Sunday, October 11, 2009

Wyckoff-Garretson House (Franklin Twp)

Writing this post actually upsets me. But I took on this endeavor with the intent to record an honest account of the typical visitor experience at historic sites across New Jersey. And unfortunately, this one got off on the wrong foot.

The Somerset County Cultural & Heritage Commission organized a Weekend Journey through the Past. Working together with local historic sites – many of whom hosted special events for the weekend – they devised three driving tours of the county (which are still worth noting if you live nearby and want to visit these sites at another time).

We decided to start the weekend at the Wyckoff-Garretson House in Franklin Township. Unfortunately, this was also where our weekend ended.

The Wyckoff-Garretson House is part of the Meadows Foundation, a privately owned and managed collection of historic – mainly Dutch colonial – buildings in Franklin Township. If it weren’t for the Foundation’s valiant efforts over the past 30 years, many, if not all, of these structures would have been demolished. And that is why it pains me to relay what was a needlessly negative visitor experience.

The Meadows folks were hosting a Living History weekend in conjunction with the Colonial Living History Alliance. This involved a number of re-enactors, including a small artillery regiment, open hearth cooking and 18th century music. Just the kind of thing to keep both a historically agnostic spouse and a 6 year old first-grader interested, right?

And so it seemed when we pulled into the parking lot to see groups of re-enactors mulling around the grounds. We went up to the information table and were told that the house tour would start in a minute. “OK,” I thought, “this should be a short overview of the property and its significance in early colonial life before we get to interact with the re-enactors.”

As soon as our guide, the Meadows’ executive director Mark Else, started talking – and we spent nearly 15 minutes outside the house before going in – I knew I was sadly mistaken. The “tour” turned out to be a blow-by-blow description of the architectural restoration of the house, right down to the nail heads.

Again, I have to point out how distressing it is for me to write this. Mr. Else is very passionate about the painstaking detail that went into the restoration, and rightfully so. It’s a handsome property. However, this is not the right subject matter for a general public tour, especially one with children (although even if I was on my own, I would have been bored – and I generally don’t get bored by architectural detail).

More importantly, history “works” best if you connect people to people. For example, Else pointed out the exposed “wattle and daub” material in the wall of one room and gave some basic description of how that was used in domestic construction of the time. But it took the master carpenter, who happened to be in the room, to convey how 18th century homeowners would tell their neighbors where they could find a good deposit of clay for this purpose – and then pointed in the direction of a creek a few hundred yards away. Aha! A tangible connection between 1701 and 2009!

By the time we got into the second room and the tour was already well over 30 minutes, my daughter had been squirming and was getting visibly cranky. Here she is listening to stuff which means absolutely nothing to her while she can see actual activity going on in the other rooms. My wife not so discreetly asked “What’s wrong?” a few times, but the hint was not taken. Finally, I stopped Mr. Else as he was talking about fireplace construction and pointed out that we had a six year old who was really more interested in seeing what the re-enactors were up to. And thus, I ended the tour. [My wife later told me that I had saved our marriage by doing it!]

Look. If you want to highlight the restoration, pick just a few items that spark interest (e.g. digging the dirt away from the front of the house to reveal the foot-print for the front stoop, taking off the outer cedar shakes and finding the outline for a porch bench, flipping the inner staircase over to change direction).

But here’s the larger problem. My daughter was now cranky and I had to try to reel her interest back in. She enjoyed going into the kitchen (for a bit). And she sat still for 20 minutes to listen to a really great harpsichord/violin duo play period music (I suggest you find these two recent college grads and have them at your site!!). But she never really recovered her good humor. She was ready to go.

We didn’t visit any of the other Somerset County sites that day. And when I suggested on Sunday that we visit a different site that advertised 18th century children’s games, both my wife and daughter looked at me as if I suggested we sit through a six hour German opera.

Part of the Meadows mission is “encouraging public appreciation for local heritage and vernacular architecture.” Unfortunately, my family didn’t leave there feeling “encouraged.” And this is not an uncommon occurrence, especially with privately managed sites where resources for the development of appropriate interpretive strategies and training of staff – usually volunteer – are limited or non-existent.

I tell this story because I am concerned this type of experience happens too often. Not only is my family predisposed against re-visiting this particular site, but they have developed a negative reaction toward any site. The bad experience at one site has a negative impact on every historic site. My family will be back on the history trail because I will make them. But what of others who only have a passing interest in history? Perhaps they would simply decide to spend their next free weekend at the mall or the shore.

If you run a visitor site or other historical organization, you really should think of yourself as an Ambassador for History. How you interact with the public reflects not only on your own site, but on all historical sites. And just like diplomatic ambassadors, while it’s important to know all the details of your home site, it’s even more important to understand and speak the language of your audience.

The overall mission as caretakers of our history is to get the public to place value on site preservation and truly appreciate our shared history. But the first step in this processs is to have visitors leave each site with a desire to return and recommend it to their family and friends. If you falter at the first step, you’ll never reach the ultimate goal.


Phil Henry said...

Patrick, this is a great article and I love your values about being "caretakers of history." Keep up the quest and your writing.

Are you ever down in Gloucester County? I'm also interested in revolutionary war history and I'd love to meet sometime for coffee or something.

Patrick Murray said...

Phil -- At some point, I intend to visit Red Bank/Fort Mercer in National Park -- it's been more than 25 years!

Dennis Davidson said...

Pat Dont fret over your view here. Using the story of people is what ties this all together.
Having toured with two very active sons I realized that history tours must be a lot more than just interesting. They must be fun!

Bill Lawton said...

Patrick, I am enjoying your blog! This entry, unfortunately, points to the sad disconnect between people who have a passion for preservation and history, and the "customer service" aspect of interpreting sites. Sadly, as you go about visiting the tremendous resources we have in NJ, it points to a potential role the Crossroads could play in offering base-line training to docents and volunteers. Yes, a daunting task, but if we are to maximize the visitor experience, I guess we're going to have to step in. Remember, one dissatisfied visitor usually impacts about a dozen more. Keep writing and keep visiting!

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