There is no doubt about it — Shadows-on-the-Teche is a remarkable place because of its setting, because of its history, and because of the resources available for making tours memorable. In telling the story of the Shadows, the museum staff is at a tremendous advantage over the staffs of many historic houses because of the Weeks Family Papers. These papers contain the personal letters, inventories, bills of sale, receipts, and so forth of the families who lived and worked at this stately house in bayou country.
The Shadows is one of the best documented houses in the country, with over 17,000 papers archived within Hill Memorial Library at Louisiana State University. The Shadows’ staff uses these papers as documentary grounding for its tours, which means that everything a tour guide says on tour should have a basis in the Weeks Family Papers.
Though a tour, based on research, was developed in the early 1960’s, active research was not resumed until 1983 when a trained historian came on staff. During the intervening years, tour guides began to rely upon second-hand stories and “old Southern” myths, such as the Spanish room tax to explain the lack of closets in the house, petticoat mirrors for pier tables, whistle walks to explain landscaping, etc.
For historic houses striving for accuracy, myths are long dying. Even with the refreshing breeze of new historical research, it was a struggle to keep old stories out while putting new, documented material in. One way the Shadows continues to provide new material to make tours more accurate and more interesting is through the use of thematic, or special focus, tours. The most recent of these tours emphasizes quotations, or statements made by the people who lived on this property during its period of interpretation — 1834-63.
Other thematic tours offered at the Shadows include: “Rediscovering Past Pleasures: Leisure as Revealed by the Weeks Family Papers,” “Experts at My Needle: Domestic Arts at the Shadows,” and “From the ‘Fiery Orb’ to ‘Freezing Fingers’: Coping with Climate in the 19th Century.” The purpose of these special tours is to provide new insights and to breathe life into what was becoming the same old thing — dull tours that revolved around basic facts about the property that offered visitors little of the vibrancy of the people who once lived in and around the Weeks homeplace.
All of our thematic tours began with research. Volunteer researchers gathered references for a chosen topic from the Weeks Family Papers. (Sites that do not have our great wealth of documentation might try using newspapers from their period of interpretation, popular literature of the day, papers from people of the same special circumstances as the tour’s focus, oral histories, etc.) Supplemental sources were also used to shed light on areas not covered in the Weeks Family Papers. For instance, because there were no papers written by slaves who lived on the property (though we have ample evidence about the slaves at the Shadows), the writings of Soloman Northup, a former slave who wrote about his experiences, provided an important glimpse into life in bondage on a plantation in Louisiana.
Another example of the use of readily accessible, supplemental documents is in support of our “Coping with Climate” tour. A researcher looked through pre- Civil War newspapers for advertisements listing seasonal clothing and for references to the weather. (Example: The weather has been delightful of late. Spring has come — beautiful Spring —glittering with garlands, and attended by light-pinioned zephyrs and sweet singing birds. Spring has come. Reviving earth is clothed in her loveliest dress — the tall trees, covered with green glories, tell their joy to the ordorous [sic] breeze — the busy bees hum out their happiness, as they sip the garden ‘s sweets, and the quiet sky looks lovingly down and smiles. Franklin Planters’ Banner. April 15, 1847.)
Gathering research is crucial to the process of tour development. It is best to know your theme, or special focus, from the start, instead of taking an encyclopedic approach to information gathering. Topical research provides the impetus for a cohesive product.
After the research is gathered, it must be assembled into a logical, useful structure. For instance, the quotations used for the Shadows’ tour focusing on leisure activities were divided into categories: food and dining; hunting, fishing, and pets; travel; needlework; balls, parties, and dancing; and visiting and reading.
Once the assemblage is arranged, the researcher presents the guides with the material and lets them formulate the best way to use the information. Along with a few suggestions, guides are told to be creative in arranging quotations and deciding where they are to be used. A theme affects everything about a tour, from its route to the objects used to illustrate the message. Giving guides the time and the situation to develop their own thematic tours empowers them by giving them a sense of ownership.
The guided tour experience is what sets historic house museums apart from other exhibition techniques. Guides are the labels and the interactive media on a house tour. With a few, well-chosen words, guides can provoke the visitors’ imagination and heighten the tour experience. After all, what could be more descriptive than, “I have read everything in the house. I wish there was a Library in this place, in dark bad weather when I cannot go in the Garden, time hangs heavy on my hands. ” (Mary C. Moore in a letter to her husband John Moore, 1853.) It not only tells you about the place, but of a frame of mind and of leisure activities.
Quoting animates subject matter. Simply stating that John Moore grieved about his wife’s death carries far less emotional weight than reciting his words — “her loss to me is irreparable, [sic]. ” Saying that daughter Frances did not care very much for her music lesson is less evocative than using her own words — “I hate the days to come when I have to take my music lesson. ”
Even using the words of people who were not connected to the Shadows, but who lived during the same time period as we interpret, can be illustrative. For instance, when explaining fashion and why the once red brick plantation house was white-washed, guides will quote Charles Dickens who on a trip to America remarked, “… every house is the whitest of white; every Venetian blind the greenest of green [the Shadows has green shutters]; every fine day’s sky the bluest of blue. ”
Of course, the idea of using quotations is not new, but for some reason it is less a part of the historic house experience than one might think. Usually, interpreters and guides talk about what a person said or did instead of using their own words. What could be more appropriate, however, than using a person’s actual words as part of a tour?
It was not until 1991 that the Shadows staff became sold on this technique. The “sale” took place during a visit to Edith Wharton’s home, “The Mount,” in Massachusetts’s Berkshire Mountains. The guide, with note cards in hand, quoted Mrs. Wharton throughout her tour. Mrs. Wharton’s own words told of her feelings about living in this home, and of her ideas about art and decoration. The device was most effective. Since that time the desirability of using quotations became clear — even if guides needed to carry note cards to prompt them when repeating specific quotations.
Quotations from the period of interpretation lend an air of authenticity that complements the presentation of historic house museums. What’s more, they can help visitors in other types of museums. Quoting artists can assist us to understand the expressive process; quoting pioneering scientists can give us insights into the research process. Quotations offer visitors the immediacy and truthfulness found only in primary documentation.
Jamie Credle is Program Assistant at the Shadows-on-the-Teche in New Iberia, Louisiana. Ms. Credle received a B.A. in History and English from Salem College, and an M.A. in American History from U.N.C. at Greensboro. She served as an intern at the Museums of Stony Brook in Stony Brook, NY, and at the Jekyll Island Museum in Georgia. Prior to taking her position at the Shadows, Ms. Credle was Education Programs Coordinator at the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke, VA.
Credle, Jamie. “Using Quotations as a Theme: Breathing Life into Tours,” The Docent Educator 3.1 (Autumn 1993): 6-7.