Saturday, July 9, 2011

Who's on First?

Well Clermont's Old-Fashioned Independence Day is past, and I can breath a sigh of relief. As the most-attended event at Clermont, it is always one I am both happy and sad to be put to bed for another year. This year's event brought some new questions to my mind, and as part of my quest to de-mystify museums, I'm thinking I'd like to share them with my readers.

As has become a tradition, I helped three of my best and brightest (and most daring) guides into costumes and placed them in the mansion as historic Clermont characters: Margaret Beekman Livingston, Mary Stevens Livingston, and a servant I named Sarah Minkler who was drawn from an amalgamation of historic sources and people. The three ladies (Jane, Emily, and Jennie) were stationed in various rooms of the house to talk to visitors as though they really were women living in 1777 at Clermont. This is called First Person Interpretation.

We then set up an Open House so that guests could wander through the rooms at their own pace, exploring in any direction and encountering the characters for as long as they like.

But more than ever this year, it was hit and miss with our audience. Some people love it, some people are confused or even turned off by it. Thank goodness for my guides playing characters. Each one made their own decisions about which visitors to stay "in character" with and which ones to "break character" with to maximize their comfort.

The debate over the pluses and minuses of First Person Interpretation is one that has been raging amongst museum professionals for years. And at Clermont, gets a little more complicated.

Here's the biggest problem for us: as I have talked about time and again, Clermont is interpretted to 1930. That means we look the way we did when Calvin Coolidge was president. George Washington may have come to Clermont, but he never sat on the Duncan Phyfe sofa or read by the electric lamps. So when Sarah Minkler is talking to you in the kitchen about her father the loyalist, you might be distracted by the copper hot water tank in the corner of the room. It can be downright confusing what you are supposed to think in this situation.

Kids have no problem with it. They can pretend that a butter knife is a sword. Grownups usually want to be told how they are supposed to make the logic work in their heads. Why is the sword so short? Will it still "cut" you if I am two feet away? What are the rules and boundaries of this game?

I've seen the rules work very well. When I once visited Lindenwald's super-fun Candlelight Evening, the guide stopped on the steps to explain to us that the curators of the museum had transported everyone in the mansion into 2009 to visit with us. Unfortunately, the guide explained, their technique was imperfect, and the historic people had no idea we were there.

The rules are set, Van Buren and his friends are not going to talk to you so don't even try.

I liked this solution personally because I am a little too nervous to play act along with the characters. We both know you're getting in your Explorer and going home to watch TV tonight so let's stop the games.

This is not to say I don't like First Person. Quite the contrary--I love it! I love hearing what people might have had to say, and quite honestly, I love to see their cool clothes. I just need the rules spelled out for me, and I need a safe distance.

So here is what I gave to the guides:

Time Travel: We are all standing today in 2011, but some visitors may try to give you a hard time by getting technical about how you are here at Clermont today. Basically, for you it is Jul 4th, 1777, and you do not know what happened to you or anyone else after the war. This is not Clermont as you know it, but you are certain that you will be returned to your own time shortly. Essentially, Clermont’s curators have transported you to today in a time machine, but you’ll be going home tonight.

So why were visitors still feeling funny? I didn't give the rules to them!

Some years at Independence Day we have done these First Person encounters on a guided tour, and the guide will prepare people with a quick explanation (much as I have written above). During the Legends by Candlelight Halloween Tours, the house, the people, and the talk is all about 1921 so people know where they're at (so to speak). When the ghost of Captain Kidd is gesticulating wildly at you with a shovel, you know why he's not so worried about the electric lights in his face--he's a ghost, what does he care?!

Without these guidelines this year, people were left to figure it out for themselves, something that not everyone has the patience for.

So here is my promise to you the Clermont visitor: Never again will I put Margaret Beekman in the dining room, with furnishings she would never have seen in her lifetime, without explaining to you why and how she is there. Never again will you have to wonder if you should ask her about Andrew Jackson's portrait on the wall or why there is a velvet rope between you.

Instead, when you get to meet some of the many generations of Clermont Livingstons we are lucky enough to be able to interpret for you, you will be able to focus on their lives, their personalities, and of course their stunning clothes.

(Yes, that's me in my fabulous new 18th century costume from our Peebles Island Resource Center!)


  1. Great post, both for learning about your experiences as well as for the links to the broader discussion in the museum community. As I read this blog it becomes clear that regular and repeated visits to Clermont will be rewarding and enriching. You guys are not a "one and done" kind of place.

    1. Thanks Steve! What a great compliment. It makes us (and me!) pretty happy to know that all our research and rambling is being read by enthusiastic history people!