Reviving the Historic House
May 5, 2011 8:07 PM   Subscribe

What is the coolest thing you can imagine doing at a historic house?

I work for a museum with a bunch of historic houses, and we're trying to think of some innovative, fun, new ways of livening them up. The aim is to find new, relevant and fully involving ways of exploring historic house environments inside and out - while getting beyond the period-room-display and guided-tour thing.

So imagine you were able to use a historic house museum as a space for something really cool that appeals highly to you. There are no parameters - don't worry about protecting the house, furnishings, or limiting yourself to regular hours of the day, or anything like that. Anything goes no matter how unconventional.

To give you some idea, some things we've already discussed:

Watch period movies in a period room (like, the Jane Austen movies, Frankenstein, etc)
Watch SCARY movies in a period room
Use the backyards as an "open yard' place with horseshoes, cookouts, etc
Invite comic book artists to draw the rooms with scenes taking place and exhibit that on the walls
"history of sex" tours
Domestic arts...knitting groups, sewing, etc
Theatrical experiences - including a ghost tour where YOU are the ghost instead of hearing about ghosts
Retreat, meditation space
Live animal visits, pets from the time period (parrots, monkeys, etc)
Game nights

....what else? Please, offer anything at all that might catch your eye and make you say "Hm, that would be cool to go to..."
posted by Miko to Society & Culture (66 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Are the kitchens functional? Period cooking classes (with historically-accurate food and drink afterward, of course) would be a lot of fun.
posted by oinopaponton at 8:10 PM on May 5, 2011 [28 favorites]

Personally, cooking and food-prep related activities would appeal. So, either cooking classes or non-participatory demonstrations or (albeit a bit less educational) just dinners themselves. I'd very much be interested in period dishes, methods of processing, preservation, etc.

Doh! On preview, what oinopaponton said Seconding that!
posted by mumkin at 8:13 PM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Scavenger hunts
posted by JujuB at 8:16 PM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

I grew up near the Biltmore House in Asheville, NC, and visited yearly with my family. I would have loved nothing more than to spend a weekend living, sleeping, eating there, in full-on period costume. Yes, I'm a dork.
posted by greta simone at 8:17 PM on May 5, 2011 [11 favorites]

Burlesque performances, if the space is big enough?

What demographics are you trying to reach? Because what will appeal to the blue-hairs might be quite different, etc. So I'd go to burlesque night, or an evening where several houses were turned into temporary gallery space for younger artists, or something like that, but my aunts (who are more interested in old houses than I am) would be far more interested in more sedate experiences, and where they get home in time for dinner.

What about mobile, one-off locavore rotating dinner events? Local farmers plus good chefs plus great architecture. For good food and good people, I'd show up, guaranteed.
posted by Forktine at 8:18 PM on May 5, 2011

host a murder mystery party.
posted by netsirk at 8:18 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's a historic home near me that becomes a haunted house during October - Paxton Manor / Virginia Scaregrounds (warning: sound)
posted by candyland at 8:19 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Every single time I go through a historic house I want to stoke a fire in the fireplace and sleep in the bed, Basil E Frankweiler style. I'd also love to be able to have a party there, not a crazy one but like ten or twenty people over to play croquet or mini-golf, swim in the nutty pool [shades of the Hearst Mansion] or hang out in the living room and read books or watch movies (period movies?). The big thing I always want is to hang out somewhere without some fussy docent telling me to stand further away from whatever it is I'm looking at. The Isabella Stewart Gardner museum has some music events some evenings where you can go to some special room where there's a four piece band of sorts playing and I'd assume they have wine and cheese. Not my thing but it seems really popular.
posted by jessamyn at 8:19 PM on May 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Don't worry about your aunts - worry about you! (we've got your aunts well covered already...unlike burlesque! *rimshot*)
posted by Miko at 8:20 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would love to have a tea party, dinner or ball with everyone in costume, behaving as they ought to behave, with period food and music. Maybe some instruction at first so everyone knows what to do. Like the PBS show Regency House, Victorian House, Frontier House, etc. but of shorter duration. Include some well placed actors/coaches to keep things lively and period-appropriate.
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:22 PM on May 5, 2011 [11 favorites]

Have it set up in the period that it was and invite local schools to come and then let the kids play around with everything, sit at the desks, play with everything in the kitchen. Make history fun. The most annoying this going on school field trip was we were never allowed to touch anything. I think it was Henry David Thoreau's house or somebody in Concord and there were alarms if you go close to anything, not very exciting.
posted by lilkeith07 at 8:26 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Interactive plays nobody is sure who is a real actor or someone with the tour group, something very improvisational. Great Garden parties ala different time periods where the guests accordingly. The guests would be surrounded by amazing food, lighting, live music and Japanese lanterns hanging everywhere. Games like limbo, the line dancing thing it escapes me at the moment some sort of line...well you get the point. you can relive you and even your parents youth. Holidays should be decked out to the nines! obviously have the Christmas carol acted out or read with a warm fire, roasted chestnuts, hot chocolate and donuts. The possibilities are endless and you have quite a few nice thoughts hope these help.

Have fun!
posted by gypseefire at 8:27 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

It would be great to have an interactive play/party with actors that starts off formal and then gets "crashed" by a secondary group of actors that liven things up (also in period costume, but with period-appropriate vices).
posted by monkeys with typewriters at 8:30 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would love to have a tea party, dinner or ball with everyone in costume, behaving as they ought to behave, with period food and music. Maybe some instruction at first so everyone knows what to do. Like the PBS show Regency House, Victorian House, Frontier House, etc. but of shorter duration. Include some well placed actors/coaches to keep things lively and period-appropriate.

I would love this. LOVE. Pay $100 for. Seriously. As a few people have said, I think one of the most fun things to do in a historical house would be to pretend more realistically that you live there. This might be more of a girl thing.
posted by Ashley801 at 8:31 PM on May 5, 2011 [5 favorites]

People are always looking for beautiful, historic places to hold weddings. I bet you'd get a lot of business if you made yours available, especially if you could put together a package deal for guests.
posted by decathecting at 8:35 PM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

For kids - maybe a costume/toy chest or a scavenger hunt throughout the house?
posted by monkeys with typewriters at 8:35 PM on May 5, 2011

I actually do love the historic tours through the homes, especially when they tell the stories of the people who lived there, but that’s me. Because of that my answers may not be that exciting to most people,but whatever (plus I look at game night and say – why not in a pub vs a historic house?)

I’ve seen a couple exhibit where the medical treatments of the time were discussed, but in an interactive way. So for example, if it is at the time of the civil war, you could go as far as having the devices that were used to administered “anesthesia,” and even have those things out on display and be touched. In addition, you can have a life size doll and you can show what the main thing that was done at the time if you had an injury, which were amputations. Anyway, I think this could hold the attention of even children. If there are museums nearby that would donate specimens or let you use them, you can show things that disease and/or conflicts at the time would do to a skull or skeleton: I don’t know the time period here, but anything from trepanning, holes in skulls from bullets, or very small alterations to the skull from syphilis. Anyway, anything from actual samples of tools used to treat people to anatomic specimens would hold some people’s attention.

Depending on the grounds near the museum, 1) have a class where you show gardening or plants that were used at the time for medicinal and/or consumption purposes followed by 2) have a class where you get to pick and eat the things straight out of the garden.

The other thing that I would suggest that would probably attract a niche group and depending on your resources – why not let high school age students who love history apply and design their own activities to learn about history. A few months ago, I saw high school students who designed their own tours through this museum and they worked in collaboration with the curator. They could even design things like podcasts, etc., to explain the topics to others. I’d say hand it off to people who love it and let them come up with something,too.
posted by Wolfster at 8:36 PM on May 5, 2011

Cooking classes!! There is a historic site near where I live that sometimes offers olde-timey cooking workshops and events—stuff like preserve-making classes, lessons in sustainable gardening practices using the house's grounds as an example, getting together a big group and preparing a fancy meal according to a menu for a fancy dinner held at the house in 1855, etc.

I would be thoroughly delighted with a knitting/spinning/quilting/whatever group that met for a few hours every other week or once a month at a historic house. Sometimes I have fantasies that my cluttered living room in my little apartment is somebody else's pretty drawing room with elegant furniture and tasty snacks, and I would be all over an actual opportunity.
posted by bewilderbeast at 8:37 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Maybe it'll help to add that we are not taking away regular historic house tours as they exist today - and those do include things like school tours, kids' interactives, education programs, weddings and functions, etc. What we're looking to do is expand and enhance the experience of a historic house for people who do NOT like tours (the majority of people, as it turns out). So we won't take anything away from the basic core experience, but we're trying to think about totally different ways of using the space for people who wouldn't ever come out for a tour. Also, we fortunately don't have to have only moneymaking ideas...even things that would be best offered for free would be OK in our brainstorming process at least.
posted by Miko at 8:42 PM on May 5, 2011

What about rock concerts? Get some cool, local bands to come out and do shows. Depending on how much space you have, you could even do a festival with lots of different bands and food and whatnot, with the house serving as a great backdrop against which to juxtapose the bands.
posted by decathecting at 8:48 PM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm always fascinated by how things are made, whether in factories or by hand. So if your houses are historic enough to have stuff like looms, spinning wheels, a cider press or butter churn out back, etc, it would be neat to learn how to do some beginner-level techniques that aren't easy to try elsewhere (unlike e.g. knitting, which I can learn on my own). Cooking on those scary swinging pot cranes over an open fire is another intriguing topic, but I don't know if you can get insurance coverage for this kind of stuff.

Costume parties are obvious, with etiquette coaching beforehand so people know which fork to use (in a Victorian house with baffling amounts of tableware).

This may be of limited interest, but anybody who owns an old house gets interested in old construction methods since you spend so much time fixing stuff. Can you get people to demo how to repair three-coat plaster, ornamental wood molding, ornamental plaster and the like? How to copy plasterwork from existing parts to replace missing bits is also useful.

Ooh, decorative paint finishes could be a fun topic for a class. Useful for people who are trying to restore an old house but also fun for those who live in new buildings: faux woodgrain and marble, sponging, ragging, gilding etc.

Music can tie in to the house's history, either by hiring musicians to perform period-appropriate music for a costume party, or maybe you could get local people to start up a period-appropriate chamber orchestra/jazz band/barbershop quartet/etc and rehearse in your house. Then your group could perform at parties in the house!
posted by Quietgal at 8:50 PM on May 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Our local historic house hosts a holiday gift/decoration charity sale every year that goes on inside the house, and a big flea market-type event that goes on outside (and in the carriage house). In addition, various local clubs have used it as a meeting place, and one of my former colleagues sometimes taught classes there. A bestselling 19th c. novelist lived in the village (her house is still around, but is privately owned), and I think they've done some displays/exhibits related to her.
posted by thomas j wise at 8:52 PM on May 5, 2011

What about a book club? I would love to read literature from a certain period and then get together with my book club at a period appropriate venue to discuss the book.
posted by shesbookish at 8:53 PM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

I reckon a period house would be great as a swingers/party venue. Any with cellars/dungeons?
posted by honey-barbara at 8:54 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Contra dance! Rave!
posted by threeants at 8:55 PM on May 5, 2011

Contra dance rave!
posted by threeants at 8:55 PM on May 5, 2011 [7 favorites]

I was going to say something like "watch period movies in a period room," but you already got there.

But as a much more exciting elaboration on that: demonstrate period home entertainment in a period room. So, magic lantern performances in a Victorian or Edwardian house, 16mm or 8mm home projection (maybe host a Home Movie Day?) in an early-to-mid 20th century room. Demonstrate period audio reproduction equipment (actually seeing a machine that isn't plugged into anything - like a gramophone/graphonola - reproduce sound LOUDLY is a lot more exciting and intriguing than it might seem at first thought, for example). What kinds of music did people used to play on the musical instruments that they had at home?

Also, "a ghost tour where YOU are the ghost instead of hearing about ghosts" is a GREAT idea! (Reminds me of this book.)
posted by bubukaba at 9:06 PM on May 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

Miko, I think all your ideas are great, and I also love the book club and food classes ideas (I think you'd get a lot of people coming if you had a [Relevant Historical Period] Food Day and had demo stations with lots of free food samples -- might be more successful than a cooking *class* where people are expecting to walk away with things they'll actually make at home. A modernized version of historical recipes, though, adapted to modern kitchens, would probably be a draw).

I'd also enjoy hearing a lecture on or attending a hands-on class in etiquette -- maybe contrasting Relevant Historical Period's social rules with modern ones.

However, the people who would come to a period book club, food day, or etiquette class probably would also like going on your existing tours, so these ideas might not help you reach new people.
posted by pupstocks at 9:07 PM on May 5, 2011

Have period costumes available, and an interesting space where people can pose for pictures. Free Facebook exposure!
posted by Soliloquy at 9:11 PM on May 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

demonstrate period home entertainment in a period room.

I love this idea and I'd also love to do history type stuff but instead of it being like "this is where the soandsos lived and this is where they ate their meals" have some sort of historical re-enactment of what that house might have been like during some either period in history [i.e. living in colonial housing in the Boston area during the smallpox epidemic] or a single event. So maybe you're doing the Boston Molasses Flood and you can have slide shows of photos from the time, newspapers from the time, and you can sort of recreate what it would be like to pick up news in the very slow motion [compared to the "Hey Osama is dead!" stuff on Twitter] way that people got their news. So you'd have to speed it up for people (because dissemination of news would take weeks not hours or even days) but it could be a timeline of how you'd pick up world and local events, through what mechanisms (radio? the milkman? church? teletype? the newspaper?), from which people, how you'd check out facts, how you'd learn who had died and who was around. Or an example of someone coming back from a trip to another country and what it was like to unpack their boxes upon boxes of stuff, do slide shows, show off the things they'd gotten in other countries that people would have never seen before, etc.

I'm also interested in the sort of "blow the salt" aspect of larger historic houses, like what sort of things went into running and maintaining them on the back end, the servants or other hired people. Where did they sleep and what were their day to day lives like? I think there's a chasm in New England historic homes where you get the sort of Sturbridge Village kind of thing which is full of people and re-enactors and whatever, and then you've got the empty house with docent. It would be neat to have artist-in-residence sorts of things where people who did more traditional to the time period crafts or cooking or painting or whatnot could come stay in the house and then have sort of open studio hours when people would come through and see their work, talk to them about the traditional whatnot and also get to see the house.
posted by jessamyn at 9:26 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

posted by redfoxtail at 9:50 PM on May 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

A seance
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 10:11 PM on May 5, 2011 [5 favorites]

Perhaps a cocktail hour showcasing the kinds of drinks that were popular in the appropriate period? A live band playing period-appropriate music would be good with this, too.
posted by vytae at 10:35 PM on May 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

Seconding the sleepover suggestion. And, sorry mine's such a girl-centric suggestion, but I think it would be very cool to have a Girls' Night Out sleepover for tweens and teens and make it centered around what girls' lives were like in whatever era the house was built (or even moving forward through the various decades during which the house was still a regular home).

Some possible conversation starters:

In what ways were the lives of the girls who grew up in this house more difficult than yours? In what ways might they have been easier?

What was a typical day of chores like for a girl your age back then? Did they have to "grow up" more quickly in terms of taking on household chores and the care of younger siblings? Or were they less "grown up" because they weren't as exposed to the equivalents of sex, drugs, and rock n roll?

Did the girls who grew up in houses like this have a realistic chance of going to college or having a job? Do you think they felt like they might be missing something or do you think they were okay with the status quo?

What were some of the practicalities of growing up in this era? How often do you think they bathed? How often did they wash their hair? What did they do (and what kinds of things did they use) when they got their periods? What kinds of medicines/remedies were available to them when they got sick?

I'll stop there because my mind is racing with all sorts of interesting things to talk about. It might not appeal to the jaded "too cool for the room" types, but my younger self would have loved that kind of sleepover.

Note: I'd want to have modern snacks and drinks, though.
posted by amyms at 10:52 PM on May 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Headphone disco!
posted by bibliophibianj at 11:05 PM on May 5, 2011

Clothes clothes clothes! Not just the details of what kind of clothes were worn (though that's fascinating, especially in terms of the restrictions of what women could do in all those layers/corsets/etc.) but also how they're sewn and how much work washing and mending were.
posted by scody at 11:05 PM on May 5, 2011

Adding: I meant "modern" snacks in terms of it needing to be acceptable to have an endless supply of snacks throughout the night. They can definitely be snacks appropriate to the era, but they need to be plentiful. You can't have a successful all-night gab session if you're not adequately fueled! :)
posted by amyms at 11:05 PM on May 5, 2011

So many great suggestions.

How about tours focused to certain types of people. As a historian and an occasional woodworker I often wish I could step past the barriers in museums and historic houses and pull out the drawers of some antique table and see how the thing is made and make measured drawings. Similarly, interior decorators or restorations professionals might appreciate the opportunity to poke around and talk to an expert curator.
posted by LarryC at 11:51 PM on May 5, 2011

The Historic Houses Trust in Sydney has sponsored some "guerilla knitting" events at some of the fancy old houses. (Ugh. Personally, I think the whole guerilla/graffiti knitting thing is about as creative or interesting as a zombie flash mob at this point, but hey, some people are into it.)
posted by web-goddess at 12:00 AM on May 6, 2011

How about photo-shoots for amateur photographers? Round up a few models/volunteers in period costume and get a local pro in to give tips on lighting, etc. Recruit your punters from local photo clubs. They love this kind of stuff, plus you could end up with some great promotional photos. (Plus if your houses are like they are in my imagination, then they could be very awkward to light, with lots of polished wood / reflective surfaces, so your photographers would actually have to learn something!)
posted by primer_dimer at 1:47 AM on May 6, 2011

Given the houses, city, and museum in question, this would be a great opportunity for the Arkham Exhibit.

Do up one of the houses as the personal home of some scion of Arkham, MA - heck, make it a family home so you work with multiple generations (the professor, the dilettante, the sea captain, all those other Lovecraftian character types) that has been willed to the city as a museum.

At the entryway, have some background information about Salem, HP Lovecraft, and Arkham, so people who are coming in know what's going on.

Then raid the PEM's collection for weird artifacts. Invite local and known horror/supernatural authors (bet you could get Stephen King and son, maybe MeFi's Own cstross?) to create fictional descriptions and histories for the items (you can include factual information on a separate placard) on display.

Depending on the space, you could also host readings or radio performances of some of Lovecraft's work.

This would be a great setup for early fall - it would get into the spirit of the season while avoiding witches, link up to some of the literary history of the city, give the museum a chance to bring out some of the stuff they don't get to show very often, and provide a unique experience for the visitor who wouldn't be thrilled by old houses.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 2:52 AM on May 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

Get someone like Deborah Duchon (the nutritional anthropologist from Alton Brown's show) to plan a menu of the typical historically accurate meals for your houses & have a series of dinner parties, afternoon teas, etc. where the public is invited to attend (in or out of costume) and dine a la the period.
If you have enough lawn, Croquet & Picnic. If get the interest level, how about a croquet league? That would bring people back during the summer.
posted by jaimystery at 4:12 AM on May 6, 2011

If you did tween-or-younger sleepovers, you could incorporate American Girl dolls. And teach the girls to sew something simple but period-appropriate for the dolls.

A historic house near me hosts etiquette classes for little girls, where they mostly learn modern etiquette but they also learn about how different (and how much harder) etiquette would have been in the 1800s. They have a formal tea where they invite their parents at the close of the class, which runs six weeks or so.

Sorority events, with an eye towards parents' weekend formal cocktail parties or teas (hey! out-of-towners!), or end-of-semester awards luncheons, not so much the rowdy parties.

Acoustic music concerts (always with cocktails).

Period-decorated-and-appropriate Christmas tours, combined with a Santa (for the kids) and various local "handmade" vendors (glassworkers, jewelry makers, kids' couture stuff, etc.) in the upstairs rooms for people to visit, see Santa, and shop local artisans. You can easily charge for this (and then provide cookies and drinks too); if you charge a quarter of what the mall Santa charges and let people take their own photos, experience suggests you will come out ahead moneywise (after paying for the food and the Santa) AND people will want to come because they can take their own pictures. Plus the gorgeous backdrop.

Depending on how much it might interfere with tours, you can let weddings drop by for photographs for half an hour on Saturdays and Sundays ... say "from 1 to 5 wedding parties may take photos" or whatever. I think most tourists like to see dressed-up wedding parties anyway :) And if you have a front stairs and a back stairs you can manage to run the tours on time without getting in the way of photography.

I think a lot of the crafty/book club/etc. suggestions are good ones because frequently with my book club there will be ONE person who's super-into Thing X and so finds out about a historic house doing Great Gatsby tours or a local art show from Period We Recently Read About. And then the rest of us are all, Wow, I didn't even know that gallery was there! or I'd always meant to visit that house but never got around to it .... Even though you'll get a lot of crossover, you will definitely pull in new people.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:51 AM on May 6, 2011

This is so cool. I would love love love you to expand the 'you're the ghost' idea. In my ideal version, there would be actors playing parts of people in the house, doing realistic things that people from the period would be doing. You would come in as part of a small group and see the first person in place. They can't see you, because you're a ghost. They'd continue doing whatever it was they were doing (chopping vegetables, cleaning something, cooking something, reading - whatever) and then look up and say 'Is somebody there?', their gaze passing over you and your group but not stopping. If you speak back, they won't reply, but after a moment or two return to whatever it was they were doing before.

You'd continue to the next room in the house and there would be someone else doing something else, and again even if you speak they don't react. (I imagine this to be a child playing, but that might be legally difficult.) They would suddenly look up and around and then rest their gaze on the group, and say 'Hello. Are you a ghost?'

You'd say yes. The person would introduce themselves, including a back-story that references the real history of the house. Then they'd offer to show you more of it. They'd take you to the next room which would have a new actor in it, engaged in a different task. The child starts to speak, and the person interrupts them and asks them who are they talking to. They answer they are speaking to the ghost. The person tells them there is no such thing, but the kid rolls her eyes and keeps talking.

In that way the person who can 'see' the ghosts could show you the entire house (so yeah, maybe better if it was an adult). You could proceed to a straightforward ending and goodbye, so just a slightly different spin on the idea of a tour, or you could develop a narrative that expands the idea. For example, they could be asked why the hadn't done their work, and they'd answer they had been busy with the ghost. When the other actor snaps that there is no such thing, they could whisper to you to knock something over and the second actor would jump and be frightened at the sound. Or you could Shyamalan it and work it out that the narrator is a ghost too. Or you could turn it into detective adventure, where the group has to figure something out with the help of another ghost narrator, so both the visitors and the narrator can talk freely without the actors reacting.

Often when visiting old places I just wish there were people there, dressed in the period dress, doing period things. Even if you ran it just now and again, I for one would pay to see it.

Best of luck!
posted by StephenF at 5:31 AM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

It would be awesome if people could pay to stay at the house and live as if it were [x time period]. Completely. No modern food, cookery methods or appliances. No electricity, if it wasn't available then. No modern communication methods. The participants would learn to, you know, light the oil lamp, build a fire in the stove to heat water to have tea, etc. Bonus if you have some chickens they can collect eggs from, vegetables to harvest or a cow to milk. The participants could either do a job for a day, or flit from job to job learning about how people kept a home, made a living, and so on. Period-appropriate leisure activities, too. For sleeping, no polyester comforters or foam mattresses or anything like that. Use hay or down or whatever was in use. Could the clothes even be period-appropriate? The participants should be instructed to speak only about topics that could reasonably have been spoken about in that time period. No major-league baseball or politics of a state far away or modern science.

I would totally pay to have such an experience. I bet it would be a fascinating mix of comfortable and uncomfortable. I think it's a great time to introduce such an opportunity - people are starting to question how much our "modern conveniences" improve our lives. Sure, they make things much easier - but does that make us happier? Is our fast pace of life a problem? It's hard to get a perspective on those issues while being fully caught up in modern society. Giving people a chance to experience something different, and then reflect on how they feel could be really beneficial. Did they feel more or less accomplished, or proud of their accomplishments? How does it feel to work more with your hands? Did the slowness of things feel really frustrating? Did you feel lost without modern entertainment? More or less able to enjoy nature? And so on...

You could also vary the hypothetical wealth of the household in to which the participants integrate. That would also be fascinating.
posted by Cygnet at 5:45 AM on May 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

I once went on a historic house tour near Halloween. The house was set up as if someone had died, displaying every Victorian style mourning ritual. Black bunting, covered mirrors, the guides in black period dress. I think there were displays of Victorian hair art. I believe a coffin (maybe even a body) was laid out as it would have been for a wake in those days. It was really cool!
posted by kimdog at 6:13 AM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I have a friend who is very involved with Victorian Village in Memphis, TN. It's a block of 19th century Victorian style houses that are largely becoming museums and/or historical tourist attractions. You might take a look at their website, archives, and events page for ideas.
posted by kimdog at 6:19 AM on May 6, 2011

Period Christmas party with party games and food, and reproduction period gifts supplied by the museum.
posted by marginaliana at 6:26 AM on May 6, 2011

A buddy of mine from grad school works at Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop and they have a working farm. They also let kids come out and see the real function of the farm. From slaughtering pigs and rendering fat to shucking corn and grinding it, they do the whole shebang. And oddly enough the kids adore all the gross elements.

Depending on your area, you could also do a "Holodeck" experience where trekkies could come and pretend to be in a holodeck mystery ala ST:NG or you could do themed parties with Dr. Who, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter or along those lines.

This a is a really neat pile of ideas you have here and I'm absolutely going to steal some of them if I ever get a job in a house museum.
posted by teleri025 at 6:53 AM on May 6, 2011

Echoing what others have said about some sort of performance theater. Take a look at Sleep No More. More information (NYT review).
posted by gagoumot at 7:12 AM on May 6, 2011

Definitely ghost-related slumber party and/or tarot readings and/or seances. You'd bring in a whole other crowd, apart from the historic preservationists/house-tour visitors, that way. Also: burlesque shows paying homage to the era of the house.
posted by limeonaire at 7:26 AM on May 6, 2011

Some kind of night-time treasure hunt/capture the flag/pervasive game in (possibly themed?) teams through out both the house and the grounds, where you'd get to explore the place using only flash lights (I'd be tempted to suggest oil lamps, but that would be a bit of a fire hazard). Winning the game might or might not involve using some skill which would be appropriate to the time period the house is from.
posted by the cat's pyjamas at 7:39 AM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I went to a fantastic exhibit/experience at Kensington Palace put on by Wildworks which was a combination of exhibit, mystery, scavenger hunt, interactive art exhibit, and performance art. I posted a quick review typed when I was very tired here.
posted by telophase at 7:42 AM on May 6, 2011

All my good ideas have been taken.

I think the Arkham idea is genius, but I actually came in to recommend something like Sleep No More.
posted by anastasiav at 7:54 AM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seminar on "spirit photography" and the whole ectoplasm/seance/Fairy Photographs craze of Victorian times.
posted by norm at 7:56 AM on May 6, 2011

Response by poster: Hi all,

Just exited the meeting where these ideas were shared, and may I say, you have blown me and my colleagues away with some really inventive thinking.

I find this so heartening. There's a lot of despairing talk in the museum field about how "people aren't interested in history" because our traditional presentations tend to only be a good match for a certain section of the populace that is already a bit better educated in history, curious for their own reasons, and open to a slower-paced didactic approach. I found your enthusiasm and ideas and examples from elsewhere a really inspiring reminder that YES, people do love to imagine and explore the past - that it's not the content, but the way we do it, and for whom, that matters. It kinda chokes me up a little, actually!

I was really proud to say "Hey, I asked some friends from online who are probably the kind of people we want in our target audience and this is what they had to say" - I even shared a couple of quotes, both about the "stuffy docent" and "hands-off" problems and also about the idea that "hey, a lot of people still like traditional presentations and don't want them to totally disappear." Those personal impressions and wishes are an important kind of feedback and often in museums no one ever asks for that, or at the best ends up having to hire an evaluator to elicit such genuine thinking from people - which is often a failure because people sometimes think they are supposed to answer a specific way in order to appear cultured or something. It's harder than one would think to get good responses, which makes these really great.

By no means do I mean to bring this to an end, as I want to keep the ideas coming. But it was really generous of you to think so much about this and type out your thoughts. I hope little by little everyone can find more of the kinds of museum experiences they want, as gradually a new way of thinking starts to slowly pervade old institutions.

Much appreciated, all! I really thank you.
posted by Miko at 9:55 AM on May 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I love all these history-centric suggestions but want to put in a plug for the vibe you get when you mix contemporary art with historic settings. I went to this event on Governors Island in NYC last year and really enjoyed the contrast of lots of random current Dutch art exhibited in and around buildings of various ages. I don't know if this makes any sense, but it almost took the pressure off both the art and the buildings - they both would have been cool to see individually but together felt more fun and less ponderous.
posted by yarrow at 11:03 AM on May 6, 2011

The one near where I used to work had a huge veranda so they had a jazz band and swanky afternoon teas in summer. I think the target group was supposed to be more professional thirty something women in pretty summer frocks rather than grandmas (although the older set would also feel comfortable), and they definitely tried to give it a hip edge. I always wanted to go, I don't get much chance to wear a fancy dress and act ladylike and it looked like fun.

If it was dress up in colonial style dresses (crinolines etc) with old fashioned cakes that would be even more fun, although there'd need to be links with a costume supplier so people could do it properly.
posted by shelleycat at 11:32 AM on May 6, 2011

You should also totally do a Dr Sketchy's Show.
posted by shelleycat at 11:46 AM on May 6, 2011

A sleepover sounds like fun. For reference, a couple of ships permanently moored at the Maritime Historic Park in SF host overnight encampments: the tall ship Balclutha and the WWII submarine USS Pampanito. Maybe you could see how they deal with stuff like logistics, insurance, safety of people and historic artifacts, etc.

I think programs that offer a "holodeck"-like dip into history would be very popular. People love to imagine and pretend, but not everyone is dedicated enough to become hardcore historical re-enactors like those guys who stage Civil War battles. A weekend stint as a Colonial/Victorian/Jazz Age character would be a blast: here's your costume, here's your persona, here's your job, let's get started! Oh, and there's a party tonight so we need to start baking/setting up the magic lanterns/making decorations/etc.
posted by Quietgal at 12:06 PM on May 6, 2011

Response by poster: Those of you who like the idea of sleepovers for kids might also love to see this recent adult sleepover done at the Rubin Museum of Art. Called the "Dreamover," it started late in the evening, included a talk on sleep states and dream study by a psychiatrist, some sketching, conconcting traditional sleeping aid remedies, storytelling, etc. Then you went to sleep in your own bedroll beneath a work of art chosen for you by lottery. In the middle of the night,a staffer woke you up to ask what you were dreaming and wrote it down for you. In the morning people discussed what they had dreamed and whether it had to do with the work of art. It was super successful - first time event, and they had something like 80 participants who loved it.
posted by Miko at 12:24 PM on May 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Remember the Month at the Museum contest held by Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry? It generated terrific publicity for the museum even before the semi-finalists were picked, and helped to draw new audiences to the museum by portraying it as a fun, inventive, exciting place. Then one lucky (and talented) winner got to spend an entire month living INSIDE THE MUSEUM for 30 days, and she spent her days and nights blogging, tweeting, and sharing videos about the experience.

A live-in visitor would be a natural in a museum devoted to daily life in past times. I want to hear* what it's like to sleep in a Victorian bedroom! I want to read Tweets* about creeping around the museum alone in the dark after reading M.R. James! I want to see* the winner spend a day in historically-appropriate garb, eating historically-appropriate dishes, trying to maintain historically-appropriate etiquette!

*Actually, I want to BE that person, so if you hold this contest, expect to see my name in the enormous pile of entries.
posted by Elsa at 8:10 AM on May 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Just to clarify: I'm not specifying a period, but using "Victorian bedroom" as a placeholder for whatever time frame or cultural context the museum recreates. Wow, this would be fun!
posted by Elsa at 2:50 PM on May 7, 2011

Miko, that Dreamover sounds awesome. It reminds me of what they did at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis recently with the Social Dreaming Matrix.
posted by limeonaire at 4:25 PM on May 14, 2011

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