Interpretation, Interaction, and Critique at House Museums

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Two story stone building with walking and lawn in front.

Old Stone House at the Ermatinger Clergue National Historic Site. Photo Credit: Will Hollingshead.

Krista McCracken

Ever wish there was way to provide feedback to museums and historic house sites that didn’t involve filling out a survey form? Enter anarchist tags. Created by Franklin D. Vagnone and Deborah E. Ryan, authors of Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums: A Ground-Breaking Manifesto, the tags were designed as a way to allow community members to freely provide feedback on museum and house museum interpretation techniques.

As you might have guessed by the title, the Anarchist Guide is provocative in nature and has been met with mixed feelings in the museum and preservation communities. The Guide proposes radical reinterpretation of historic house spaces through community engagement and changing traditional methods of interpretation. Vagnone and Ryan propose a number of suggestions for reinterpretation including:

  • Move beyond the idea of period interpretation at historic houses and suggest historic sites focus on all of a house’s history, not just a specific time period.
  • Connect house museums to the present day surrounding community.
  • Focus less on physical items and more on the personal experiences of past house residents.
  • Remove ropes. Allow visitors more freedom to touch and engage with artifacts.

Regardless of if you whole-heartedly agree or find yourself horrified by Vagnone and Ryan’s suggestions, their work inspires conversation and reflection on longstanding interpretation techniques.

One of the ways museums can evaluate their practices is by seeking out feedback and community input. Anarchist tags were designed to facilitate the collection of community comments about the interpretation of historic sites and to document place-based experiences. In 2013, Vagnone and Ryan tested the Anarchist Tag idea with a Columbia University class. They created physical tags and stamped them with the statement “I am a museum anarchist and I think this is____________________________.” Students were given a bunch of tags and told to visit Historic House Museums, write their thoughts on the tags, and place their tags near where they had the thought. Students were also required to take photos of where they left the tag so the context of their comments could be understood.

Since 2013 Vagnone, Ryan, and many other museum practitioners have used Anarchist Tags as a way to talk about interpretation and as a form of community feedback and engagement. More information about the physicality of the tags and how this activity can be adapted is available in Appendix B of the Anarchist Guide.

Using Anarchist Tags in the Classroom

For the “Select Topics in Community Based Public History” course I’m teaching, I partnered with a number of folks in the heritage field to arrange site visits to local history sites in order to provide students with exposure to the range of work that exists within the public history field.

One week of the course was dedicated to museums and as part of those sessions we took a class trip to the Ermatinger Clergue National Historic Site (ECNHS). The ECNHS includes an interactive heritage discovery centre, the Ermatinger Old Stone House, and the Clergue Blockhouse. Both the Ermatinger and Clergue buildings are interpreted in typical house museum fashion.

Prior to our visit to the ECNHS I worked with Heritage Programmer Assistant, Will Hollingshead to discuss the logistics of our visit. Many of the students in my class had visited the site previously and participated in the standard historical site tour that is offered by the staff. While meeting with Will he commented on one of the readings the students were assigned for the week of our visit, “The Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums: Evaluation Methodology for Historic House Museums” and suggested the idea of using Anarchist tags as part of our class visit. I loved this idea and was onboard for trying it out with my class.

During our class visit each student was provided with an envelope of tags. The tags had a combination of prompts, including: ““I am a museum anarchist and I think this is____________________________”, “I like_________”, and “I didn’t like________” students were encouraged to critically look at the interpretation ECNHS and leave their comments via the tags.

The purpose behind this activity was to encourage a more active engagement with a historic site and also provide students with a chance to critically reflect on interpretation of the ECNHS without feeling like they were being put on the spot. From Hollingshead’s perspective as someone working at the historic site, “the use of anarchist tags at the Ermatinger Clergue National Historic Site not only allowed for unbiased evaluation of our exhibits, but also provied key feedback in what our community is looking for from THEIR museum. The struggle of relevance is something that museums across the country are dealing with, and the use of anarchist tags allows us to address and evaluate this issue in a unique way.” One of the clear advantages of this activity was usefulness to both the ECNHS and the student participants.

Lessons Learned

Using anarchist tags in the classroom was a new experience for me but it was one I would definitely repeat. The tags facilitated a number of interesting conversations about how museum signage is made, what is deemed important, and how as visitors we respond to physical spaces.

This assignment also brought up the challenge of learning how to analyze museum exhibits and historic house sites. For many of the students this was the first time they were asked to think critically about a historic site. In the future, I would consider assigning students one or two exhibit reviews to read prior to our site visit, with hopes of exposing them to more conversations around interpretation prior to using the tags.

The day of our visit we discussed the role of professionals in exhibit creation and how the general public’s response to an exhibit matters. I actively reminded the students that their views were important and worth writing down. We also encouraged the students to move through the spaces freely and without a guide, they could choose which rooms they wanted to spend the most time in based on their interests.

Overall, this was an activity that inspired critical thinking and lots of discussion. It allowed students to think about all the work that goes into interpretation and the lasting impact decisions can have on visitor experiences.

Krista McCracken is an Archives Supervisor at Algoma University’s Arthur A. Wishart Library and Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre. She is a co-editor of Activehistory.ca. Krista lives and works on Robinson-Huron Treaty territory.

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