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How House Museums Are Squaring Don't Touch With Interactive Audiences

Golden Museums
The Astor House in Golden, Colorado

If you've ever been to a house museum (the Molly Brown House for example,) you pretty much know the routine. You take a tour with a docent who explains the history while standing behind a velvet rope looking at pristine historical artifacts. Then you stop by a small gift shop and you're done.

There's little reason to go back. Unless, that is, your Aunt Carol is in from out of town.

Jennifer Beccard of the Poudre Landmarks Foundation, and other managers of historic house museums know this all too well. How do you get repeat visits to places like the Fort Collins Avery House?

"In the past we've had people come in and say, 'oh this place is exactly like it was when I saw it like a child,' and we're trying to work away from that," said Beccard. "We want it to be a little more dynamic."

The house has been restored as closely to how city founder Franklin Avery would have experienced it in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Volunteers have tried to remove many of the "Do Not Touch" signs around the home to make the visitor experience less static and more enveloping. But there are still plenty of items that have historical provenance, or a direct historical lineage to the original owners, and are off limits.

Credit Nathan Heffel / KUNC
The ornate Avery chocolate serving set.

"That is an original, and it's very valuable and we could never replace that," Beccard said pointing to a delicate chocolate serving set. Made of ornate china, it's on display in the Avery House's formal dining room.

That's the balancing act many house museums perform as they strive to attract more visitors – and keep them coming back – while protecting the historical nature of the homes themselves.

As a museum consultant with her firm Independent Exhibitions based in California, it's Kathleen McLean'sjob to help museums find that balance. For her, it's somewhere between the decades-old traditional static approach and a new interactive and modern approach.

"During the age of Enlightenment museums were really trying to focus on being educational institutions for their publics," McLean said. "But what that meant in the old terms of education was we were the keepers of knowledge, we are the experts, the museum people, and we're going to provide things for the masses to educate them and enlighten them."

As society becomes more integrated online, with instant access to history, McLean believes that simply creating an exhibit or leaving a historical house untouched will no longer educate or entertain the public.

"You'll see that there has been a real move toward testing things out with people to see if they have any gravity whatsoever, and then, if they do, following through with them," she said. "But if they do not, actually going back to the drawing board and figuring out how to make them focus more on that sweet spot that is about interest and engaging people with ideas and getting people excited."

Credit Nathan Heffel / KUNC
Some of the many clothes visitors to the Astor House can use to take an 'historical selfie.'

The Astor House in Golden is one museum taking McLean's recommendations to heart. Built in 1867 while the city was the capital of the Colorado territory, it served for a short time as a hotel for legislators.

Katie March with Golden History Museums said she's had to find innovative ways to get people in the doors.

"You have a really big challenge to appeal to these younger generations," she said.

To that end, Astor House has done something dramatic. Everything in the museum is open for guests to touch and explore, unlike at Fort Collins' Avery House. From the historic washing machine in the kitchen to the clothes in the closets and toys in the bedrooms, nothing at the museum is off limits.

"We find that people have a tough time in house museums," March said. "There are all sorts of cool things that they get to see, but they don't get to touch much. A lot of the times, there is a velvet rope or a tour guide there telling you 'no, don't touch anything.'"

The museum has taken out all the historical artifacts with provenance and left only educational pieces. They're still historic, but not specially related directly to the house itself.

The hope is that people, especially younger guests, will want to come back to experience other hands on exhibits, including a new project where you're encouraged to dress up in period costumes and take a 'historic selfie' for social media.

"So we're finding that this is a really great way to bring in younger generations. Families, but also people who are in their 20's and 30's who really want to do something while they're learning and be a little bit more engaged," March said.

This audio exhibit was cutting edge interactivity when it was installed at the Aster House in the mid-90's. Visitors pushed a button and heard a story.

Museum consultant Kathleen McLean adds there still is a balancing act to perform.

"So tradition has a place. Some museums in their kind of enthusiasm to get into this participatory experimental realm, are kind of throwing the baby out with the bathwater," she said.

"Not focusing on the objects in the collection, but just on what visitors have to say; that's going a little too far, because I think the niche that they provide our cultural community that most museums have collections and they have collected knowledge and experiences that you don't see out there in the rest of the world."

McLean helped Astor House develop its innovative programming, and acknowledges other museums are watching how the public reacts to the new form of historical interaction.

"What we have to do is come up with enough of those kind of new things to kind of tweak people and get them thinking," she said. "But not so much that they overpower the other types of experiences, the traditional experience. It has value as well."

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