the guides tend to stress the challenges of the immigrant experience, all around him he heard NY residents murmuring, as though shopping for affordable condos... "You know, with a little work, this one really isn't too bad..."

Oh I do love NY -- and perhaps I will hit the tenement museum this time, as part of my upcoming October East Coast Omnibus trip (I always imagine myself driving a Victorian London omnibus from Baltimore to Manhattan with stops in between, but it'll be more your quotidian Bolt Bus, MARC, and Amtrak sort of thing).

11:48 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

When I was in New Orleans this past spring, we did a plantation tour that included three houses. Two the tours REALLY stood out, for entirely different reasons.

OAK ALLEY: One of the worst house tours I’ve ever been on. The guide put me strongly in mind of the Spanish infanta from Black Adder. She wore a bad costume, knew nothing outside of her stilted script, and actually had the audacity to comment upon how happy and well treated the plantation slaves were! The African American couple on the tour looked horrified and the three of us left the tour at that point. I just couldn’t take another moment with that guide, no matter how beautiful the house was. I went outside and took pictures of the blessedly silent trees.

LAURA: Hands down the BEST house tour I’ve ever taken. Ever. Anywhere. Ever. The tour was led by one of the men who bought and restored the plantation. He knew all the tidbits, answered questions, encouraged people to touch things, and was able to relate true stories about the family and the slaves. This tour was so good that I want to go back, buy out a tour, and just spend a couple of hours hanging out with him and really getting to the history of the place.

12:31 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

ooh, let's go together, Isabel. To the Tennessee Williams festival next March. I've got a friend who lives in New Orleans with a spare bedroom...

3:32 PM  
Blogger Kate Dolan said...

Great analogy, Janet. (And some good reminders about house tours, although the house I give "tours" at Jerusalem Mill consists of basically one room!) As for good tour guides, the ones who work at the Blackbeard's castle complex in Charlotte Amalie (St. Thomas) were a great treasure - very knowledgeable and willing to talk as long as anyone wanted to listen. Despite the name, most of the buildings were built for well-to-do 19th Century residents.
And I've been wanting to go to the Tenement Museum but just haven't made it. Maybe that should be our next field trip!

7:09 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

@ Pam: I am so in.

10:02 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Count me in on the Tenement House visit (and great post, Janet!). I am embarrassed to say that I have every reason to have visited this marvelous house-museum (native New Yorker; Jewish immigrant family, though my family has been in the US so long I call them "Mayflower Jews.") -- and yet I've never been there! Not that it has anything to do with the Regency era, but if the beaumonde wanted to make it the group outing at RWA next summer, I'll be there!

I visited Magnolia Plantation outside of Charleston: dreadful docents who didn't know anything beyond their script, couldn't answer a question (I asked about a candlewicked bedspread in one of the rooms) and shuttled people through as though they worked for the Tokyo mass transit authority. You weren't permitted to go back and take another look at a room.

No. One Royal Crescent in Bath was, when I visited some years ago, partially self-guided and the rest of the tour was given by a fairly knowledgeable docent. As with many houses, in most of the rooms there are laminated descriptions of the furnishings that are too large to sneak into your purse unobtrusively (the descriptions, not the furnishings ... although, the latter would be a fun idea).

7:06 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Mayflower Jews -- LOL, Leslie.

Our visit to One Royal Crescent was indifferently docented, but we could hardly avoid the happy braying of a veddy veddy rich young English couple a few steps ahead of us, informing all and sundry of the Cheltenham house they were in the midst of restoring and accidentally spritzing a wealth of period knowledge downwind in our direction.

And while on the one hand I wished the tumbrels to roll them off posthaste to some convenient guillotine, on the other -- well, it's where I learned of the paint color "Zoffany blue" (I'd already gotten "Pompeiian red" from the John Soane Museum in London). Which gave me the first few lines of my novella "A House East of Regent Street."

Will I ever write a historical not based upon some violent or stupid inner class struggle? One doubts it.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Cecilia Grant said...

The Tenement Museum! I've been there. What makes it wonderful is that they researched three different actual families who lived there in different time periods, and furnished the three apartments you tour accordingly. (At least that's how it was in 2001, when I went.) The tour guide can point to a couch and say, "The three sons slept on a couch like this, sitting up, with their feet propped on this trunk, because there weren't enough beds for the whole family."

I love old-house-museums. Even more than learning about the general history, I think I just find it so moving to see long-departed people sort of brought back to life. The more the docents can tell me about who lived there, and who insisted the harpsichord be shipped all the way from England, and which brother went off to whatever war and died before his time, the happier I am.

10:33 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Congratulations Janet on being nominated for The Golden Leaf! Are you going to the conference? As for The Tenement Museum, although I was a member, I never actually got beyond the wonderful gift shop. Our tour guide this summer at Hever Castle was knowledgeable but she was rushing us through the house quickly before the crowds arrived since we were touring it before it opened. Luckily for us when we were able to go into the Castle at anytime while it was open since we were staying there.

9:35 AM  

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