February 22, 2016

My life as a guide and interpreter at a historic site—and what to know before you apply for a job

The resources on The History List that deal with finding a job or an internship are among our most popular.  (I've included links to several of them at the bottom of this post.)  Over the last few months I asked a few friends who are at different stages in their careers and who have worked at very different institutions for their tips and insights as interpreters, guides, and docents at historic sites and living history museums.  

From a guide and interpreter at a historic site in Boston

On clothing

  • One of the more difficult parts of interpreting is feeling comfortable in the clothes you wear.  While it is great to rely on a more knowledgable colleague to show you how to properly dress, take the time to do your own research.  Study portraits, fashion plates, or photographs (if they are available to your time period).  Read from primary sources about the fabrics/prints/ styles available to your region. 
  • People love to ask you about clothing.  Make it your business to understand why you are wearing what you are wearing and how styles changed over time.
  • You will be asked multiple times per day (sometimes per hour) if "you are hot in your clothes."  You can always explain that they are natural fabrics and that you are used to them, or try to connect on a cultural level and mention that other cultures today wear layers in the summer.  My advice? Come up with something witty as a retort, or you will eventually end up irritated.

On learning the tour or demonstration

  • Your job is, yes, to memorize your script or your facts, but how you will stand out in your interpretation is if you can't elaborate on facts, connect to your public, or answer questions?  The more you read on your interpretation, the more you will "own" it.
  • Within your demonstration or tour, find an area of the time period that interests you.  Read up on it.  You can personalize your presentation in this way.
  • If you are asked a question that you don't know the answer to, admit it. Keep a small journal nearby.  Offer to take the individual's email and share what you find!  
  • If you're not comfortable on your own at first, ask a seasoned colleague to do the tour or demonstration with you, them jump in when you feel comfortable.
  • If you are doing a walking tour, ask your group to participate by asking them questions, or give them leading statements and ask them to fill in the blanks.  When you engage your group or visitors, they retain information better and feel as if they have ownership of their learning experience.

On dealing with the public

  • Be prepared to have your picture taken a lot.  More often than not, you will be photographed without your consent.  You can deal with this two ways: Ask the individual to stop if you are uncomfortable or mention that you prefer to be asked first.  Generally, they will get the idea.  Unfortunately, if you are giving a tour, there's no way to really prevent this from happening from people outside your tour.  If you are indoors and your site does not allow photography, you can post signs or gently remind your public. 
  • Sometimes people forget that you are a "real person" inside your "historic persona."  This means they sometimes forget your personal space and will touch you, put their arm around you, and so on.  Gently remind them that you are working and they will usually back up.

On silly questions

  • Keep your patience at the ready.  People come with all levels of historic knowledge. Most wish to learn.  Use their questions, however silly, as a chance to educate.  For example, although I portray an 18th century Bostonian, I have been asked multiple times if I'm Amish, a pirate wench, one of King Henry's wives, or Pilgrim.  I take those questions as my opportunity to correct their misconceptions . . . and sell a tour. 
  • If repeated questions are intentionally asked to be silly, you can always use humor back to connect with your public.  Just make sure they don't try to take over your interpretation.  If they do, chances are your group is getting fed up with the antics.  You can always politely suggest they move on, or seek employment at the local comedy show while you will finish educating your group!

From an interpreter at a living history site in the midwest

  • I got my job by going through the intern program and made friends with the guy who chose the interns.
  • Nobody gets paid well. I get paid more as a grocery store clerk than my supervisors at my historic site do.
  • The clothes are not a huge problem. You get used to them.
  • I've learned to be a tougher person. I've had to man up to succeed in historical situation and in two short years I've developed an interest in farming.  In fact, after a short time I was no longer interested in learning about the time period. I was more concerned with completing my daily tasks.
  • The general public seems very unaware of the lowest level of information that we are trying to get across. However, if you treat them with respect you can connect with almost anyone.

From a guide and docent at historic sites and history museums in New England

  • Whether prepping for tours or informal interpretation, it is easy spend hours (of your own unpaid time) researching about the museum or site's collections, exhibitions, and buildings, to feel prepared enough for visitors. The organization never compensates you for this ongoing work. 
  • No matter if the expectation "not to touch objects" is printed on a museum map, in addition to having signs on the wall and to having physical barriers near and over objects, people will inevitably touch the museum's collection. Sometimes, the touching of the collection is accidental, which is understandable because museum environments can be dark or we as human beings learn through touch.  At other times, it can be frustrating when visitors tell you, "I didn't see the sign," or "I didn't know", despite the written, verbal, and pictorial requests they've seen and heard.  You'll find that you have to continuously educate visitors that no matter how clean their hands are, hands still have oils on them and these could damage an object over time.  

From a guide and interpreter at historic sites and living history museums in New England and the Northeast

  • As a naturally shy, quiet person, becoming a tour guide was definitely a learning experience. I had to get comfortable being loud, confident, entertaining. In fact, I'm still not sure I'll ever really be loud enough.
  • Something that I always had trouble with as a tour guide was being entertaining. As a trained historian (with a background in museum work), my tours focused on converting good, solid, information, and a lot of it. Some people absolutely loved that, especially people who had some prior knowledge of American History. However, unlike other guides, I didn't work constant jokes and entertainment into my tour, so I think I was less appealing to less knowledgeable or more casual groups. 
  • In terms of getting offered the job, the actual interview was the easy part. The trickier part was getting through the door. Nearly everyone got involved either because they knew someone who was already employed (like me), or they had been recommended through one of the local college's history department. Another small group found the job through acting/theater websites and connections. In my experience, it's all about who you know, and knowing when to apply—interpretation jobs generally hire January - April, and especially in February. You're unlikely to find anything if you look at other times of the year.
  • The pay rate at one historic site was set up so that you could make a ton of money if you worked hard and were lucky and had seniority. Tour guides who had been around the longest were given the best tours, like 11:00 AM on a Saturday, and they could easily make $300+ on a single tour (plus tips). As a newcomer, I was given the mid-week afternoon tours, and there were many days when I only walked away with the base rate. The trick is being flexible, and being willing and able to rework your schedule at a moment's notice.
  • Flexibility was at times great and at others frustrating.  Great because I could easily work this job about 1 or 2 others. It was less great, because you never knew when you'd have to change your schedule around to accommodate a new tour, or because a group was running an hour late. 
  • I enjoyed dressing up, generally, and I was lucky enough to have access to a few different outfits, depending on the weather. You are going to get sweaty and hot in the summer, and you are going to freeze in the winter, though. That's just how it works. Tips: In the summer, wear linen, it breathes much better than cotton. Wear a sun hat. If you have a kerchief, drench it in water before you go out. Don't let yourself get dehydrated. In the winter, wear looser garments so you can layer underneath them. I often wore jeans, a slip, and then my petticoat (the slip was to keep the petticoat from bunching up too much). Hand warmers in your pockets! Rubber bands below your knees to keep your stockings up.
  • Projecting your voice is serious business.  Ask experienced guides for tips. 
  • My favorite part of the job was definitely when there were people who were genuinely excited about what I had to teach them and they really cared. My least favorite part was then people just didn't care and they were on the tour because it was the thing to do. 
  • The best thing to know about being a good tour guide is that if you're really, really enthusiastic about something, eventually that's going to rub off on your group. 

Pictured, from the top: Fort Ticonderoga, aboard the Hermione when it stopped in Boston, Living History Farms (Des Moines, IA), and the Newport Historical Society's Stamp Act Protest (Newport, RI).


More resources for job seekers:

 

 

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February 4, 2016

Adding courses and workshops to The History List

We've revised the Conferences page to include courses. This was in response to several organizations that expressed interest in listing their courses, and especially their online courses.

Tips for adding your organization's classes:

  • If the course takes place over multiple days, include more information about the schedule in the description, but when you add the date, list only the start date.

Examples:

  • A single course held once: An online course that is completed over a 30-day period. It has a start and end date. Explain this in the description. When entering the date, enter only the start date.
  • A single course that is offered more than once: This online course is offered every month on the 1st of the month, use the start date when you add the additional times it's offered.  In the example below, the course is offered on the 1st of the month from now through August, which is the last time it's offered.  The description of the course would explain that it is a course that is completed over a 30-day period.

 

 

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December 18, 2015

The innovation imperative and the pace of change, from Facebook's "Little Red Book"

Facebook's "Little Red Book"—really an unfortunate title for anyone aware of history—helps reinforce the company's philosophy, including on innovation and the pace of change.  Two excerpts below, and more here.

 

Running a historical society, history museum, historic house museum, or historic site is much different than providing an app or social service or other online product. And yes, there are a billion differences between Facebook the company and what we do as volunteers at or employees of history organizations, but there are some good ideas here.  

Granted, some will react reflexively and negatively, but perhaps that means helping people move out of their comfort zone, or at least getting them to think about change and innovation.

Not suggesting change for the sake of change, or that the new thing is better than the old thing—far from it—but rather that we need to be thinking about why we’re doing what we’re doing and the possibility, and ability, to do something new.

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December 17, 2015

Putting historic objects and exhibits in places where people already are

Yesterday in downtown Boston I saw this sign on a busy sidewalk:

The street sign for the Historic New England display at BSA Space in Boston

Inside BSA Space, owned by the Boston Society of Architects, was "White on White: Churches of Rural New England," a display of photographs of churches throughout rural New England along with several panels explaining the history of the preservation movement in Boston and the excellent work done by Historic New England.

 

While I don't know how many people are drawn into the upstairs gallery to see this free exhibition, it's another example of putting history, and historic objects and exhibits, in places where people already are, as opposed to always relying people to come to your site or museum.

I earlier wrote about Wells Fargo and their use of their heritage, including their famed stage coaches and the 10 small museums they have across the country, as examples of getting historic objects and displays out in places where more people will encounter them.  While their motivation is somewhat different, the result is the same: More people, including those who may not go to history museums or historic sites, have the opportunity to learn about history.

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December 2, 2015

The History Gift List for 2015 and promoting gift memberships with #MembershipMonday

To help raise awareness of the many great gifts for history lovers available from historic sites, history museums, historical societies, and artisans across the country, we are going creating The History Gift List for 2015 (TheHistoryList.com/gifts) and promote it on social media.

We're looking for unique items.  For an artisan, things that are made by hand.  For an author, signed or inscribed editions. For a gift shop at a museum, historic site, or historical society, an item that is only available there.

To have yours considered, send an e-mail message with a link to the item.  Make sure the link includes a photo and description, as well as the ability to buy it online.  Also include the “order by” date to ensure Christmas delivery anywhere in the country. If you have a very limited quantity, note that, too. Send this information in and put "The History Gift List for 2015" in the subject line.  Note that we'll link to your site. You keep all the revenue; we're just trying to help get the word out.

As we get close to the Christmas, we’ll promote things that can be downloaded or ordered overnight, so include those details if they are apply to your item.

And what's the best really-last-minute gift?  A gift membership.

Let's start a new tradition: #MembershipMonday on the Monday of the week of Christmas.  We'll make it the day to promote giving gift memberships and to market and promote them creatively.

This Resources post has several ideas for marketing gift memberships, including examples of the way several different types of history organizations market their gift memberships.

 

The #MembershipMonday Marketing Bundle

We've added a special #MembershipMonday marketing bundle you can download.  It includes JPGs, such as the one on the right, that you can use in any of your materials, as well as PDFs you can print out and use as tabletop signs.  

"Make this holiday historic!"

More information on the overall campaign is on the "Make this holiday historic!" campaign page, including a link to download additional marketing material, as well as market research. 

 

 

 

 

 

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