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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Museum Houses of New England

We are coming into the season when the museum houses are opening for visitors. Some of these are grand mansions, like the ones at Newport, Rhode Island, some less grand like the Mariner’s Home of New Bedford pictured above. Some are the simple frame houses of literary figures, sea captains, or captains of industry. Many of these homes now operating as museums are closed during the winter months, and will open soon for the summer season.

Visiting the neighbors requires cooperation from both us the visitors, and the staffs of these museums to make the visit meaningful. Unfortunately, I confess I’ve been in a few of these homes where the guide knew less about the subject than some of the visitors. I can recall going in one museum house where a young woman advised us that the building was, “Like, real, real, old.”

I can remember going into another stately mansion where the guide spent the entire tour pointing out which pieces of furniture she thought would look so good in her own home that she would steal them if she could get away with it. Directors of these important and cherished buildings should be reminded that we did not pay our admission fee for such nonsense. Nor to hear anything at all about the personal likes and dislikes of the guide. I can recall one National Park ranger leaving the subject matter and straying into modern-day politics, while his tour group fidgeted.

It should be needless to say that guides, though many may be working on a volunteer basis, need to be trained not only in their subject matter, but in graciously hosting the public. We are a captive audience, so don’t take advantage of that to try out your new comedy routine or tell us your problems. Here’s another tip, don’t hold up an object and shout, “Can anybody tell me what this is?” At least, not if your tour group is comprised of adults. Adults, generally, do not like to be talked to like a group of third-graders on a field trip. Just tell us what the blasted thing is and stop wasting time.

That said, I can recall some terrific experiences on such tours of museum houses. One guide was just a young boy, dressed in 18th century costume, working at a carpentry exhibit of Fort No. 4 in New Hampshire. His knowledge of his subject and the enthusiasm for it was deeply impressive, and we left his company that day the better for it.

Two other really terrific experiences on historical site tours did not occur in New England, but are good examples of excellent tours. One was at the Confederate White House in Richmond, Virginia. The young woman was, again, very knowledgeable in her subject, which was the family of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Moreover, her attitude was one of dignity and graciousness that reflected the dignity of the historical site. She invited us not only into the home, but into the 19th century. And as a nod to those of us Northerners in the group, she ended her tour with the famous line by Mrs. Varina Davis, who was asked by reporters why she would attend the funeral of General Ulysses S. Grant, “Gentleman, the war is over.” Thus, this spot of Southern history which we New Englanders did not share, still became our history, too.

Another fond memory is of the National Park ranger on the stage of Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC, describing with dramatic detail the events of the night of President Lincoln’s assassination. This older man, shorter, a bit heavy set, was no actor, but he brought the whole scenario alive for us, and received a spontaneous ovation at the end of his talk. He responded proudly with a cute and most dignified bow.

But, as stated earlier, this business of visiting the neighbors, whether they be the Alcotts or Edith Wharton, or any Revolutionary War general, is a two-way situation. If we require good guides, then we must also be good guests. For us visitors, it should be a matter of simple courtesy. Turn off the cell phones. No, really.

If your teenaged son has not removed the IPod headphones during the entire tour, chances are he could care less about Mark Twain or his house in Hartford. Leave him home next time. You did not raise him right. Go home and try again.

If the house is small, with narrow halls and stairs, be brief in your examination of that whatnot cabinet so the rest of the group can have a look. If you are asked not to touch anything or sit on anything, then don’t.

Maybe Clara Barton herself isn’t going to come out with a tray of lemonade and cookies, but it’s still her house there in North Oxford, Mass., so be a good guest.

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