I recently came across a Facebook post from a friend who loves history, but does not make a practice of posting about his experience with guides at historic sites: “Hanging out at Grant Wood’s studio where he painted most of his major works. For the record, volunteer docents really rock when they show passion and demonstrate real knowledge. — at Grant Wood Studio.”

I knew that John was a history geek…but it struck a chord that he posted a comment about how impressed he was by the interpreter. Why? What was so good? I decided to ask him a few questions. 

wood tour July 2014

Sharing her passion for Grant Wood’s studio. Can anyone name this mystery woman?

What made you post this on FB?
A lot of my friends like to travel and visit museums or historic sites, though not very often in Iowa, and I wanted to promote the studio and the people who run it. I also have a number of friends who work or have worked in museums, and I knew they would understand the thrill of finding a really competent and passionate docent. 

What about your interpreter made him/her so special?
This interpreter was a working architect, and could really speak about Wood’s studio with some knowledge and understanding of the materials, design, and experiential aspects of the space. I did not know this before the visit, but Grant Wood remodeled his studio rather extensively based upon his time in France. He was also very poor and had to barter and innovate his conversion of a hay loft into a Parisian salon. The interpreter helped us to understand why and how Grant Wood made the changes he did. 

Did the fact that they were a volunteer matter? If so, why?
Yes, I think it does, because the person is working from a point of love and excitement about the space and former occupant(s). My father and I arrived halfway through the last tour of the day. Rather than leave us hanging, the interpreter lingered after the close of her formal tour to recap what we missed and answer the barrage of questions we had about the wonderful building. I’ve been to a lot of museums and more than once I’ve been told “too bad” or “come back next time” by a less than enthusiastic employee.

Do you prefer self-guided or guided experiences when visiting historic sites?
I prefer having both as an option. Sometimes a site needs interpretation that can’t be conveyed due to inadequate signage or its particular history, but at the same time I can rebel against tours that seem inefficient, over-hurried, or significantly above/below my level of understanding. 

What is you most memorable visit to a historic site, and why?
Wow, that’s a hard one. If I had to pick one, I would choose the private tour I received of Monticello with a group of world-class architects and landscape architects (I was their driver for the day and allowed to tag along). Senior staff guided us through the public and private rooms of the building and grounds, many of which are never shown to the public, and I really enjoyed the interplay of the interpreters, conservation specialists, and contemporary designers as we moved through the estate. Their combined interplay allowed me to see aspects of the site that I would have otherwise missed, such as the angle and textures of the terraced hillside to the dimensions of rooms. If only this group had collaborated on a book! There are others which are memorable due to their associations with family or friends, but the Monticello tour seems to rise to the top whenever the question is asked.

I think many of you reading his answers nodded your head or sighed as you went down the page. John certainly reminded me of a few things:

  • Being accommodating goes a long way. He and his dad showed up late for the last tour (gasp!). But they weren’t turned away. They were welcomed and the site got a little promotion out of that simple gesture.  Sometimes we make decisions that suit us more than our visitors. We think visitors need to experience things from start to finish. Not every site can make this accommodation, but many can, and should. Better to get a little, than nothing at all, right? And it made them feel special.
  • Speaking of feeling special, John’s most memorable visit to a historic site was SUPER special. We can’t give all visitors the VIP treatment, but we can make them feel special by creating and advertising things like “special” tours (behind-the-scenes, tour with a conservator, tour with someone who lived/worked in the house, etc.).  Not everyone has iconic objects in their collection that continually draw visitors from near and far, but we can make visitors feel like a million bucks when they are at our sites, and they will spread the word. Where I work, we’ve toyed with the idea of surprise VIP tours. The idea being that once a month you take a group who thinks they are here for a “regular tour” and you do something really special with them. (If anyone is doing that, please share!)
  • Who visitors are with when they visit museums matters more than we do. We should be asking groups who come together why they came and use that information to cater to interests or build rapport. Maybe mom grew up in the neighborhood and wanted to bring her kids back for a visit. Maybe friends are in town and they like interesting architecture. Maybe dad was looking for a something free to do with his kids. All of these scenarios provide interpreters with an opportunity to share something interesting about the museum or its offerings.
  • Visitors like choice, and they can “rebel” if they don’t get it. Rebellion can take many forms. It can be as simple as expressive body language (being fidgety, looking disinterested, etc.), asking to leave, or NEVER COMING BACK and having that be what a bored/disgruntled visitor tells his or her friends…and maybe even shares on Facebook!
  • My favorite take-away from John’s comments is what he had to say about the volunteer docent. The woman was working from a point of “love and excitement”—and it showed. Interpreters can make or break an experience, and when they are good—WOW—what a treat! Within reason, interpreters should not be afraid to personalize their tours. Tell visitors why a certain room is your favorite, tell visitors why you think that carved beam you just passed is worth a second look, and tell them why you volunteer. Obviously John learned a lot about his interpreter and the space he visited, even coming in late to the experience.

Well done, docent, and thank you John Floyd for sharing your insights with us. (I owe you a martini the next time I’m in Portland.)