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Developing an Interpretive Approach in an Historic Museum

America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was dramatically transformed by new inventions and innovations in daily living and social thought that drastically altered the way we perceived ourselves and our nation’s role in the world. Satirist Mark Twain dubbed this time period “The Gilded Age,” implying there was no substance beneath the grandiose wealth and new social structure of the nation. While Twain’s view of this time had some merit, the Gilded Age can rightfully be thought of as an era in which modern America was created, a time when the social customs, technologies, and business methods ingrained in today’s American character were developed by a handful of men who deliberately shaped a new America. Henry Morrison Flagler (1830 – 1913), founding partner of Standard Oil and developer of Florida’s east coast, was one of these men.

Flagler’s career as the founding partner and legal mind behind Standard Oil provided him the necessary wealth and influence for his endeavors in Florida. In his early fifties, Flagler began building the Florida East Coast Railway from Jacksonville to Key West, linking his world-class resorts and simultaneously creating an infrastructure that supported the development of an agricultural industry, tourism industry, and the metropolitan communities that comprise South Florida today. In Palm Beach, the epicenter of the Flagler System, Flagler built Whitehall — a home to rival the mansions of his contemporaries in Newport and the Hudson Valley.

Today, Whitehall is open as the Flagler Museum with the mission to “preserve, research, and interpret Whitehall, its associated collections, and materials related to the life of Henry Morrison Flagler, as unique and important elements of Florida’s history and America’s Gilded Age.”

Defining the Interpretive Approach

When developing effective interpretation, defining the goals of the intepretive approach using the institution’s mission as a foundation is paramount. At the Flagler Museum, docent interpreters encourage visitors to consider the social, technological, and cultural forces at work during the Gilded Age using the Flagler story and Whitehall to illustrate the complexities of the time period and its impact on the world today. Interpretation should reach well beyond the show-and-tell of the objects or the perpetuation of the widely held (and erroneous) belief that Gilded Age estates were merely fantastic baubles in the empire of robber barons. Instead, historic house museums can harness the power of a place to help visitors learn about the context of the time period when the house existed and the impact of these influences on the present world. Through effective interpretation, houses like Whitehall can be examples of Andrew Carnegie’s statement in The Gospel of Wealth, that “it is well, nay, essential, for the progress of the race that the houses of some should be homes for all that is highest and best in literature and the arts …”

Docent Training to meet Interpretive Goals Effective docent training is crucial to the success of this interpretive approach. An effective docent corps must be comprised of informed interpreters who have the appropriate skills and enthusiasm necessary to meet the institution’s interpretive approach. To ensure that this is the case, an effective docent training program should focus on:

recruiting interpreters who understand and appreciate the goals of the museum and its interpretive approach, training interpreters in tour management and public speaking to create a sense of confidence in working with the public, providing the interpreters with a broad introduction to the time period, allowing them to design a tour geared for each audience, and fostering a continual, individualized dialogue between the education director and every interpreter through workshops and regular evaluation.

The process begins with recruitment and applicant screening. The Flagler Museum looks for interpreters who share the enthusiasm and vision of the Museum’s mission and who will benefit from the many exciting opportunities to learn about the larger issues underlying America’s Gilded Age. A special recruitment brochure outlining the museum and the docent program is distributed throughout the community and given out after public speaking engagements to entice prospective interpreters. After interviewing with both the education director and the executive director, the docent applicants are selected. A docent agreement outlining the responsibilities of both the museum and the docent is signed, and the docent trainee joins other new staff (paid and volunteer) in a mandatory all-day orientation program led by the executive director and the chief curator. This one-day orientation outlines the basics of working in a museum, including non-profit issues, how museums are governed, and the mission of the Flagler Museum.

Interpreters attend a 60-hour training course incorporating four basic themes: tour management and public speaking, America’s Gilded Age, Henry Flagler, and Whitehall and its collections. Because the Museum’s interpretive approach focuses heavily on placing Flagler in the context of his time period and illustrating the importance of the Gilded Age in modern America, the docents spend several weeks becoming acquainted with the world in which Flagler lived. By understanding the larger forces at work in the culture, business, politics, society, etc. of the time, docents gain confidence and flexibility in their interpretation. This level of confidence is then translated into a tour that is not a rote speech focusing on objects and facts, but a dialogue that is specifically developed around the interests of the visitor.

Armed with a basic understanding of the time period and the house, the docent then completes his or her own tour outline with the assistance of the education director. Having docents develop their own outline rather than providing a standard script ensures that each docent’s tour will have the flexibility to meet the needs of the visitors as well as communicate the docent’s enthusiasm for the subject. Docents use background materials on Flagler and the Gilded Age, primary source materials from the archives, and other information concerning the collection to illustrate major ideas and themes of the Gilded Age. For example, one tour outline may highlight the myriad of technological advancements, inventions, and innovations developed during the Gilded Age by pointing out for visitors the modern conveniences in Whitehall (indirect lighting, central heating, steel frame construction, etc.). Docents may also discuss the advent of modern business during the Gilded Age by discussing Flagler’s role as the legal mind behind Standard OA and the development of multi-state business enterprises. Through this process, the docents convey the complex ideas of Gilded Age America using familiar objects and the Flagler story.

The ability to effectively communicate these ideas is crucial. Docent trainees engage in public speaking from the very first day of training. Each three-hour training segment is divided into three sessions, two that focus on content and one that focuses on public speaking and tour management. Every training segment incorporates either a rehearsed or impromptu public speaking activity that prepares the interpreters for different situations. Docents learn various approaches for discovering and adjusting a tour to the interests of the visitor, including the development of Socratic questions for use on tour. This practice helps docents overcome each docent individually, accentuating strengths and identifying areas where growth is needed. By evaluating the docent’s presentation during a complete tour and then discussing various elements of the tour with the docent, the tour evaluator creates an individualized improvement program and opens a more informal and honest dialogue between the volunteer and staff that translates into a better visitor experience. any initial misgivings they may have about speaking in front of others or being “cornered” by difficult visitors or complex questions.

Continuing education is very important to help docents perform effectively and provide quality interpretation for the museum’s visitors. Workshops for all docents focusing on new historical information and tour techniques are held periodically throughout the year. Docent trips to other museums and group viewings of movies and documentaries about the period separate fact from fiction. These group meetings provide the social environment that many volunteers seek while fulfilling the educational mission of the museum.

Perhaps the most effective tool for docent training is the tour evaluation process. This involves an ongoing commitment by the education director to work with

The Benefits of Interpretive Training

There are many benefits for the docents, visitors, and the museum using this approach to docent training. The most obvious is an enhanced visitor experience through more substantive tour content and an open dialogue with the docent. Docents can adjust their tour style and content to create meaning for each visitor on a tour. Visitors come to understand the symbolism and importance of these homes in American history.

Another benefit is the increased educational value of the tour. Training docents to speak intelligently about the overall time period keeps the focus on the bigger picture rather than a tour bogged down in minutia. While a decorative arts tour has a specific and valuable role in the museum field, general audiences benefit most from a tour that presents an overall appreciation of a specific time period and a deeper understanding of how American society came to be what it is today.

Making it Happen

1- Evaluate the current interpretive approach of the institution in light of its mission.

How does it support the mission? Does the current interpretive approach help lead the visitor to an understanding of substantive issues or concepts? Develop a vision statement and explain the importance of the historic site, separate from the person who lived there or its collection. How does it exemplify the time period?

2- Evaluate the current docent corps.

Why are they volunteering in your institution? Are they willing to learn new and different approaches to interpretation?

3- Evaluate the training program.

What training have the current docents received? Are they simply given a script or asked to follow more experienced docents through the museum?

4- Develop a new training program.

Docents should be trained by museum professionals. Design a program that is heavy on public speaking and tour management skills as well as instruction on the relevant time period. Only after this foundation is in place should information on the house, historic person(s), and collection be added. Docents who are confident in their speaking ability and familiar with the time period can easily converse with visitors.

5- Provide individualized feedback. Evaluate each docent individually. Focus on their strengths and identify the areas where growth is needed. Are they good public speakers but need to stay more focused? Do they understand the time period but are challenged by applying it to the house? Working with docents individually instills a sense of trust and confidence in their interpretation.

6- Move the interpretation off-site.

The Flagler Museum’s interpretive mission goes beyond the obvious house tour. The museum’s website ( provides additional context through linkages with other sources of information concerning the Gilded Age. The museum’s Illustrated Guide uses the progressive approach to interpretation, from the Gilded Age, to information on Henry Flagler, to a discussion on Whitehall. Even the museum’s membership brochures incorporate a tailored interpretive approach to convey the appropriate message to the intended audience. For example, the corporate membership brochure discusses Flagler’s role in the formation of modern American business while the individual membership brochure highlights the importance of individual opportunity and initiative in America. This approach to interpretation and docent training is not exclusive to Gilded Age mansions or National Historic Landmarks. Any historic house museum can create a meaningful experience for their visitors by clearly defining the goals of interpretation in light of the institution’s mission and broadening the interpretive approach to focus on historical context rather than just on decorative arts or facts about the occupants.

With a deeper understanding of an historic site in the context of the time period in which it existed, museum goers will gain a deeper appreciation for the complexities of American history and the role house museums play in furthering this understanding.

Andrea H. Possum is the education director at the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, Florida. She holds a Master’s degree in public history and has acquired education and interpretive experience through her work at various museums in Connecticut, Tennessee, and Florida.

Possum, Andrea H. “Developing an Interpretive Approach in an Historic House Museum,” The Docent Educator 11.1 (Autumn 2001): 12-15.


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